Report AIVP Venice 2023: Annual World Conference on Cities and Ports

Silvia Sivo

picture from the start of aivp conference in venice
Figure 1: Start of the AIVP conference in Venice

On 16-18 November 2023, AIVP in cooperation with the North Adriatic Sea Port Authority held its 2023 conference on the theme “Linking global and local, technology and the citizens” in Venice, addressing the challenge of social acceptability and dialogue with citizens as an essential foundation for port (city) innovation. The conference represented a moment of analysis and confrontation between port, city and regional representatives, focusing on issues to reinforce the link between ports and their territory, pursue shared values and objectives, govern the contrasts and ruptures caused by both port presence and displacement, and promote the social recognition of the port as a living reality and working environment for the development of surrounding territories.

As introduced by AIVP’s President Edouard Philippe, mayor of the city of Le Havre, port city territories are  conditioned by maritime transportation dynamics and the reorganisation of energy flows, thereby depending on the international economy and geopolitical conditions. On the other hand, they are also subject to societal pressure to avoid (increasing) land consumption and ensure healthy conditions for people and the environment. 

Conference sessions covered contemporary challenges of relocation and diversification of activities, transition and changes in port engineering and ecosystems, demonstrating how crucial it is to establish a permanent dialogue and shared strategies between port and city. To achieve this, multilevel interaction and governance between public and private entities, but above all the involvement of citizens, are required, implying the need for a long-term vision, policy transparency and continuity in terms of planning and resources.

Among the keynote contributors, Carola Hein (TU Delft) presented new perspectives on the cultural values of port cities through research, dissemination and educational activities from PortCityFutures and the UNESCO Chair in Water, Ports and Historic Cities. According to Hein, knowledge of the cultural dimension of (use of) space enhances a comprehensive understanding of port city territories’ relationships and a better orientation for sustainable development strategies. Through interdisciplinary methods and long-term perspectives, studies like the Port City Atlas (Hein, Van Mil & Ažman-Momirski 2023) explain how spatial planning, historical changes and its underlying values are intertwined, visualise the evolution of spatial relations between port and city within their territories, and foster a comparative approach for the interpretation of challenges and opportunities.

As an illustration of this, the roundtable moderated by Carola Hein showed European and African experiences of port-city cultural valorisation that, based on both water and urban values of the port, highlighted the relationship between knowledge and resilience, and the opportunities to involve different stakeholders for a wider understanding of port city culture. In fact, focusing on the value of intangible elements and inhabitants' perception about their relationship with water and the port emerge as preconditions for facilitating dialogue and interaction between actors (Hein 2020). Through citizen engagement, and with the perspective of the sea as a commons (Couling & Hein 2020), port city culture can move beyond marketing operations and present the long-shared histories of the singular relationship of ports with their context, including its different patterns and unique challenges. Investments in culture, such as the preservation of urban maritime heritage, can act as tangible and intangible devices for engagement that put ports at the centre, as actor and storyteller, thereby creating a common language where culture is the driving value. 

picture from the presentation of aivp conference in venice
Figure 2: Roundtable Discussion: Valorizing port-city culture with the citizens 
picture from the presentation of aivp conference in venice
Figure 3:  Roundtable Discussion: Valorizing port-city culture with the citizens

The moderated conversation with Paula Copeland, Vice-President Engagement & Sustainability of Saint John Port Authority (Canada), deepened insights into the topic of port city community engagement through this value-driven perspective. In the case of Port Saint John, the vision of the port as a catalyst for growth and community leadership was recognised after establishing a common path of achievements in terms of both economic, safety and wellness, integrity and inclusion aspects. In order to do this, a dialogue based on education, investments and relationships was put in action, showing the value of the port by for instance also acknowledging the traditional knowledge of indigenous people - especially on water and environment matters - in addition to dominant western scientific perspectives. Conversation with local communities were enhanced by civic organisations and reflected the social responsibility attitude of the institutions involved, recognising people as right holders.

These testimonies show how the dynamic balance between port and city has to be continuously negotiated and adapted by means of participatory and engagement tools, which aim as much as possible at a direct consultation, and involve professionals dedicated to improving and promoting port city culture to create a communicative environment, crucial for bringing all stakeholders to the same table. For this purpose, it is essential to acknowledge and include the contribution of different cultures, and give weight to overlooked or less represented communities that often suffer the externalities of development choices. Furthermore, the close synergy with civil society and research organisations can improve the effectiveness of sustainability initiatives and increase the reliability of the port as a decisive territorial actor.

An emblematic demonstration of the above points can be found in Venice, which was referred to several times by representatives of the Port Authority, the Maritime Directorate of the Harbour Office and independent researchers. 

Well-known for its historically symbiotic urban-maritime culture and the delicate lagoon-based environment, over the last decades Venice is facing reflections on port city relationships within a deeply altered ecosystem, exacerbated by climate change. Moreover, the recent introduction of the MOSE mobile barriers has made it necessary to rebalance the delicate interconnections between maritime traffic, wetland areas, channels, manufacturing settlements, cruise terminals, fishing and recreational boating.

The reflections on Venice focused above all on the development of the cruise sector, whose impacts on human health and the natural environment has led to a reorganisation of landings and facilities, but also stimulated reflections on ‘business as usual’ patterns. The need to preserve the city’s cultural heritage and the lagoon’s natural ecosystems implies for the Port Authority to take measures to redefine the port organisation, increase attention to the safeguarding of environmental species, and target a more diffuse landfill model for managing impacted flows within the territory. This also calls attention to the agency with which the port interacts in the territory itself and with the other social actors involved in or affected by its decisions.  

port authority presentation
Figure 4: Roundtable Discussion: The next step for sustainable cruises

While according to the Port Authority, the need for a better dialogue with the general public must go beyond merely visual and emotional impact - stressing the relation between the perception and effects of negative externalities and requiring a place for the sharing of knowledge and exchange of information - Jane Da Mosto from the Third Sector Organisation (TSO) ‘We Are Here Venice’ presented a complementary voice through a civil society perspective. She reminded the conference audience that independent experts and NGOs are crucial actors to concretely implement the collaborative perspective of port city relationships, and that all sustainability measures put in action by port and municipal institutions are not sufficient if global and local dimensions are not addressed together, and if the doors are not opened to share knowledge from both inside and outside institutions. Her call to established institutions is therefore to use power responsibly, by combining long-term perspectives for economic activities with the regulation of impacting activities and reflecting on ‘business as usual’ patterns with respect to the future of port cities. To do so, broad societal participation entails an honest sharing of information and a careful handling of people's perspectives within comprehensive strategies. 

picture from the presentation of aivp conference in venice
Figure 5: Keynote Lecture: 'A civil society’s perspective on the future of port cities' by Jane Da Mosto - We Are Here Venice 

The AIVP Conference demonstrated to be a key place to ground major points of discussion, share new paths forward and drive reflections on further themes that were launched in other sessions. Among all this, opportunities stand out for greater activity as a community of practices to support the accomplishment of sustainable development objectives and measures for port city territories in the Global South specifically, and to reduce gaps and counterbalance global dynamics of exploitation caused by sea-based activities. In this regard, AIVP continues to play a significant role in the implementation of the UN Agenda 2030 SDGs, embodying the mission to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all" that sees oceans as one of the leading themes of upcoming UN initiatives. In this perspective finally, the AIVP conference presented two new initiatives on the path towards the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Port Cities: the AIVP Agenda 2030 Self-Assessment Tool - designed as a pedagogical tool for understanding the shared paths to be pursued - and the AIVP Antoine Rufenacht Prize - designed to support efforts by port cities to foster dialogue and encourage the replication of best practices around the world.

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 Carola Hein and Vincent Baptist.

Couling, N., & Hein, C. (2020). The Urbanisation of the Sea: From Concepts and Analysis to Design. NAi010 Publishers.

Hein, C. (2020). Adaptive Strategies for Water Heritage: Past, Present and Future. Springer. 

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

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Silvia Sivo