Interpreting the Port City Atlas

Merten Nefs

port atlas of europe
Map of Europe, indicating locations of major ports (Hein, van Mill and Ažman-Momirski, 2023, Port City Atlas, page 75)

Since 2023, the world has a comprehensive overview of European seaport cities. The maps in the Port City Atlas, produced using a consistent geospatial methodology and framework, are already inspiring a follow-up project on riverport cities. But what are we actually doing with all the available maps? Which follow-up questions do they raise, which deeper insights can they provide and what is needed to achieve these? In this blog post, Merten Nefs provides a commentary on the Port City Atlas and asks how we should read and interpret port city maps.

In general, maps are made to communicate something (Brodersen, 2001). Atlases are compilations of maps that convey a coherent view on (a part of) the world (Van Houtum, 2024). School atlases with their colorful maps have for example taught us that the world is run by nation states—or is it? Through the Port City Atlas (Hein et al., 2023), we can now identify and compare a specific category of cities that have developed at the edge of sea and land. The atlas offers a taxonomy of these cities, based on their location at a certain European sea shore and ranked by their port activities (throughput, passengers) and urban size (inhabitants, built-up surface). The assumption is that comparing port cities and their territories within a rigid methodological cartographic frame can raise and answer important questions about their development and sustainability. This short blog post aims to identify some of these questions.

Maps are value-laden; they are meant to make the viewer see the world the way the cartographer sees it (Kitchin & Perkins, 2009). In the case of the Port City Atlas, port city territories are conceptualised as pivots between a maritime foreland—including networks of oil rigs and pipelines— and a continental hinterland of urban agglomerations, infrastructure and rural areas. In both realms, there are also still nature areas, such as Natura 2000.

Maps need to lie (Monmonier, 2018), in the sense that they must simplify and distort the world to highlight relevant information. The Port City Atlas effectively harmonised very heterogeneous geographical data sources to achieve a homogeneous and comparable representation of port cities. Some local nuances are hereby sacrificed to the benefit of creating more general insights. Let's explore what these could be in the following three directions.

Port Morphology and Governance

The atlas suggests that the way ports and cities are governed affects the shape into which port cities develop. “All port city territories are the result of investment in port and transport infrastructure, governance systems, policies and regulations aimed at connecting global flows to local territories with their specific topographical, morphological, political, economic, social or cultural requirements” (Hein et al., 2023, p. 24). But can governance models structurally explain the morphology of port cities across Europe? What groups of port cities with similar morphologies can be found and do these correlate (statistically) with distinct governance models (or vice versa)? Are we talking about path dependence in long-term investments and policy programs, or short-term planning decisions? Addressing questions like these by analysing the port city maps could validate and enhance some of the existing port geography models, such as the Anyport (Bird, 1963) or Port Regionalization (Notteboom & Rodrigue, 2005) models.

The Hinterland Perspective

The atlas understandably groups port cities per European sea. Yet, since port cities are a pivot between foreland and hinterland, what happens on the land side can offer important distinguishing characteristics too. Some port complexes may be seen as coastal trade outposts of large, urbanized metropolitan regions, such as London, Athens, Lisbon, the plains of northern Italy, or the Deltametropolis. Other ports may be more connected with fellow ports than with actual hinterland cities, like Gioia Tauro. The atlas now describes each port city by providing details about its maritime flows (the number of container vessels, the amount of liquid bulk, etc.) as well as the land use and population on its territory. While this is evidently relevant information, it is only half of the story. There is increasing use of the ‘wet’ part of the territory: offshore wind parks, sand and other mineral extraction sites, military zones, or fish and algae farms. Additionally, there are terrestrial flows (road, rail) connecting economic activities in the hinterland, findable in several datasets, though the level of detail varies a lot across countries. A port city, thus, is a point of entry, just as it is a way out. Hinterland activities such as warehousing have co-evolved with the port, sometimes shaping new port developments early on and sometimes experiencing the effects of such developments in a later stage. Grouping port cities according to their hinterland economies (chemicals, lumber, finance, tourism) may raise several other questions.

Big Change

Port cities are arguably influenced by other port cities across the world, by their direct hinterlands nearby, but also by massive changes in regional, and even global, context. These changes are quite well linked to the perspective of the seas as used in the Port City Atlas. An example that comes to mind are geopolitical tensions in regions such as the Black Sea and Baltic Sea (war, sabotage and sanctions) as well the Mediterranean (migration and the interventions of ‘Fortress Europe’). Another impacting example is climate change. Port cities of the North Sea region are increasingly dealing with flooding rivers due to heavy rainfall in winter and drying up of important hinterland navigation routes due to droughts in summertime. Mediterranean ports are increasingly dealing with dry hinterlands with decreasing agricultural productivity and population, as well as large desalination projects to secure port city drinking water. Furthermore, many port cities play a key role in the energy transition, for example as maintenance or electric grid hubs for offshore wind parks, or as import hubs of LNG, hydrogen and biofuels. These big changes may offer other pathways for further research on port city territories.

The Port City Atlas already enables several possible answers to such questions by providing comparable maps, but much work remains. To gain structural insights into the issues above, the ensuing analysis must be as comprehensive and methodological as the mapping approach of the atlas itself. Although this effort seems worthwhile, open access to the data of the atlas is first required to get started. If they would like to stimulate further studies, the authors of the atlas can provide tables of the data parameters per port city and the geographic information files that are used to visualize the port city territories in the atlas. The publication itself can already be found on a repository, perhaps the data can follow soon.

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 edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Yvonne van Mil and Vincent Baptist.

Bird, J. H. (1963). The Major Seaports of the United Kingdom. Hutchinson.

Brodersen, L. (2001). Maps as Communication: Theory and Methodology in Cartography. Kort- og Matrikelstyrelsen.

Hein, C., Van Mil, Y., & Ažman-Momirski, L. (2023). Port City Atlas - Mapping European Port City Territories: From Understanding to Design. Nai010.

Kitchin, R., & Perkins, C. (2009). Thinking about Maps. In M. Dodge, R. Kitchin, & C. Perkins (Eds.), Rethinking Maps. Routledge.

Monmonier, M. (2018). How to Lie with Maps. The University of Chicago Press.

Notteboom, T., & Rodrigue, J. P. (2005). Port Regionalization: Towards a New Phase in Port Development. Maritime Policy and Management, 32(3), 297-313. 

Van Houtum, H. (2024). Free the Map: From Atlas to Hermes, a New Cartography of Borders and Migration. Nai010.