Heritage Words: Exploring Port-city Terms

Carola Hein, Tianchen Dai, Dan Baciu

Words construct realities. Through words, people communicate sensory experiences, feelings, beliefs, and theories. The way in which we conceptualize things shapes the way we live and build, as well as how we conceive the past. The symbolic system of language facilitates communication between oneself and the outside world, aiding with the interpreting and sharing of experiences. Moreover, it acts as a tool for the mental manipulation of information (Malt & Wolff, 2010), and for the understanding or shaping of in the past, present and future. The systematic analysis of words can help understand the impact of specific political, economic, social or cultural systems, such as port cities.

Words can play an essential role in identifying, describing, and promoting port cities. They evolve through time, changing meanings or expanding their definitions. We use different terms when we talk about ports through the lens of economy, logistics and technology, or when we talk about port cities acknowledging the importance of society and culture. The description of the port as an “engine for growth” (EU, 2020) is often disconnected from that of the port city as a creative centre (UNESCO, 2018), a heritage site or a place of daily living. Discussions on a port city as a hotspot for innovative industries focus on smart, clean and renewable energy, healthcare, communication technology, or even food. Considerations of a port city as a creative centre or heritage site includes discussions on economic questions, but also social and cultural identity. For instance, the port city of João Pessoa, capital of the state of Paraíba in Brazil, joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, for its significance in crafts production and promotion, including pottery, embroidery and crochet.

The way people describe the port city is based on the very paradigms that underlie societal choices and approaches to culture. Port city culture as a particular way of living and building, that is connected to the presence of water, to shipping and other maritime practices, can be used to identify the particular relationship between spaces and people in port cities (Hein, 2019). Historical port culture resulted from the close connection between ports and their neighbouring cities and towns, and consequently, from a vast exchange of people. It resulted in the development of many port city-based empires such as Venice, Saint Petersburg or Constantinople.

Whereas people may still use the same terms today as they did then, port city relations have changed extensively, and therefore the meaning of words as well. The study of port city words through space and time can help us understand and identify strategies to imagine and make the future of port cities. As of yet, however, there is no common definition of the term port culture. The everyday experience in port cities is often limited to selected historic practices or anchored in specific buildings, acting as constituting a limited form of port city cultural heritage.

Collective features of port cities through history actually covered a much broader field of practices and structures. For instance, structures such as cranes, docks, and mooring facilities are seldomly recognized as port heritages either in national or global heritage institutions. Local knowledge of citizens on past events in their port city are often not included in official archives. When the understanding of port culture is limited, this has an impact on both the conceptualization of traditional port city sites and structures, and on the future development of port cities.

To expand our understanding of port culture, we should keep two things in mind. First, researchers, authorities, and practitioners need to imagine the port of the future based on a shared understanding of a diverse group of local stakeholders. To do so, we need an understanding of the port city region as a networked entity, a port-cityscape, where multiple functions and their spaces— including ships and pipelines, port facilities and warehouses, industrial and logistic structures, headquarters and retail buildings, but also housing and leisure facilities—are combined to create a port city culture (Hein, 2019).

Such an approach to port city culture, secondly, also requires a reconceptualization of port city heritage that recognizes the relation of the place to port its past or present port activities. This conception is crucial as it is intimately connected to what stakeholders deem valuable and choose to preserve, in order to redefine the identities of port cities. Moreover, when cultural resources in port cities are used within planning practices, they allow for a more balanced and sustainable development of port city regions.

Port culture is jointly constructed by different institutions and groups, and the challenge in clarifying this complex notion is to bring port authorities and city governments into conversation. A better understanding of words used to build port culture can help us get a better understanding of potential bias and foci in official documents, announcements, and presentations, so as to, in the long-term, improve port-city relations and help inform heritage decisions.

To clarify the focus of each group of people in relation to port-city culture, and to unearth the differentiations between the attentions of different groups, terms such as ‘trade/trading’, ‘naval’ or ‘warehouse’, ‘crane’ can provide us with insight on the objects that are considered port-city related, while terms such as ‘fort/fortress/fortification’ reminds us of the coastal defence throughout the history of port cities. Through an analysis of these terms, we come to realize that some of these objects are more or less considered and thus used in the construction of a port city culture.

In a nutshell, the study on heritage terms themed in port-city culture requires a view of valuing all the nuts and bolts functioning collectively as a system of the port city. Researchers and all stakeholders need a broader port culture for imagining future transitions, as well as for a different analysis and presentation of the past. Through textual data processing, we hope to build up a corpus of maritime words, and reflect on the (re)conceptualization of port-city cultural heritage.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port-city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Didem Yerli, Penglin Zhu, Saskia Tideman, Stephan Hauser, Martin Valinger, Yueyue Zhang, and Sabine Luning and Asma Mehan.


EU (https://ec.europa.eu/transport/modes/maritime/infographics_en)

Malt, B., & Wolff, P. (2010). The Language – Thought Interface: An Introduction. In B. Malt & P. Wolff (Eds.), Words and the Mind: How Words Capture Human Experience: Oxford University Press. https://books.google.nl/books?id=QCziBwAAQBAJ

Hein, C. (2019). The Port-cityscape: Spatial and institutional approaches to port-city relationships. PORTUSplus, 8, 1-8. https://portusplus.org/index.php/pp/article/view/190

Baciu, D. (2020). Cultural life: Theory and empirical testing. Biosystems. 197:104208.


UNESCO. (2018). UNESCO Creative Cities Programme for Sustainable Development. Paris, France: UNESCO. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000264238