Exploring the Significance of Naval Ports’ Heritage: A Literature Review

Ricarda Blümcke

Royal William yard
The Royal William Yard, Plymouth, UK (Pinder 2003, 43)

Ports not only act as places of trade and exchange, but also of conflict. The ongoing war in Ukraine has illustrated the key strategic role of ports, but this is by no means something new.  The growth and prosperity of many countries have historically been closely connected to the strength of navies, which necessitated the creation of networks of ports and dockyards to accommodate and maintain national fleets. Naval ports have historically been an important part of a country's defence system, and as such they often also have a rich cultural heritage. By investigating the role of heritage in connection to naval ports, we can learn more about the historical significance of these areas, as well as identify opportunities for future research by showcasing the gaps in current literature on these interconnecting topics. In this blog post, Ricarda Blümcke, MA student of International Relations at Leiden University, discusses which different strands past scholarship have so far identified and analyzed regarding naval ports and their heritage.

To provide this overview, an academic literature search was conducted on the role of heritage in connection to naval ports. Conducted through Scopus, Google Scholar and the Leiden University Catalogue, the search comprised all the scholarly literature on naval ports that included the words ‘heritage’ and/or ‘UNESCO’ in their title and/or abstract. By operationalizing the search in this way, twenty-four articles were ultimately selected to be looked at in more depth. However, it is important to keep in mind that most of the identified articles were written in the 1990s and 2000s, and only nine articles were written after 2010. Additionally, only articles written in English were considered, and thus a certain bias exists in the search results. 

Based on the search, the literature on naval ports can be broadly divided into three categories: literature about naval waterfront revitalization, naval heritage tourism, and literature focused on showcasing the value of these sites to support their conservation through heritage claims. However, overlaps between these categories within the selected literature exist as well, especially when it comes to waterfront revitalization and heritage tourism, as most articles in these groups touched upon both aspects to a certain extent. In this respect, Hoyle and Wright for example noted that thinking about naval waterfront revitalization in the 1990s was often at least partially concerned with heritage exploitation (Hoyle and Wright 1999, 967). Thus, while diverse revitalization strategies exist, tourism considerations have often played significant parts in this. 

The biggest strand of research is focused on naval waterfront declines and heritage legacies that can result from this process, together with associated challenges and opportunities. Waterfront decline and regeneration is not just a topic connected to naval ports, but also to commercial ports. There are however some differences that distinguish naval ports from ‘regular’ commercial ports, which makes looking at naval ports in connection to waterfront decline and regeneration more distinct. For instance, technological changes in the design of warships traditionally allowed for fewer ships to conduct the same tasks. Combined with military budget cuts and changing strategic priorities over time, this created substantial space redundancies in many naval ports (Pinder 2003, 36). This has also meant that spaces formerly used by navy forces have become redundant and neglected (Clark 1997, 663-4). Therefore, most of the literature revolving around these themes looks at how these spaces are being reused and converted to new functions. In this respect, many articles take a case study-based approach and look at the specific situation in an individual port, such as the Venetian Arsenal (Clark and Pinder 1999) or the Plymouth base (Hoyle and Wright 1999), and what the individual challenges and outcomes have been.

Other articles also looked at how commercial waterfront revitalization can be compared to its naval equivalent (Hoyle and Wright 1999; Pinder and Smith 1999; Clark 2004). However, articles adopting this strategy do not necessarily appear to offer unified discussions and outcomes. Naval ports were created and evolved under different historical circumstances than commercial ones. For example, naval ports were isolated from market forces and often subject to strong top-down decision-making processes. Amongst others, this has often led to a higher concentration of listed historical buildings, as naval ports were often also considered objects of national pride (Clark 2005, 34). Nevertheless, technological changes have created redundancies in both types of ports, meaning that new uses have to be found in both as well. Hoyle and Wright have argued that with the release of these redundant sites, the differences between naval and commercial ports are no longer that profound, and signs of convergence have increasingly been emerging between the two (Hoyle and Wright 1999). However, other authors have highlighted that the strategy of mixed-use revitalization, common to commercial waterfronts, faces greater challenges in naval ports (Pinder and Smith 1999).

When it comes to the strand of research on tourism, most of the selected literature is focused on how heritage sites, investigated as case studies, have been used to stimulate the tourism industry. What becomes apparent here is the large focus on UK naval bases and their (former) overseas bases, particularly in Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar. In part, this can be attributed to the aforementioned language limitation of the literature search itself. However, the identified UK-focused literature also seems to specifically revolve around how local circumstances are determining when it comes to challenges and opportunities for tourism as well as for revitalization (Tunbridge 2011). Further research into other locations, not connected to those of the British navy, is needed to provide a more holistic picture of the tourism-related situation of naval ports around the world. Furthermore, in the case of overseas bases, how native populations potentially feel about preserving the heritage of a foreign power on their soil, and how such narratives should best be constructed for tourism purposes, has so far not been discussed in much detail in the literature (Tunbridge 2002 and 2008).   

Lastly, only three of the selected papers focused on showcasing the heritage value of a naval port. Two of the articles focused on the Spanish port of Cartagena and how that area can be properly valued and preserved (Martínez et al. 2013a and 2013b). Being listed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites is an influential way of drawing more attention to the sites in question and helps in preserving them, which is why the third article considered the particular use of having such sites added to the UNESCO World Heritage List (Clark 2008). While it may seem paradoxical that only one of the identified articles directly deals with the UNESCO listing, only three naval dockyards have so far been designated in this system: Karlskrona in Sweden, Suomenlinna in Finland and the Venetian Arsenal as part of the larger inscription of the city of Venice.   

In general, it should also be noted that almost all naval ports discussed in connection to heritage predate the 20th century, whereas the heritage considerations of ports that were founded later on and played a role during the two World Wars, as well as the Cold War, received far less attention. Only articles about the Churchill-Roosevelt Bases (Tunbridge 2004) and the Swedish Military Bases (Strömberg 2010) focus on the period of the Second World War and up to the end of the Cold War. More modern bases have received even less attention, especially as their heritage value remains rather undetermined (Strömberg 2010, 660).

To conclude, despite being important sites for centuries, naval ports and their heritage have received a fairly limited amount of scholarly attention so far, which leaves many gaps to be filled still, from balancing out the predominance of British naval bases, and formulating heritage considerations about more modern naval ports, to looking at how recent redevelopment projects of naval ports have progressed. More attention on these topics can improve our historical and cultural understanding of naval ports, help preserve them for new generations, as well as leverage their economic potential into the future.

Ricarda Blümcke is an MA student of International Relations at Leiden University, with a research focus on European Union Studies.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. This blog was peer-reviewed by members of the PortCityFutures community, and edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Paolo De Martino, Vincent Baptist and Foteini Tsigoni.

For the full list of articles identified in the literature search, please get in touch with the author: r.blumcke@vuw.leidenuniv.nl

Clark, Celia. 1997. "Vintage Ports: The Transition of Historic Dockyard Buildings to Civilian Uses." WIT Transactions on the Built Environment 29: 661-73.

Clark, Celia. 2004. "Do Naval and Civilian Waterfront Renewals Have Lessons to Teach Each Other?" WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment 70: 171-9.

Clark, Celia. 2005. "Coming into the Light: The Rediscovery and Reuse of Naval Heritage Buildings." WIT Transactions on the Built Environment 79: 33-44.

Clark, Celia. 2008. "World Heritage Inscription for Naval Heritage brownfields?" WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment 107: 189-99.

Clark, Celia, and David Pinder. 1999. "Naval Heritage and the Revitalisation Challenge: Lessons from the Venetian Arsenale." Ocean & Coastal Management 42, no. 10-11: 933-56.

Hoyle, Brian, and Philip Wright. 1999. "Towards the Evaluation of Naval Waterfront Revitalisation: Comparative Experiences in Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth, UK." Ocean & Coastal Management 42, no. 10-11: 957-84.

Martínez, María Jesús Peñalver, Juan Francisco Maciá Sánchez, Carlos Lerma, and Francisco Segado Vázquez. 2013a. "Evolution of Design in Building the Quay Breakwater of the Dock in Cartagena Harbour: Paradigm of 18th Century Building Knowledge." Journal of Cultural Heritage 14, no. 3: 7-13.

Martínez, María Jesús Peñalver, Juan Francisco Maciá Sánchez, Mercedes Galiana Agulló, and Francisco Segado Vázquez. 2013b. "Port City Waterfronts, a Forgotten Underwater Cultural Heritage: The Materials Used to Build the Port of Cartagena, Spain (18th Century)." Journal of Cultural Heritage 14, no. 3: 15-20.

Pinder, David. 2003. "Seaport Decline and Cultural Heritage Sustainability Issues in the UK Coastal Zone." Journal of Cultural Heritage 4, no. 1: 35-47.

Pinder, David, and Hance Smith. 1999. "Heritage and Change on the Naval Waterfront: Opportunity and Challenge." Ocean & Coastal Management 42, no. 10-11: 861-89.

Strömberg, Per. 2010. "Swedish Military Bases of the Cold War: The Making of a New Cultural Heritage." Culture Unbound 2, no. 5: 635-63.

Tunbridge, John E. 2002. "Large Heritage Waterfronts on Small Tourist Islands: The Case of the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda." International Journal of Heritage Studies 8, no. 1: 41-51.

Tunbridge, John E. 2004. "The Churchill–Roosevelt Bases of 1940: The Question of Heritage in Their Adaptive Reuse." International Journal of Heritage Studies 10, no. 3: 229-51.

Tunbridge, John E. 2008. “Malta: Reclaiming the Naval Heritage?” International Journal of Heritage Studies  14, no. 5: 449–66.

Tunbridge, John E. 2011. “Naval Heritage and Postcolonial Geography: Why It Should Matter to Australia.” Geographical Research 49, no. 1: 86–98.