The role of port cities in building a sustainable shared future: The Union for the Mediterranean Action Plan for Sustainable Urbanisation

Roberto Rocco, Carola Hein

The Mediterranean has long been at the heart of urban and rural development in all of its bordering countries. Sea-based trade and exchange has fuelled the development of numerous cities on the coast, on rivers and in the hinterland. Current challenges, from the climate crisis to migration, have put the Mediterranean again into focus. The COVID-19 crises shines additional light on the need for close collaboration in the fields of spatial and economic development, including port and port-related infrastructures. To provide a framework for sustainable and inclusive urban and regional development for the countries around the Mediterranean is the mission of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), an intergovernmental body that brings together all the countries of the European Union and 15 countries from the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.  On 22 May 2017, at the Second Ministerial Conference of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in Cairo, the UfM has enacted the “Union for the Mediterranean Urban Agenda” (UfM, 2017).  Since 2018, a team from the Delft University of Technology (Roberto Rocco, Remon Rooij, Carola Hein) has elaborated an Action Plan for Sustainable Urbanisation around the Mediterranean for the UfM.

This Action Plan aims to provide a cross-sectoral and multi-dimensional long-term framework for urban regeneration and development across the Mediterranean region. It reflects UfM countries’ commitment to sustainable, fair, inclusive and resilient urban and regional development. UfM countries commit to respect key principles of good governance and policy-making, to fulfil existing commitments under international agreements, to transform social and economic models, to prioritise and fast-track actions for the poorest and most marginalised in society (‘leave no one and no place behind’), to recognise the limits to our planetary resources, to respect human rights and the rule of law, and to ensure policy coherence in moving towards a more sustainable Euro-Mediterranean region by 2040, taking into account  the global progression from a linear to a circular economy; to sustainability from farm to fork; to future-proof energy, buildings and mobility; ensuring a fair and inclusive transition.

This Action Plan is further anchored on the vast shared heritage of the Euro-Mediterranean region and its enormous potential to foster sustainable development and inclusive prosperity, through improved coordination, cohesion, and capacity building. Among its focal areas are affordable and sustainable housing, but also sustainable development from sea to hinterland with a focus on port city regions. Ports and port cities have evidently a central role in this endeavour, as they are the nodes in a network of commercial, cultural, and political exchange, knitting the region together. The UfM Action Plan argues that port cities, as key agents in Mediterranean connectivity require special attention to achieve balanced development. Taking the perspective of planetary urbanization, as proposed by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmidt (Brenner & Schmid, 2015), the UfM Action Plan argues that spatial planning needs to recognize the impact of the flows of goods, people and ideas from sea to hinterland, with a particular focus on port cities and their network around the Mediterranean.

Ports and port cities are seen as having a central role in promoting the “holistic, integrated, place-based and long term approach to sustainable urban development, necessary to promote well-managed, economically prosperous, gender and socially inclusive, just, safe, healthy, accessible and resilient, as well as resource-efficient and low-carbon environmentally sustainable cities” put forward by the Union for the Mediterranean Urban Agenda (UfM, 2017). A long-term, integrated, trans-scalar and trans-sectoral approach to urban regeneration and development with a focus on affordable and sustainable housing is the cornerstone of this Action Plan, which follows three basic policy directions contained in the European Commission’s Better Regulation Framework (European Commission, 2019). Policies ought to be: (i) integrated, (ii) science-led and evidence-based, and (iii) participatory. 

Sustainable urban development and regeneration in the UfM Action Plan support the interoperability of crucial systems in the region in the case of natural or human-related disasters and crises, and aims to keep basic functions operational, while facilitating the physical integration of countries in the region. Interoperability of basic systems is intimately connected to issues of climate action, energy transition, water management, epidemic responses, anti-desertification actions, port automation, data traffic and more. Port cities are therefore seen as the main nodes in networked landscapes of mobility, production and exchange that reach deep into the hinterland of the countries involved, constituting “port cityscapes”. 

Port-related flows of goods, people and ideas cross institutional boundaries and create complex, fuzzy territories without strong, mutually supportive governance frameworks, legal systems and planning guidelines. Multi-scalar markets and global value chains leave their imprint on the spaces of the port, and on neighbouring urban and rural territories. Stakeholders in these areas are multiple and pursue different goals and functions. Politicians, planners and researchers grapple with the need to provide guidance for spatial and institutional development to deal with the ongoing fragmentation and transformation of extended port city territories, overlapping governance systems and flexible coalitions of actors in different power positions. As ports have grown beyond the territories of the cities that generated them, the number of governance actors that have a say in port development has increased (Hein, 2019).

The UfM Strategic Action Plan puts forward a number of axes of intervention, where spatial strategies and projects are organised. Each axis of intervention entails co-ordination with the UfM Action Plan in terms of INTEGRATION, EVIDENCE-BASED POLICY and CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT & PARTICIPATION. Furthermore, each axis of intervention must integrate the actions contained in the Action Plan. One of the core axes of intervention is related to PORT AREAS (forelands, port-areas, port-cities and their hinterlands), as drivers of sustainable and resilient economic prosperity from port and port city to hinterlands. This particular axis of intervention is currently under development and UfM is seeking partnerships to develop this policy document. Development of this axis of intervention entails the description of how ports and port cities are motors to deliver the objectives of the Action Plan, and a description of the actions, policies and interventions that can enhance the relationships ports and port cities, and the relationships between those.

Such a focus on port city region development is even more relevant as port cities are home to key heritage and traditions. The UfM Action Plan therefore considers the shared past of these countries as a foundation for a shared vision of sustainable development and a co-created future in view of the multiple public challenges facing all societies simultaneously. The Plan focuses on the preservation, reuse and development of that heritage and its role as vector for development, through a number of mutually reinforcing actions to connect that rich heritage to the present, in order to build a shared sustainable, fair and resilient future. In line with UNESCO’s Historic Urban Landscape approach. In this sense, this Action Plan sees the Mediterranean Sea as the great commons, binding the region together in its shared history and identity. This entails shared responsibilities and common challenges concerning the climate, the preservation and regeneration of the environment, the immensely rich cultural heritage around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as global trade, mobility, migration, and development.  Collaboration around the Mediterranean has been its strength for thousands of years, it is also an important foundation for planning a sustainable and resilient future, and to face the urgent common public challenges of the region, including accelerated climate change, conflict, migration and displacement, as well  as public health emergencies, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, which are bound to become more frequent if we do not pursue sustainability and planetary balance.

Brenner, N., & Schmid, C. (2015). Towards a new epistemology of the urban. City, 19(2-3), 151-182.

European Commission. (2019). Better Regulation Toolbox. Retrieved from

Hein, C. (2019). The Port Cityscape: Spatial and institutional approaches to port city relationships. PORTUSplus_the Journal of RETE, 1(8).

UfM. (2017). “Union for the Mediterranean Urban Agenda”: Second Ministerial Conference of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) on Sustainable Urban Development. Barcelona: Union for the Mediterranean.