Today, historiographies seem to have moved away from traditional political and diplomatic histories describing cities towards social and cultural approaches. In general, this current shift of interest follows a Late-Modern turn toward the marginalized and marginalizing evidence, and thus explicit hypotheses are tested, and, among others, unbiased data is collected by current biographers. Still, certain narratives stay manifest. Also in Rotterdam. Here, bifocal narratives on the world port and the cosmopolitan city, and the dichotomy among these territories, remain persistent in the most recent biographies. What is seen in everyday space does not match this ontology generally applied in Rotterdam. To greater extent, as such, the samples of the biographies of public spaces as places help to fulfill the most essential public function of researching and abiding justification, while reinvigorating the critical public present in spaces. By opening up to the multiplicity of narratives, the article ‘The Port-City Portrayed in its Public Spaces: Introducing Micro Biographies of Places’ is able to focus on descriptions of Rotterdam which fall outside the scope of the current conventional. Through the lens of ‘biographies of places’, this study particularly follows the so-called material turn, in difference to stories of lives or narratives on actor networks. Hence buildings and artifacts placed in context, are the principal unit of analysis, for a multidimensional interpretation of urban sites across regions and periods.
The approach is operationalized by linking the urban and architectural design of public space, with studies of urban history, literature, cartography, and other urban humanities. This integrated perspective on port-cities is put forward most recently in a wider variety of projects at the LDE Centre of PortCityFutures, which has been promoted and supported for the approach below.
The United Nations just launched the ‘UN-Habitat State of the World Cities Report 2020 on the Value of Sustainable Urbanization‘. “COVID-19 has transformed our urban world. However, it does not signify the end of cities. Urban areas hold the key to resilient, green recovery, and building back better!”, Victor Kisob, th assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN-Habitat states. The United Nations emphasises that we create “value through public space”. This includes interior public spaces, which were closed due to COVID19-induced lockdowns recently. In this case, “local governments must work to provide sanitation infrastructure in all public spaces in order to mitigate the health risk”. Yet, also, “when designed with climate adaptation, mitigation and resiliency, components of cities from buildings to public spaces can create communities that enhance environmental values”. They also enhance social and economic values. “Cities can unlock the intangible value of sustainable urbanization by creating public spaces and opportunities for democratic participation and social inclusion that allow the cultural fabric of urban life to flourish”. And, public space can offer a livelihood for people to be entrepreneurial and take part of labour work. Equality plays a huge role in sustainable urbanisation. “Diversity contributes to the social, economic and environmental value of urbanization through tolerance, integration, and coming together in public spaces.” This includes for instance the representation of the urban poor, migrants, and cultural minorities, hence this should lead to prioritising “their needs in any decision-making process, be it about the urban commons, atmospheric commons, public spaces or resource use”. And, “engage a wider audience – e.g. children and youth – in urban planning and design processes for safe, inclusive and accessible public space.” Everyone should “understand their rights to access public spaces and services”. I would like to add: Our challenge is to contribute to the design of public spaces for everyone.
Port cities are a particular type of territory and are often long-standing examples of resilience, bringing opportunities, wealth, and innovation to their nations and their citizens. They have developed at the crossroads of international trade and commerce and the intersection of sea and land. Flows of people through trade and migration have played a key role in their spatial, social and cultural development. Their strong local identities share legacies of diversity and cosmopolitanism, but also of colonialism and segregation. The Qingjing Mosque in Quanzhou, Fujian speaks of the exchange between Arabia and China along the maritime silk road. Hanseatic cities stand as an example of far-flung networks with districts for foreign traders—think of the German merchants who established Bryggen, the German dock, in Bergen, now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Port cities are places that accommodate change —and often thrive as a result. As logistical patterns, economic organization, spatial structures and technological devices have evolved, port cities have consistently provided spaces and institutions to host changing social, cultural and demographic needs and have built their local identities around them. Chinatowns, for example, are emblematic of many port cities worldwide. For many centuries, traders and merchants depended on the interaction between local traders and short- and long-term migrants of all classes. To maintain and facilitate shipping, trade or organizing defenses, traders, workers, and citizens have come together and developed long-term strategies and inclusive governance systems. Built around trade, these shared practices have not always benefitted everyone. Colonial port cities hosted the buying and selling of enslaved people as well as minerals, animals and opium. Many workers lived in squalid conditions in walking distance to the port. The degree of tolerance and inclusion depended on the extent of ethnic diversity overall, the degree of spatial and social segregation in the city, and the economic structure of the urban economy.
Waterfronts have been and in some (smaller) cities still are contact zones of people from diverse backgrounds: public spaces bring together dockworkers, displaced people, casual labourers, and trans-migrants waiting to board ships for overseas travel. However, waterfronts have been looked upon as places of otherness in need of social reform even at the turn of the twentieth century. Since the 1960s, container districts and offshore ports further increased the separation between ports and cities. Following containerization, waterfront regeneration has become a worldwide tool to overcome the range of social, cultural and public health issues associated with the nineteenth century waterfront. Urban renewal and gentrification have been central to many of these programs that took off beginning in the 1980s in most European port cities. Rebranding has been an essential part of bringing new capital and new people into neighbourhoods next to former dock areas, which normally would not have been of interest to private investors. In select cases—such as HafenCity Hamburg—planners and politicians have consciously opted for spatial and social inclusion.
Rotterdam as a port city reflects the long-term history of migration traditionally related to shipping and trade in all aspects, but since the 1970s the working port is no longer a decisive pull factor. Other international, national and local factors have changed the city’s population characteristics. The past decades have seen increasing diversity in ethnic groups and religions but also increased variation in socio-economic statuses among inhabitants with a migration background. Rotterdam hosts so many ‘minority’ migrants that it is now considered a superdiverse city where 52%, and in some districts, almost 70% of the population have a migrant background.
Rotterdam’s hyperdiversity—a term meant to acknowledge the multiple causes of diversity—has challenged existing local integration policies. The city government’s development strategy focusses on a balanced composition of the population and regeneration programs in combination with new residential, sustainable urban planning and branding strategies aim to assure integration. Like other cities with major waterfront revitalization activities, Rotterdam is witnessing a gap between cosmopolitan aspirations boosted by international capital and symbolic waterfront architecture and the existing reality of a hyperdiverse population inhabiting the urban fabric. Redevelopment projects of former waterfront port areas, such as Lloyd Quarter, RDM and M4H stand as examples. Yet, like other cities with major waterfront revitalization activities, the question arises: to what extent is Rotterdam widening the gap between diverse neighbourhoods and gentrified port-city redevelopment projects? There is a potential risk of economic segregation as authorities, educational and cultural institutions aspire to build the post-industrial economy on the port industrial foundations of the past, neglecting those areas where a linkage to the maritime mindset of Rotterdam as a port city is hardly felt let, alone visible.
Rotterdam needs to find ways to come to terms with political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of its port city. That is one of the major challenges for Rotterdam in becoming an inclusive city. What is needed to connect Rotterdam’s migration narrative (and that of other port cities) to further the inclusive city ambition, using its present hyperdiversity, and acknowledging the value of diversity for creativity, innovation and making the next port city? Exploring the key values of an inclusive post-industrial, hyperdiverse port city drives the research agenda of our multidisciplinary LDE PortCityFutures program.
The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus PortCityFutures program employs multi-disciplinary methods and longitudinal perspectives to understand and design political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of spatial use in port city regions. It explores how the flows of goods and people generated by port activities intersect with the dynamics of the natural environment, hydraulic engineering, spatial planning, urban design, architecture, and heritage. It examines the spatial impact of competing interests among port-related and urban spatial development needs and timelines. It explores creative solutions and design measures to problems and considers their implications for the future use of limited space that will allow port, city, and region to thrive.
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