Protecting Cultural Heritage as a Resource for Sustainable Development of Port Cities (AIVP webinar)

Hilde Sennema

Port city functions and cultural maritime heritage are often at odds. Culture is a difficult and sometimes contested concept in the scholarly environment, and functions of maritime identity in port cities, are often not recognized as culture. To discuss this issue, the international port city organization AIVP (Association Internationale Villes Ports) organized a webinar last October where representatives of UNESCO and the port authorities of Dubrovnik and Dublin were asked to reflect on this issue. Port culture and identity are part of the AIVP agenda for port cities in 2030, which proposes to promote and capitalise on “the specific culture and identity of port cities and allowing residents to develop a sense of pride and flours as a part of city port community of interest”. This blog reports on this webinar, and discusses why the maritime functions of trade, shipping and water are still overlooked when we discuss the culture of a port city.

The discussion started with host Carola Hein (TU Delft, LDE PortCityFutures) addressing the lack of shared social and cultural values among port and city stakeholders that can be defined as port city culture. To answer this question we first have to address what port city culture exactly is and whether we are talking about port culture or port city culture. Can we identify traits or objects that really represent a port city culture? And can we somehow distill resilience, a cultural trait historically notable for port cities, as a function for sustainable development?

Referring to the title - how the protection of cultural heritage serves as a resource for the sustainable development of port cities and regions - Hein invited Jyoti Hosagrahar (UNESCO) to reflect upon tools available to designate and preserve urban heritage and inquired what that means for port cities. Hosagrahar explained how UNESCO World Heritage listings relate to cultural practices that are important to the international community as a whole. Because these listings need to be qualified as having ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ (OUV), criteria for listing and conservation are very strict. Port cities on this list may or may not include the active port itself, because port functions can be at odds with the very strict criteria that need to be retained. To protect an OUV, therefore, an approach is required where different stakeholders agree on protecting and managing the integrity and authenticity of the monument and its surroundings.

Whereas this might be difficult in a port that is active, and therefore still subject to change, there are other instruments to protect heritage in port cities. Aimed less at objects and more at the surroundings of the monuments, is UNESCO's Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) approach. It is a more holistic approach that integrates the goals of urban heritage conservation and those of social and economic development. It is more inclusive than the OUV, cooperating with local communities to make good use of their resources and practices. As UNESCO puts it, “this method sees urban heritage as a social, cultural and economic asset for the development of cities”. It takes a broader look at heritage as a function of sustainable development and can therefore be a more suitable tool for port cities, protecting historic structures in their functional context.

The HUL does require an active approach of local stakeholders. One of the main challenges these stakeholders face today is managing tourism: whereas it is an attractive source of income for port cities and heritage areas, it can have a devastating impact on urban areas. When tourism is regarded as the only source of revenue for heritage sites and their surroundings, Hosagrahar stated, it often negatively affects the livability, integrity and authenticity of the site.

The threat that tourism, and particularly cruise tourism poses on urban heritage is particularly relevant in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. With tourism having grown explosively over the last decade, the City had to put measures in place to ensure the quality of living. Hrvoje Kulušić (Port of Dubrovnik) presented the programme Respect the City, a ‘multidisciplinary strategic destination management project’ aimed at accomplishing sustainable development of tourism in Dubrovnik. The city did this (in pre-Covid times) by issuing a cap on tourism. The Port Authority in Dubrovnik plays a role in managing the tourist industry by ‘lending a hand’, both practically and institutionally. It does this through maintaining the day to day activities of the port on the one hand, for example by handling arrivals, and protecting the liveliness of maritime culture in the city on the other.

In Dublin, the port authority is uniquely active in the preservation of maritime heritage. Lar Joye (Dublin Port Company) explained how the cancellation of the ferry services into central Dublin (from Wales and England), circa 10 years ago, severed the relationship between port and city. Whereas the city of Dublin was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010, however, water or shipping were only a very small part of the protected sites in the listing. The port authority is working actively on integrating the port and the city, for example through digitizing its archive. Furthermore, its Greenways initiative reconnects the port with the city through cycleways and trails. A challenge is, Joye said, that port city heritage in Dublin is not yet self-sufficient, and is thinking of ways of bringing in revenue.

This begs the question whether functional port city structures or buildings can be heritage at all, and if so: how. Hosagrahar emphasises that heritage and functional objects do not have to be at odds with each other, and that heritage can be used in more ways than as leisure space alone. Designating functions and zoning are important to safeguard responsible and sustainable uses of valuable historic structures and buildings in the port cities. To help overcome the challenges of protecting old buildings and industrial heritage, it is necessary to find new innovative uses: programming of cultural events, for example. The radical downturn of tourism due to the Covid crisis, on the other hand, has shown how many port cities are dependent on tourism. This connects also to previous debates within AIVP about the limits of tourism, especially cruise ships, solutions including limiting stopovers, and within the PortCityFutures team. The case of Amsterdam for example shows the importance of paring economic values to the values and needs of inhabitants.

This question of valuing the needs of different stakeholders ties into the distinction Hosagrahar made between the protection of heritage (which is often the responsibility of a national authority, for example in the case of a OUV), and using heritage within sustainable developments under shared responsibility. Whereas the functional parts of port cities - the ‘knots and bolts part’ -  are still difficult to protect, a multi-stakeholder approach such as HUL offers different ways to take inventory of tangible and intangible connections (for example through deep mapping) within the development process.

Despite instruments as HUL, it remains complicated to protect heritage within active port cities. The embeddedness of HUL makes it complex to see where stakeholders should or should not intervene, and where their responsibilities begin and end. Nevertheless, the best chance for port city heritage to survive is when multiple stakeholders acknowledge the values of port objects structures as carriers of port culture, and commit to using them as assets within the sustainable development of port cities. Port authorities, as Kulušić and Joye showed, can play a crucial and active role as an intermediary between port and city, by making the city aware of the port, and the port of its urban culture.


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