‘Tis the season: The Magic of Port Cities

Carola Hein

To address challenges of climate change and sea-level rise that will particularly affect port cities and regions, PortCityFutures aims to inform diverse groups of people and bring stakeholders together in the process. The production of the short open access film The Magic of Port Cities is a case in point: funded with a NWO KIEM subsidy and sponsored by a diverse group of stakeholders, the animated film takes a playful approach to the understanding of port city regions, and emphasises the need for change that will make possible a sustainable future. We need novel creative approaches to engage non-professional audiences in ongoing transitions. The film informs the general public of both the particular character of port cities, and of the challenges and opportunities inherent in their location at the edge of sea and land. It makes viewers more aware of future urgencies and helps them define the role they may want to play themselves.

Tackling large future challenges requires a rethinking of the cultures of institutions and people. Culture is understood here as the values, practices and mindsets that have shaped institutions, policies and laws over time, and that guide the social and spatial practices in port cities. For example, in port city regions, the paradigm of the port as a staple port or as a transit port influences decisions regarding investments in infrastructures, storage, and hiring (Hein & Van de Laar 2019). Understanding the diverse forces and sectoral interests at play in port city regions is a first step toward identifying paradigms and maritime mindsets.

Exploring the forces at play also requires a deeper comprehension of the cultures and values that inform them. The Magic of Port Cities aims to promote such an understanding of culture in port cities. In this movie, our approach goes beyond that of culture as an artefact in a museum or a heritage object. Instead, the approach requires recognizing—and changing—networks of stakeholders with long-standing values, practices and mindsets that shape the politics, economics, and socio-spatial patterns of port cities. Change is especially difficult because these stakeholder networks have developed over long periods of time. Institutional forms, legal tools and policies are anchored in historical processes and developments, and stakeholders are often vying for the same territories and pursuing competing goals. Even the ways in which they interact have been shaped over time by shared experiences and meeting places. They form an system that needs to adapt and, eventually, drive change.

Because the expanding reach of port foreland and hinterland cannot be underestimated within this stakeholder ecosystem, the film represents the impacts of globalization on the maritime spaces and landscapes beyond the port city itself. Local stakeholders have often ignored the question of the impact of globalization on the territories and localities hosting these flows. The concept of planetary or extended urbanization (Brenner, Schmid 2011) and the concept of the urbanization of the sea (Couling 2015; Couling, Hein 2020) help to articulate these issues. The hope is to initiate long-term transition processes and develop new socio-spatial perspectives on challenges of urbanization in port cites. New design thinking and cultural approaches are needed that recognize socio-spatial processes on the sea and the coast.

Addressing the impact of globalization also requires strategies to facilitate port activities that involve engaging with local actors and that tackle issues of spatial inequality and injustice. The film tackles this issue, emphasizing that as “engines of economic development and sources of prosperity’’ (EU Commission, 2020) ports create winners and losers. We need  to facilitate and reimagine the workings of the port in a way that allows for sustainable and socially just development, while facilitating the port’s role as key infrastructure.

Ensuring that contemporary challenges are addressed in a comprehensive way requires a cultural change that nurtures collaboration among various stakeholders across institutional borders and along the sea-land continuum. This is necessary to tackle the challenges that are mentioned in the film, which stem from a long history of interrelatedness between port and city. The 2020 massive explosion of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the Port of Beirut, for example, killed more than two hundred people, injured several thousands and caused large-scale urban destruction. It has reminded the general public of the many dangers involved in port-city proximity (Hein 2020). It also shows the paradoxes inherent in port cities serving as much needed hubs for the exchange of goods and people and in port cities consistently ranking among the economically strongest cities (Fusco Girard 2013; Satterthwaite 2020). The tragedy begs the question of which safety challenges resulting from the close proximity of industrial ports to densely built urban areas are acceptable.

An important task involved in the rethinking of these issues is an analysis of relevant spaces, governance borders and cultures: there are no institutions or stakeholder platforms that meaningfully govern or mediate between competing interests across the sea-land continuum. Over the past half century, many ports have become disconnected from the needs of their urban and rural neighbors, hindering the port from providing value to people in both the city and the region. The co-habitation of the port and the city requires comprehensive planning of the interconnected multiple functions of port and city—including transportation—to ensure a sustainable, inclusive and socially just development.

UNESCO – the UN organization for education, research, and heritage – has historically emphasized the importance of education, communication and awareness in the changing of mindsets relevant to large global challenges. Their adage “Changing Minds not the Climate” is the latest example of this paradigm (UNESCO 2020). The short film The Magic of Port Cities aims to advance understanding of the long-term shared history of port cities and to facilitate discussion of port city culture and future developments. It is freely available online and can be used to educate port city professionals and a larger public. Viewers can become aware of the institutional changes that are needed and may be inspired to engage in collaboration and to take action towards building port city culture.

Figure. Collaboration among stakeholders and institutions on a regional scale can help design spaces and institutions for port city regions of the future

As part of the PortCityFutures research program, Carola Hein and Paolo De Martino have collaborated with Lot Bakker, Julia Zvobgo-Rozenboom and David Groeneveld on this project. The film has been supported by a NWO KIEM grant, the AIVP (Association International Ville Port), RETE, the Association of Port Cities, the Central Tyrhenian Port Authority and the Learning Center of Dunkirk). This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Paul van de Laar, Sabine Luning and Saskia Tideman.


Brenner, N. and C. Schmid, (2011). Planetary Urbanization. In M. Gandy (Ed.), Urban Constellations. Berlin: Jovis.

Couling, N. "The Role of Ocean Space in Contemporary Urbanization." École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 2015.

Couling, N. and C. Hein (2020), The Urbanization of the Sea, nai010/BK Books.

Girard, L. F. (2013). Toward a smart sustainable development of port cities/areas: the role of the historic urban landscape approach. Sustainability, 5, 4329-4348.

Hein, C. and P. van de Laar, "The Separation of Ports from Cities: The Case of Rotterdam," in European Port Cities in Transition., ed. Angela Carpenter and Rodrigo Lorenzo (Springer, 2020).

Sattertwaithe, D. (2020) "The Global Geography of World Cities."  https://www.iied.org/global-geography-world-cities.

UNESCO. (2020). Changing Minds not the climate: The role of education, https://en.unesco.org/system/files/private_documents/2571_18_e_depliant_cop24_cce_web.pdf