The future of port cities: thriving within the planetary boundaries

Olga Koretskaya

The debates over the future of ports and port city areas have been largely dominated by the narrative of blue growth (e.g. OECD, 2019; World Bank, 2019). Promoted by large corporations and authoritative international organizations, this narrative promises to reconcile the imperative of economic growth and profit-seeking with the well-being of communities and the environment. This approach has led to technical solutions (such as robotics, more efficient wastewater treatment) and incremental fixes to become the key focus in sustainability transitions (Soma et al., 2018).

Recent studies (Parrique et al, 2019; Hickel & Kallis, 2019) show, however, that the decoupling of economic growth from negative environmental impact is not happening anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown. Societies functioning on the basis of an economic growth imperative head to a world with higher inequality, and an environment increasingly damaged by human activity (Randers et al., 2019) and deprived of biodiversity (IPES FOOD, 2016). Port operations, in particular, continue to degrade the environment (Puig et al., 2014), and contemporary seafaring stands as one of the most dangerous professions globally (Walters and Bailey 2013).

As the window of opportunity to timely address the environmental crisis is narrowing (IPCC, 2018), an increasing number of scholars (e.g. Jackson, 2009; Raworth, 2017) call to shift attention from solely technical solutions and profit-seeking mentalities towards a more holistic understanding of the transitions towards sustainability. In this discourse we are witnessing a shift away from growth towards prosperity, which implies a broader perspective on economics, thereby including quality of life, well-being and nature conservation and preservation (Raworth, 2017; D'Alisa et al, 2014).

For ports and port city areas, this means that ever-increasing marine traffic and port throughput need to be questioned, and alternative solutions to port cities development sought instead (Nogué-Algueró, 2019). The latter could include, for instance, the downscaling and control of traffic levels, and the relocalization of production (ibid.). To ensure a just transition, it is vital to bring together various local actors (from citizens to port authorities and social movements) to jointly define sustainable levels of economic activity, distribution of benefits and governance schemes (see why co-creation matters in the blog by Andrew Littlejohn).

The urgent need to prioritize thriving people in a thriving place over growth is started to be recognized by policy-makers: the municipality of Amsterdam has very recently pioneered the Amsterdam City Doughnut which presents city life and its impacts through four ‘lenses’ – social, ecological, local, and global. This approach reveals connections between operations of the port of Amsterdam and a number of socio-ecological issues in the Netherlands and abroad, from high carbon emission levels to poor labour conditions in West Africa.

Some urgent questions remain. Who should have a say in the development of port city areas (and how)? How can port areas meet the social needs of the population while staying within the planetary boundaries? The answers will define whether port city areas can rise to the double challenge of the 21st century: the challenge of environmental degradation and widening social inequality.

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 Maurice Jansen and Carola Hein.

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