​​​​​​​Port City Discourse: A New Vocabulary for Research and Action

Beatrice Moretti

Over the last decades, research in the field of port cities has seen a progressive divergence in its literature of reference. This change, a breakup into different disciplinary approaches, has contributed to increasingly blurring the concept of port city itself. With it, the set of expressions with which scholars, politicians and citizens refer to the port city has multiplied. Port city interactions have been evolving since ancient times and creating diverse port city personalities.

In the light of the different characterizations of the port city, there is a clear need for a dictionary of port city words and relationships. Much like when talking of love, discussing the port city relationship requires careful understanding of what words actually mean. The continuous dialogue between water and land and the dynamic landscape between port and cities necessitates a careful understanding of changing terms of port and urban infrastructures and functions.

In 1977, looking for an updated lexicon to talk about love, philosopher Roland Barthes wrote Fragments d'un discours amoureaux (A Lover's Discourse: Fragments), an ingenious collection of terms aimed to create a fragmentary but powerful glossary for lovers. Through the description of 47 entries – angoisse, drame, tendresse, to name just a few – Barthes generated a language capable of interpreting and connecting the different words, in the attempt of freeing them from a state of persistent solitude. With this process, he formed a discourse in which everyone can recognize themselves and place their story. Moreover, individual words become a universal discourse.

Building on Barthes, I argue the importance of discourse, and the definition of a flexible and time-sensitive terminology for interdisciplinary research on port cities.

The port city link is one that follows technological and logistical changes, interventions of urban and architectural design, and changes in nature and identity. The port city, so to say, is caught in a constant relationship struggle and requires specific terminologies. As studies in maritime geography show, literature on port city areas of the last thirty years has continued to produce case studies focused on the urban redevelopment of abandoned former port areas, amplifying the antithetical approach between the two realities and, in practice, failing to capture the specificity of port city organisms.

The specificity of port city relations must be named and studied with a new vocabulary: recognizing the otherness dimension should be considered a priority, also to explain this status and grasp its strategic potential. As Carmen Andriani emphasizes, “the line that marks the administrative border between city and port – in fact distinguishing them – extends into a field with variable depth in which conditions, functions, uses, artefacts, and destinies all persist. It is beneficial to include them in a single vision capable of working with the synergies of the differences by transforming them into added value” (2020).

To capture the specificity of port city relationships, my research[1] introduces the idea of portuality, attributing new meanings to a term used thus far in a haphazard way (Moretti, 2020). Portuality is a concept, but also a derived condition, that represents a peculiar dimension capable of embodying the inescapable bond that often places an entity – city or port – in opposition to the other. Acknowledging portuality enables the discovery of providing strategic direction for the project of the border areas between city and port.

Among the spaces that characterize the port city is that of the border zone between city and port. This heterogeneous but compact zone, emerges as a space of intermediation and transition, a place of vagueness and informality. There, the condition of portuality manifests itself explicitly, making the border the preferential investigation area. Border, boundary, limit, edge but also barrier, frontier, interface: each of these terms describes an element that marks the end of one status and the beginning of another. It is something that connects by separating (or vice versa) and produces around itself a condition onto which it transfers its own genetic characteristics. In this sense, it is worth talking about “border space” but even more of “border as space”, especially in the port-city framework, in order to assess its full potential and amplitude (Zanini, 2000).

The border seems to have gradually abandoned its classic identity as a separating object, becoming a structural element of urban networks in need of new conceptualization. This raises important questions about definitions including on the borders separating cities and ports from a legal standpoint. Instead of focusing on the oppositional aspect of the border concept, thus, the research employs the idea of the margin as a place of movement, evolution and heterogeneity. By using the concept of threshold, the border loses its confinement and becomes broader and mutable: from a legal boundary, it becomes a field that can be designed at will.

In operational terms, notably considering port city design, this rethinking of words – this lexical turn – contributes to moving away from the notion of compensation (supporting the belief that the port should compensate the city for the damages caused) to that of coexistence between city and port, offering a new point of view to the urban-port architectural heritage and discourse (Bruttomesso, 2011). The idea of coexistence responds to the duality[CH-B1]  of port cities and proposes the implementation of a shared existence to be played out on the border, a simultaneous defence of the territories, a compromise in which both parties decide. Thus described, a new state of coexistence is outlined: it embodies my preferred approach for the city-port threshold, translating it into a project strategy and a cooperation model.

Exploring a current, urgent, and highly debated topic, such as the interface between city and port, is a task that first and foremost needs a shift in attitude. A process that begins, and incessantly returns, to a terminological improvement and relocation of the conceptual sphere, one that acknowledges the responsive power of words in defining concepts, shaping and designing the inescapable relationship between port and city.

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. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Amanda Brandellero and Saskia Tideman.

Andriani C. (2020). Oltre. Metabolisms at the City/Port Border, in Moretti B., Beyond the Port City: The Condition of Portuality and the Threshold Concept. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.

Barthes R. (2014). Frammenti di un discorso amoroso. Turin: Einaudi tascabili. Saggi (ed. 1977).

Broeze F. (1989), Brides of the Sea: Port Cities of Asia from the 16th–20th centuries. Kensington: New South Wales University (NSWU) Press.

Bruttomesso R. (2011), Port and City: from integration to coexistence, in Bruttomesso R., Alemany J., The Port City of the XXIst Century: New Challenges in the Relationship between Port and City. Venice: RETE Publisher.

Crotti S. (2000), Figure architettoniche: soglia. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli.

Ducruet C. (2011), The Port City in Multidisciplinary Analysis, in Bruttomesso R., Alemany J., The Port City of the XXIst Century: New Challenges in the Relationship between Port and City. Venice: RETE Publisher.

Hein C. (ed.) (2011), Port Cities: Dynamic Landscapes and Global Networks, London: Routledge.

Moretti B. (2020), Beyond the Port City: The Condition of Portuality and the Threshold Concept. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.

Rosselli A. (2005), Il porto come struttura e significato, in «Portus», 10: 4-9.

Unwin S. (2007), Doorway. Abingdon – New York, NY: Routledge.

Zanini P. (2000), Significati del confine: I limiti naturali, storici, mentali. Milan: Bruno Mondadori Editore.

[1] The concept of portuality and of threshold were introduced by the doctoral research developed by Beatrice Moretti and titled “Oltre la Città Portuale. La Condizione di Portualità e il Campo della Soglia” (Department Architecture and Design – dAD, University of the Study of Genoa, Italy. Supervisors: Prof. Arch. Carmen Andriani, Prof. Arch. Manuela Gausa). For further information, refer to Moretti B. (2020), Beyond the Port City: The Condition of Portuality and the Threshold Concept. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.

 [CH-B1]Link to https://www.portcityfutures.nl/dualities , and my piece on dualities in portus https://portusonline.org/port-city-futures/?