11 September, 2013

Contemporary (port-) regions: no endings, no beginnings?

Maritime industries in general and port cities in particular are increasingly becoming subjects of sustainability discourses. Port authorities are preparing strategies, reviews, and reports on sustainable development. ‘The port of Antwerp aims to position itself as a leader in sustainability in the Hamburg-Le Havre range’ (Port of Antwerp et al. 2010, p. 9). There is also an increasing interest among city officials of host cities on finding ways to maintain the economic benefits of resident ports while at the same time protecting sensitive marine or fluvial environments and reducing toxic emissions in proximate urban areas. Such questions were the reasoning behind the “Port-Cities Programme” launched by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), running from 2010 to 2013. The OECD currently has 34 member countries – mostly from the industrial world – and is devoted to promoting economic growth and well-being through intergovernmental collaboration. With a certain emphasis placed on competitiveness, the Port-Cities Programme aimed at exploring and comparing urban and port development affairs in 10 major port cities around the world. Among the case-study cities were Amsterdam and Rotterdam (NL), Hamburg (DE), Helsinki (FI), the Seine-Axis between Le Havre and Paris, or Marseille (F), and Mersin (TUR).

The findings, now compiled into a synthesis report and throughout a variety of urban and topical case studies, are available on the above OECD’s programme website. Selected results were also presented earlier this week (9 September 2013) at a conference in Rotterdam, where they could be jointly discussed and commented on by port representatives, policy-makers, and urban planners (both academics and practitioners). As I had contributed to the Hamburg case study at an earlier stage of the programme, I was curious to learn how the overall results were perceived by port people and policy makers.

The conference took place on Koop van Zuid, one of the 1990s flagship urban waterfront development projects in Europe. The picture shows the rather recent Erasmusbridge crossing the river Meuse (M. Hesse, 9 Sep 2013)

Why post this here?
The study of ports is plainly distinct from SUSTAIN_GOV’s research agenda that targets governance processes in small-scale city regions of land-locked countries (such as Glattal in Switzerland or Luxembourg City; see Carr/Hesse 2013). However, the debates that evolved from the conference papers and panel discussions revealed some stunning insights into contemporary approaches to spatial planning and governance – particularly in regards to conceptions of space and territory that were brought to the fore, indirectly, if not also explicitly. The conceptions mirror the contested and thus contradictory nature of today’s maritime businesses, where local actors are competing on a wide globalized playing field, and concomitantly, they are based on a sort of essentialist understanding of space and region as fixed, bounded, and with clear endings and beginnings.

In this context, a really inspiring controversy – rarely happening at major events where public officials, corporate CEOs and policy celebrities meet – sparked from one important finding of the report. The study revealed that, on average, circa 90% of the benefits generated by major seaports are spread across a much broader territory, whereas the negative impacts tend to be concentrated within the port cities themselves. (Details can be found on pages 7 and 29ff. of the above synthesis report; the set of references consulted is rather large). This effect, or ‘mismatch’ as it is named in the OECD report, is on the one hand due to the increasing degree of interconnectedness of the various segments of global value-chains, compared to the localized or spatially clustered type of value-creation. The late-modern economic world is both local and global, is increasingly part of broader trade systems and networks, and even though it seems far from being placeless, there are systemic difficulties for local actors to adapt to global imperatives (such as hosting ever bigger ships, providing assets and infrastructure etc.). It thus seems increasingly problematic to assign value creation to single places, in order to generate certain local benefits from this global activity.

On the other hand, there are indeed negative impacts emerging from certain nodal points (such as airports, seaports), once they are economically successful. These impacts are unavoidably associated with the concentration of passengers, goods, and economic activities at particular locales. Sea ports do represent a prototypical case here: Recent strategies in the competition among major mainports were primarily focusing on maximizing throughput (i.e. of containers) and thus generated profit simply by attracting an ever growing demand for cargo handling into their port. Such strategies, however, may only materialize at a certain cost. The consequences include environmental problems (most notably air pollution emerging from cargo and cruise ships’ emissions), noise emissions, land take, traffic jams, and the degradation of sensitive harbor areas, all of which emerge locally and also along major transport corridors.

Given the systemic contradiction between local and global dynamics and determinants, some representatives of port authorities and port regions at the Rotterdam conference were obviously not very pleased about the mismatch thesis. They suggested that – at least in their particular case – a much higher share of a port’s output would remain in the host city (without presenting evidence). They argued that their port provided significant economic benefits (e.g. tax revenues, jobs, and multiplier effects), and that these were much higher in their case than was presented in the OECD report. A second position further argued that it wouldn’t make a difference where a certain benefit emerges, as long as such a benefit emerges at all.

From an academic point of view, this is quite an exciting discourse (to me, at least) because it confronts different conceptual readings of territory and spatial governance. For policy-makers, however, it offers some irritations, and this discontent is central if one considers that political, fiscal, and administrative responsibilities are still organized alongside the boundaries of demarcated spatial units. In the case of port cities, political-administrative units represent the city as such, and not the surrounding region or other areas along the chain where related added value is being created (cf. the issue of port regionalization). This is a dilemma of increasing importance and urgency for local authorities and policies, as the spaces of value creation have only broadened, and the power of big players such as shipping lines or terminal operators over local port policies out has only grown.

One could argue, as new regionalists tend to do, that this is just a case of the city-region – a wider orbit where economic activities take place and thus related earnings have to be, first, generated and, second, distributed. But this is the point: many juridical systems do not allow this or do not provide the sharing mechanisms for getting into such practice. Local policy officials have to justify their decisions (e.g. on costly port expansion, environmentally sensitive river dredging, or public-private engagement in infrastructure provision) against their local councils – regardless how much of that is funded by state or supra-national bodies. Responsibilities are still assigned to local bodies, and devolution has recently brought a certain sense of subsidiarity into these systems, thus shifting power and resources in many cases from state to regional or local levels.

Two lessons arise from these debates and observations: The tensions between global flows and local places need a careful discussion (and analysis!) of the benefits and burdens that arise from related activities. First, neither is a mainport still a machine that automatically generates an overall benefit for its host city, thus justifying any expense for ensuring further growth of the system to be covered locally, nor can this problem be easily solved at the regional level, where clear political responsibility is still lacking in the large majority of cases. There is, however, good reason to collaborate: For instance by port-city twinning or by practicing regionalism. The more maritime activities and port functions tend to move outward, the higher will be the need for port city and region to collaborate. This also means that mainport and core city authorities might remain primus inter pares in this complex interplay, yet should no longer treat its neighbours as being subordinate. Second, as a more general conclusion, contemporary power asymmetries or anomalies will increasingly have to be taken into account while studying urban and regional development. This requires, in rather generic terms, a proper recognition of the multi-layer, multi-scalar, and multi-level nature of the problem that is at stake here; and the same applies, of course, to the related nature of governance, as a coordinating mechanism that needs to overcome horizontal boundaries and various vertical levels of political decision-making.

This is where the  SUSTAIN_GOV research agenda comes in. Once studying spatial development and governance in Glattal and Luxembourg, the underlying concept of governance has to be sensitive against the complex setting in which these processes take place, and it must take care of the various benefits and burden that have arisen as a result of, or were associated with, the recent growth trajectory. City-regional developments tend to create highly dynamic, complex and interrelated systems, leading to a high degree of segmentation and fragmentation of live-worlds and socio-economic spaces; consequently, this applies to politics and planning as well (Cox 2010). As long as there are no adequate institutional bodies at the regional level established for taking care of this, however, state and municipalities, cantons and other stakeholders and also the interested public have to be included in complex constellations of communication and collaborative, negotiation and decision-making. Even though there is a large body of work from political science, geography or economics that can be consulted in such regards, there is no recipe available how to solve related conflicts. But they are actually existing, no doubt about it.

Further readings:
There is a lot of literature available on ports, particularly on port, urban and regional governance, the question of port-centric versus regionalized logistics, and how strong the binding ties between port and city still have to be considered in times of globalization. Below are a few sources listed. For maritime-urban affairs, the OECD Programme’s website is certainly highly recommended.

Cox, K. 2010. The Problem of Metropolitan Governance and the Politics of Scale. Regional Studies 44(2), 215-222
Hall, P. V., Hesse, M. (eds.) 2012. Cities, Regions and Flows. Oxford: Routledge
Hall, P. V., Jacobs, W. 2012. Why are maritime ports (still) urban, and why should policy-makers care? Maritime Policy and Management 39(2), 189-206
Hesse, M. (2013): Cities and flows: re-asserting a relationship as fundamental as it is delicate. Journal of Transport Geography 29, 33-42
Journal of Transport Geography 27 (2013): Special issue on ‘Institutions and the transformation of transport nodes’
Port of Antwerp, Maatschappij Linkerscheldeoever, Alfaport Antwerpen. 2010. Sustainability report – Duurzaamheitsverslag Haven Antwerpen. Antwerp

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