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Waterfronts Revisited: European ports in a historic and global perspective

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Waterfronts Revisited: European ports in a historic and global perspective. Edited by Heleni Porfyriou and Marichela Sepe, Routledge, 2017, 266 pages, hardback and paperback.


Waterfronts Revisited traces the historical evolution of port cities from pre-industrial times, when their harbours were integral components of city formation and development; through the expansionist industrial period, coinciding with functional and social stratification between the harbour and disparate quarters of the city without compromising the socio-economic cohesion and inter-dependence of the whole; to the post-industrial era, the disaggregation of the traditional transportation and mercantile port functions and the decline of historic docklands.

Through 16 chapters, offering a global spread of thematic and place-specific case studies, the contributors identify imbalances and evoke commonalities across the varied transformational models that have impacted on port city waterfronts since the 1960s. Characterising historic port cities as both maritime gateways and international showcases, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, and focal points for the exchange of goods and ideas, Waterfronts Revisited seeks to evoke historical continuity, including the manifold ways in which culture is harnessed as both a product and a production to frame marketing strategies and consumer experiences.

In the chapter subtitled ‘Models and emulators’, Stephen V Ward (professor of planning history at Oxford Brookes University) instances Baltimore, Maryland, as the first international model for the post-industrial waterfront: creating a critical mass of complementary leisure and service-related attractions for visitors and investors, and capturing the imagination of civic leaders, planners, developers and architects worldwide.

Although Ward identifies initial divergences, characterising Baltimore as the pioneering model for ‘fun city’ and London’s Docklands for ‘financial yuppie city’, his analysis of the global flows of investment, knowledge and expertise that have converged on port cities over recent decades concludes that the redevelopment of harbour waterfronts has resulted in rather similar environments. In their introduction the editors identify this as a product of the growing level of parallel competition between cities, and the increased demands of the tourist industry allied to market-driven developments.

Branding opportunities for port city regeneration across Europe, within the broad compass of the ‘culture-led service sector’, have coincided with multiple associative marketing opportunities: Unesco world heritage (Liverpool, 2004); European Capital of Culture (Marseille, 2013); and festivals and commemorative events (Genova, 1992: the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas). Such brandings have frequently accumulated over time (Genova and Liverpool); and ‘anchors’ in the form of flagship projects by star architects have conferred new waterfront identities on cities (including Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 1997).

Picking up on Ward’s conclusion, the editors acknowledge that the broad coincidence of outcomes is generally alien to local economies, cultural needs and historic conditions of individual cities. This is often exacerbated by the phenomenon of cruise ships, the subject of the book’s final chapter, by Carola Hein and Felicitas Hillman. The editors proffer that ‘to support local identities and enhance distinctiveness, the emphasis must be placed on art and culture’, and proceed to acknowledge that ‘problems often arise due to difficulties with involving local communities’.

Waterfronts Revisited falls within the Routledge series Research in Planning and Urban Design; its authors, predominantly from academia, fulfil this remit exceptionally well. Authors admit that models for the reinvention of waterfronts, often earmarked as discrete development zones and treated in planning policy terms as spaces apart, detach them from the wider socio-economic contexts of their cities, affirming (as the editorial puts it) a distinction ‘which had never previously existed’ – notwithstanding the necessarily secure physical separation of enclosing walls that characterised the harbour waterfronts of port cities such as Liverpool. At the same time, the several chapters omit to question the normative definitions of ‘art and culture’ that fuel the ‘difficulties with involving local communities’.

Vilma Hastaoglou-Martinidis opens her chapter on Eastern Mediterranean cities with the observation that ‘the sites of historic harbours are outstanding landscapes of architectural and technical culture that embody tangible memories of exchange and entrepreneurship, trade and labour’. For European Capital of Culture 2011, the Finnish port city of Turku (not mentioned in this book) adopted an inclusive and inventive approach to ‘culture’, including the ‘culture of work’: building on the city’s centuries-long tradition of shipbuilding, harnessing the public realm to present this, and prioritising continuity in the local community.

As John Pendlebury (professor of urban conservation, Newcastle University) points out in his chapter devoted to Liverpool, a residual ‘industrial aesthetic’ of railings, bridges and cranes is no substitute for socio-economic continuity. Pendlebury’s chapter additionally endeavours to interpret the Unesco historic urban landscape approach in the context of ongoing controversies focused on the major, partly high-rise, Liverpool Waters development project.

The editors’ emphasis on art and culture merits broader elaboration than the planning and urban design remit for Waterfronts Revisited permits: to position inclusive definitions at the forefront of integrative heritage-led urban regeneration, thereby supporting city-wide socio-economic cohesion and continuity of identity beyond the confines of physically demarcated heritage areas.


This article originally appeared as ‘Cohesion and continuity’ in IHBC's Context 160 (Page 49), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in July 2019. It was written by Dennis Rodwell, architect-planner, consultant in cultural heritage and sustainable urban development.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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