SmartPort Community lunch meeting June 20, 2017 12.00-13.30

Location: T09-67
Time: T09-67, Mandeville building
Speaker: Karel van den Berghe, PhD researcher at Ghent University

The Relational Geometry of the Port-City Interface: Who or What makes port-cities and how is this done? (Case studies Ghent and Amsterdam)

The port-city interface concept is over three decades old and was introduced to understand and study the disconnection of the urban and maritime economy. As containerization and automation decreased demand for manual labour in cargo-handling and as port-industrial activities increasingly became incompatible with inner-city waterfront locations, a disruption was identified in a once symbiotic relationship which manifested itself in a specific area of conflict and change: the interface. Arguably starting at New York’s Battery Park and London’s Docklands, the interface became a ‘planners delight’ for urban renewal of decaying waterfronts across the globe.

However, more recently transport and economic geographers formulated a critique to this rather uni-directional development trajectory of port-cities. First, as warehouses and transhipment quays became obsolete in city cores, it not at all implied an end of distribution activity. Rather these functions moved to newly developed terminals downstream and to the suburbs into the hinterland, rescaling the port-city interface to the region. Secondly, while much of the policy discourse and academic study have focussed on only one element of the interface, namely the geographical area of transition between port land use and urban land use, it ignored to perceive the interface as an interactive economic system. Understood as such, the interface implies much more subtle notions of interactions between the city and the port and includes on the one hand appreciations on how urban economies both facilitate and innovate through cargo handling and merchant trading (e.g. finance, legal support, supply chain management) and on the other hand acknowledges on how many maritime industrial functions rely on urbanized-led innovations. Thirdly, a more fundamental and overall critique is that there is a lack of theoretical and empirical understanding on how economic actors possess agency capable of (re-)formulating policy agendas and implementations.

In this talk, we will discuss how a relational understanding towards the port-city interface can help us to overcome these problems. In the first part we will give a brief overview of the relational approach within (economic) geography. In the second part we will apply this approach to the port city. Here, we will develop the hypothesis that port and city are open (sub)systems which are coupled to each other through heterogeneous flows of actors, assets and structures: the interface. Subsequently, we will argue that through these heterogeneous flows, the port-city derives its meaning. Following latter, one can ask the question: Who or what constructs the meaning of the port city, how and for what purposes? Therefore, in the third part of this talk we will empirically examine the relational geometries of the port cities of Ghent, Belgium, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In particular, we will focus on the biobased sector. Our results will show how both public and private actors through coupling processes strategically relate in different ways, across different territorial scales, within different institutionalised structures and between different economic sectors. Fourth, in the discussion part we will analyse these relational geometries and we will see how the different dynamic actor-relational interplays hold different power and agency and how these are (re-)formulating policy agenda and implementations and eventually the meaning of the port-city. The talk will end with a reflection on the value of a relational approach to an understanding of the diversity of port-cities.

Short bio:

Karel Van den Berghe (1989) holds a BSc. Geography (2010), MSc. Geography (2012) and MSc. Spatial Planning and Urbanism (2013). During his master studies he gained experience as junior researcher (2012-2013: Urban Heat Island effect Ghent, in collaboration with VITO; 2013: World Business Counsel for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) 2.0, in collaboration with Oran Consulting). For his master thesis on urban heat islands, he was awarded with the VRP graduation price 2013. Since 2014, he works as PhD researcher at Ghent University (BOF-grant), focusing on regional economic networks in port-cities, case studies Ghent and Amsterdam. In 2014 and 2015, he was awarded with the annual Dutch/Flemish price for best young planner. For his PhD research, he was a visiting researcher at the Schools of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam (FWO travel grant). Karel is since 2015 elected as member of the Young Academics Coordination Team (YA CT), part of the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP). Since 2016 he is chairman of the YA CT and part of the Executive Committee of AESOP. In 2016 he became editorial member of the international peer-reviewed journal PlaNext.