Global and Local Change on the Port-City Waterfront [*]

By Hoyle, Brian | The Geographical Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Global and Local Change on the Port-City Waterfront [*]

Hoyle, Brian, The Geographical Review

ABSTRACT. Successful waterfront redevelopment requires an understanding of global processes and an appreciation of the distinctiveness of port-city locations. Waterfront revitalization occurs at the problematic and controversial interface between port function and the broader urban environment. It reflects varied forces and trends, involves community attitudes and environmental sensitivities, and influences transport evolution and urban change. The revitalization phenomenon is examined using community attitudes in Canada and urban regeneration in East Africa to illustrate retrospective and prospective dimensions. Keywords: Canada, cities, communities, diaspora, East Africa, ports, revitalization, waterfronts.

Inner cities, now routinely the focus of induced change and practical research, are unceasing as a source of controversy. The embodiment of a complex mix of urban processes and maritime technology, port cities actually constitute a special subspecies of inner cities. In so high visibility an area as a port, waterfront revitalization is of ready interest and concern to authorities, to communities, and to developers. Fundamental to any geographical perspective on port redevelopment are the notions of scale-from local to global-and, in its broadest sense, great concern for the environment. But waterfront revitalization, as a phenomenon and as a subject of study, is also set within other dimensions, perspectives, and literatures, most prominently those of urban politics.

In this essay I examine aspects of waterfront revitalization as a particular concern of the last forty years. I comment on methods brought to bear in analyzing the waterfront, including recent studies of a political character that speak to community attitudes and involvement. If the so-called global phenomenon of port restructuring is highly variable culturally and spatially, it has been primarily a practice of advanced countries. But with the millennial turn, the phenomenon is taking root, too, in developing countries.

More attention is directed here toward commercial port cities than to their naval counterparts, recognizing that waterfront revitalization in naval ports involves economic restructuring, sociopolitical reorientation, and the reuse of highly specialized facilities made redundant in the last decades by far-reaching changes in national and international defense strategies. The naval-port reformation has been addressed elsewhere (Pinder and Smith 1999).


Europeans generally see the original rationale that underpins waterfront redevelopment as something essentially maritime in character. The motivation stems, they understand, from a post-1960s global transformation of maritime technology and transport, one requiring ever larger ships and ever more extensive land and water areas to assume and discharge the port function. Through this estrangement, threatening divorce, ships and cities have grown dissociated, semidetatched, and they have lost a once-relished intimacy. The port function is forced to migrate some distance toward deeper water and more expansive land sites. North Americans, by contrast, are inclined to see the redevelopment of a waterfront as part of the process of urban renewal. Many of their waterfront settlements introduce redevelopment in a context that has little or nothing to do with port activity.

For ports on rivers and estuaries, the advance of maritime technology has usually meant downstream migration, as is commonly the case in northwestern Europe, and for many ports this is the acceleration of an existing pattern, not an innovation. At Rotterdam, the post--World War II downstream development of Europoort and subsequent coastal-zone reclamation provide a classic illustration of this principle, significantly tempered by community attitudes toward port industrial expansion (Pinder 1981). In urban terms the result of downstream movement in search of more extensive land and water sites can be a vacuum, an abandoned doorstep, a problematic planning zone often in or very close to the historic traditional heart of a port city, and a zone of pronounced dereliction and decay where once all had been bustle and interchange and activity. …

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