PortCityFutures in Rotterdam:  Conversations on the Waterfront

Sabine Luning, Carola Hein, Paul van de Laar

In this blog, we recount the making of a series of small films portraying our conversations at different sites in Rotterdam. The conversations are exemplary of PCF collaborative work on societal issues and future making in this port city region.

How to maintain the identity of a port city in transition, and at the same time do justice to its socio-cultural heritage and diversities? We decided to film our ongoing conversations at different sites that are emblematic for historical developments and characteristics of the portcityscape of Rotterdam. The non-scripted conversations, which were edited into 5 small films, were taking place on the basis of a loosely defined division of labour: the anthropologist, Sabine Luning from Leiden University, would ask questions to Paul van de Laar, Chair in Urban History of Rotterdam at Erasmus University, and Carola Hein, Chair of the History of Architecture and Urban Planning at TU Delft and expert in the longterm development of port city regions, including the impact of petroleum on port city development.

Filming our conversation in Katendrecht
The point of departure in this blog is the compilation of our conversation at the Deliplein in Katendrecht, a port peninsula neighbourhood situated South of the Maas, historically the residential area for labourers working in the harbour as well as for an international community linked to shipping and seafarers. With the move of the port outward, away from the city centre and towards the Maasvlakte, this area gained new purpose; with its cafes and theatres it is now a place for culture and recreation. But how should we name these two characteristic periods of Katendrecht: from labour to leisure? This distinction is analytically important in the HERA project Pleasurescapes in which PCF members are involved. And how to label the policy and planning trends which play(ed) a major role in shaping these changes: gentrification or revitalization? While the first emphasizes the disenfranchising effects on the historical residents, the second stresses the creation of new opportunities in places subjected to social and economic hardships. 

Words Matter
As our conversation shows, in PCF we value our choice of words. Words have power because they express paradigms for societal choices and processes of change. A group within PCF is working on words, e.g. by studying big data on port city and heritage terms for tracing trends in valuing the past and envisioning the future (see e.g. Understanding how words matter for port heritage: towards a network perspective). For anthropology such sensitivity to language is a core business: historically the discipline almost equated the study of culture to comparing groups of people speaking different languages. Anthropologists have moved away from that definition of culture, and the current position sits well with the conversation at the Deliplein: words are world making: they do not only reflect on reality, they are constitutive for it. The choice of words – gentrification or revitalization - exemplifies how different words correspond to different ways of seeing the world with major consequences for how transitions from past to present are appreciated and how futures should be made by citizens, governors, and planners. Importantly, in PCF the aim is not to ban specific terms, but to weigh words carefully, value their political effects and aspire towards multivocality and diversity in perspectives.

Arena for Port City Future Making
In our conversation the issue of wor(l)ds in the making is discussed by looking at the wider range of actors with key roles in shaping the contours of the port city of Rotterdam. Where do we locate responsibilities and limitations for the making of the port city? Is an integrated approach to city planning hampered by star architects who are given too much room to design prestigious buildings in splendid isolation, or by structuring aspects of governance practices, such as opportunism and short-term political mandates? To approach future making as situated in practices moulded by webs of experts, citizens, governors, complex economic interests and political time frames aligns well with lines of questioning within anthropology, particularly at our Institute. It is most rewarding and stimulating to think through these issues in conversations with colleagues working in the LDE group of PCF. The expertise – both in terms of academic approaches and knowledge of the empirical field of Rotterdam as port city region - put to the fore in our conversation is very rich. For the anthropologist, the conversation had additional appeal at moments of productive tensions between the colleagues. The diversity in academic perspectives is supplemented by differences in personal engagements and opinions. Members of PCF are engaging in ongoing conversations in which shared commitments are matched with diversity in academic approaches and personal temperaments. This film testifies to the productive potential of such collaboration.

This blog has been written for the Leiden Anthropology Blog. It reflects the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team, and evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships.