Insights from the RETE/PortCityFutures Webinar - Port-city scenarios during and after the Covid-19 - May 18th, 2020

Hilde Sennema

To what extent is the current health crisis detrimental for port cities, and how are different port cities reacting to this crisis? Researchers and practitioners from around the world discussed this question in a webinar co-organized by RETE and PortCityFutures held on May 18th 2020. (Blogs on the individual contributions are forthcoming on the PortCityFutures website).  One of the main questions here was how to navigate between the paradigm of ‘never waste a good crisis’ on the one hand, and ‘business as usual’ on the other.

Vicent Esteban from the Universitat Politècnica Valencia placed the Covid-19 crisis in a series of disruptions over the last few decades, such as 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. He noted that disruptions can have both negative and positive connotations. According to him, the Covid Crisis - beside the obvious negative social and economic implications - has positive effects as well: the (temporary) decrease of CO2 emissions and the quick transfer from face to face to digital meetings, thanks to the existing digital infrastructure.

Esteban uses the port of Valencia as his case study, arguing that the port authority should work as a facilitator of collaboration between the metropolitan area, the region and the nation, but also other actors, such as the corporations and universities, in order to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 on the longer term.

Stephen Ramos, from the University of Georgia, similarly argued that this crisis will inevitably lead to changes, big and small, and that we need prescient policies to mitigate these changes. ‘Any useful idea on the futures should appear to be ridiculous,’ he quotes futurist Jim Dator. Ramos emphasizes that time, ‘the currency of logistics’, is another factor to be taken into account: it may be altered by Covid-19 through higher illness rates and extra checks at airports and borders.

The port of Savannah, Georgia (Ramos’ case study) faces the various challenges being discussed throughout the webinar, such as climate change. The current health crisis is only one layer of the palimpsest that challenges the continuity of Savannah. Ramos suggests adding Health to the three dynamics of sustainability—Equity, Economy, and Environment—, as it converges with all three, and will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. This leads to post-normal times, as coined by Ziauddin Sadar and John A. Sweeney,[i] and asks to steer away from linearity and take into account the ‘complexity, chaos and contradictions’ of the future.

How do these conceptual frameworks play out in the real world? Fernando Puntigliano of the Universidad Católica del Uruguay, former minister of environment in the council of Montevideo states that ‘Business as usual is a high risk’, and urges us to take into account the difference between different continents. In the case of Montevideo, COVID could potentially increase the gap between port and city even further. He argues for a policy of port city convergence, that mitigates not only the health crisis, but also climate change and challenges in governance and issues of dehumanization.

Roberto Rocco and Carola Hein from Delft University of Technology concluded the Webinar by pointing out the challenges for port city governance in general. Discussing the UfM Strategic Urban Development Action Plan 2040 for sustainable, resilient and inclusive cities and communities in the Mediterranean, they explored the role of port cities as nodes on the sea-land continuum. Port city agency is crucial in matters of sustainability and action on sectors as varied as public space, mobility nodes and housing in port cities.

The discussion focused the importance of convergence between the different actors and governmental bodies of the port. ‘The absence of dialogue is a disaster’, says Puntigliano. Only through ongoing dialogue and the creation of a shared language is it possible to adequately mitigate the ongoing challenges, such as port-city divergence, climate change and conjuncture. This is also the basis to deal with the challenges that COVID-19 has posed for the world economy, logistics and their social counterparts.

RETE and PortCityFutures may be able to play a role in facilitating a dialogue between actors; they can also help bridge conceptual differences between nations and cities, between corporations and politicians, and between policy makers and researchers.

This blog has been written in the context of LDE PortCityFutures research and the collaboration with RETE on the Webinar. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein and Paul van de Laar.

[i] Sardar, Ziauddin, and John A. Sweeney. "The Three Tomorrows of Postnormal Times." Futures 75 (2016): 1-13.