Understanding how words matter for port heritage: towards a network perspective

Tianchen Dai, Carola Hein, Dan Baciu

“Port heritage” is a term that emerged in the English-language literature in the 1960s. According to the Google Book NGram Viewer, its use peaked around 2010. At that time, the global popularity of waterfront renewal projects was shining a light on historic port structures—cranes, warehouses, and other industrial buildings—often as part of cultural tourism (Grindlay, Bestue-Cardiel, Rodriguez-Rojas, & Molero-Melgarejo, 2018; Pagés Sánchez & Daamen, 2020)  Modern ports were reluctant to maintain these historic structures, but waterfront renewal projects and the growth of the cruise industry made this port heritage especially attractive and worth retaining for some stakeholders. Rather than a burden, port heritage became an opportunity for port development. Port city associations, such as the Worldwide Network of Port Cities (AIVP) now emphasize the role of port heritage in (re-)connecting citizens to the port.

Yet, the question arises: how does the relevant literature conceptualize “port heritage”? And how does this conceptualization link to the networked character of maritime structures? In line with the concept of the port cityscape (Hein, 2019) as a network of port-related buildings and practices, we have started to explore the meaning of words related to maritime practices and describing historic port structures. Following the previous discussion on port city terms, this blog provides some initial thoughts and raises some questions about the presentation and narration of port heritage. It explores which port heritage structures are protected by UNESCO and offers some ideas about the impact of this selection.

Reflecting on and analysing port heritage terms can help establish a shared terminology and a shared understanding of the concept of port city heritage. This work may also help develop new preservation approaches, revealing current preferences or identifying missing elements. For instance, the Historic City of Dublin, on the World Heritage tentative list, was nominated for its Georgian urban fabric, the establishment of Wide Streets Commissioners, and the city’s contribution to world literature. The cultural significance of its port, however, which is a major driver of the city’s development, is not mentioned in the nomination (Permanent Delegation of Portugal, 2017). Elements such as the Seafarers’ Centre and the Victorian-era diving bell are missing and should be considered when assessing the importance of Dublin history.

To learn more about the role words play in port heritage conceptualization, we analysed the abstracts of all objects of “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV) posted on the UNESCO World Heritage Center website (World Heritage Centre). Specifically, we established a list of building types and structures that are usually associated with port functions and activities, such as warehouses, wharfs, and shipyards. We then used the list to manually check 1121 abstracts of world heritage sites published on the UNESCO website. After a preliminary check, we found that 107 world heritage sites (out of 1121) are related to port cities. This analysis led to three major findings:

First, the analysis of port city words demonstrates the importance of narratives in the construction of port and port city heritage and provides a model for other similarly associated heritage structures. Exploring heritage sites as part of a larger story can help us overcome the fragmentation related to the use of single words and to contextualize words in different languages, cultural contexts, and disciplines. Such an approach is in line with the port cityscape concept as an amalgam of tangible structures and intangible phenomena and activities. Subsequently, narratives and descriptions can facilitate deeper understanding. As Tuan (1991) argued, “places are made by means of place-names, informal conversation and written texts.” The action of naming makes a place familiar to us, and storytelling converts objects “out there” into real presences. In modern societies, written text has often substituted for oral storytelling. These narratives can help us grasp the complexity and interconnectedness of port heritage.  

Second, the study of the abstracts from the UNESCO World Heritage Center also showed the need for careful understanding of the uses and interpretations of relevant terms in different languages to achieve a network understanding. Languages are not neutral in relation to the information they carry. They are connected to different cultures, views, and standpoints. The OUV abstracts include diverse terms that effectively mean the same thing, but that are not marked as such. Storage facilities at ports can be called “warehouses” in English, “magazijnen” in Dutch, “Speicher” in German, “entrepôts” in French, and “godowns” in South and East Asian contexts, but only a multi-lingual person will realize that these diverse terms refer to the same building type. A port city glossary is needed to meaningfully connect these terms and make them findable and traceable in the literature.

Third, our analysis shows that UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are related to port activities emphasize two port city functions: maritime trade and defence. This prioritization may not be surprising given the role of port cities as hubs for the exchange of goods and the need to protect goods, access to food and other supplies, and the connection to transportation routes. However, the absence of other spatial elements that are part of the port cityscape, such as leisure districts, spaces of migration, and religion is surprising. Either these spaces have not been recognized as relevant enough for the UNESCO World Heritage list, or their contribution to port city functions has not been recognized. The reason may lie in the lack of official narratives on port city networks, their global links and local imprint, as part of UNESCO criteria for heritage conservation.

The prominence of trading and defence among the World Heritage Sites also raises questions about the role of colonialism in the selection process and the need for careful framing of these structures in the context of local port practices, such as fishing. Terms such as “overseas trade” or “international trade”, included in the World Heritage Center abstracts, suggest these buildings are associated with “mercantilism” and “colonial economics”. These heritage structures are often the result of colonial exploitation and their preservation and elevated status merits scrutiny in terms of their universality and legitimacy in a decolonizing context. The same term can lead to criticism of “labor exploitation” or praise of “economic growth”, depending on context and standpoint. Studying port heritage as a port cityscape, and thus from a networked perspective, may inspire a rethinking of World Heritage sites.  

Speaking of narratives and descriptions, a diverse selection of narratives is also crucial to counteract bias and to support less represented voices. On the one hand, the narrator's subjectivity, biases, and beliefs can influence what the narrator remembers or chooses to remember. On the other hand, the right to speak and to be heard, and the right to name, can be empowering. Given the subjectivity influenced by one’s culture, knowledge, and interest, as well as the existing unequal power relations (Harris, 2015) in regard to building shared definitions of the port city and port heritage, we should select narratives more inclusively.

By examining select “port heritage” words, we have realized the challenges of language and cultural barriers, the lack of a networked approach, and the separation between a global perspective and local perception. By connecting port heritage through narratives, we can provide researchers with a means to develop a common ground for collaboration between port, city, and regional actors in developing shared values and interests. 

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Vincent Baptist and Hilde Sennema.

Grindlay, A. L., Bestue-Cardiel, I., Rodriguez-Rojas, M. I., & Molero-Melgarejo, E. (2018). Port heritage in city-port transformations: opportunities or constraints? Paper presented at the Conference paper:.

Harris, T. M. (2015). Deep Geography—Deep Mapping:Spatial Storytelling and a Sense of Place. In D. J. Bodenhamer, J. Corrigan, & T. M. Harris (Eds.), Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives. Indiana, US: Indiana University Press.

Hein, C. (2019). The Port Cityscape: Spatial and institutional approaches to port city relationships. PortusPlus, 8.

Pagés Sánchez, J. M., & Daamen, T. A. (2020). Using Heritage to Develop Sustainable Port–City Relationships: Lisbon’s Shift from Object-Based to Landscape Approaches. In C. Hein (Ed.), Adaptive Strategies for Water Heritage: Past, Present and Future (pp. 382-399). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Tuan, Y.-F. (1991). Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 81(4), 684-696.

UNESCO. (2017). Historical Lisbon, Global City.  https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6208/

World Heritage Center. Interactive Map. https://whc.unesco.org/en/interactive-map/