Martin Aarts is senior advisor on urban development issues for the City of Rotterdam.
Since 1984 Martin played an important role in transforming Rotterdam’s inner city. The last 10 years he was chief of Urban Planning and therefore responsible for the urban planning agenda and ensuring much of its implementation.
Recently he initiated research to underline the importance of an attractive city in relation with the port. That’s why Martin is currently engaged in exploring ‘how to stimulate unprecedented port-city synergy ?’ with the aim to encourage future economy.
Martin Aarts is lecturer at the Academy of Architecture in Rotterdam. He initiated, edited and contributed as a co-author to the following publications : Rotterdam-people make inner city (2012) ; Rotterdam High-Rise City (2001) ; Accelerating Rotterdam, Stad in Versnelling (2000) ; 50 Years of Reconstruction (1995) ; Living in the City (1987).
Like most big cities in the Netherlands, Rotterdam has a long tradition of planning. But the planning paradigm that predicts the future, so-called ‘blueprint planning’, is now long gone. In the Rotterdam tradition, future plans were increasingly interpreted in a flexible manner. The downside of this relaxed attitude, however, is that we thought that the predictive quality of our plans was fine. Therefore the necessity to question the efficiency of this practice simply didn’t arise.
However the crisis of 2008, and the fact that it lasted so long, proved a real game changer. Only then did we realize that planning had never taken the economic dynamism of the port region seriously. The notion that an attractive city with a large port could be considered entirely independently of this latter activity shows that port city planning in Rotterdam, and in other port cities as well, has to rediscover itself.
First the port, then the city
For reliable future, we have to rethink the past. Historically, port and city had strong symbiotic relationships. These began to erode from the second half of the 19th century on (Bird, 1963). This development was particularly prevalent in Rotterdam. The construction of a major transit port made it possible for Rotterdam to transform from a merchant city into a transit city after 1850 (Van de Laar, 2000). During the planning stage of a railway link from Amsterdam to Paris, the discussion focused solely on the position of the railway bridge. The result was a railway viaduct right through the heart of the city, with disastrous consequences. It resulted in the loss of the most representative public spaces and changed what was perceived as a ‘delightful’ city into an ‘ugly’ city (Aarts, Maandag, 2000). When Rotterdam finally became the largest port in Europe around the year 1900, a new representative centre was planned in the periphery of the historical city (Aarts, Maandag, 2000). The attempt to complete this new centre was crushed when World War II broke out and the historical city centre was wiped out during the bombing in May 1940. It was still regarded as logical that the reconstruction of the port took priority over the rebuilding of the city. The consequence was that the port became the biggest in the world in 1962 on the one hand and, on the other, that the inner city still was neglected.
It is only over the past 25 years that serious investments have been made in the inner city once more, and this has only recently lead to widespread recognition. This is of great significance for Rotterdam because the way people perceive the city centre affects the way people perceive the entire city and region (Marlet, 2009).
Due to its history, Rotterdam continues to be known as “the big port with the small city” to this very day (Daamen, 2015). This lock-in relationship may become detrimental for the future of this great port, since nowadays cooperation between port and city region is a prerequisite for economic growth (OECD, 2013).
However, to counter the advance of the large transit port independently from the ‘small’ city, it is essential to demonstrate the economic potential of the synergy of the port with the ‘large’ urban region. This is an agglomeration of about three-and-a-half million inhabitants and more than ten thousand companies, such as the maritime and food cluster.
Reinventing Port City interfaces
To accept this challenging advice, the question must be answered : How can successful ports help to boost the urban economy (Hein, 2011) ? At first, Waterfronts seemed to be the perfect interface to transform former dock areas into urban centre. In many cases, it was about killing two birds with one stone. Rotterdam, like other cities, could clear away their ugly industrial areas and seized the opportunity to put the city centre back on the map as an attractive place of business (Aarts, Huijs, de Vries, 2015)
However, in 2008 came the crisis. Housing schemes could no longer be funded and people realized that buying out companies was rather unrealistic. For most local authorities, gradually the realization emerged that the companies based there generated employment and could play a role in the future of such areas. The notion of the port as a driving force for jobs was once more recognized. The port and maritime cluster were still amongst the most important economic motors of the region.
From that moment on the potential of existing port-related business became a subject of study. With that, developing a sound understanding of how the port economy works became a core concern for the port city planner. Here it becomes clear that hosting innovation hubs as an interface between port and city can be successful.
One example is the development of the RDM Campus (a former shipyard) with training institutes and many knowledge partners and businesses. Another example of an innovation hub is city port M4H, were a number of interesting start ups and grown ups are successful in transforming traditional industries into the next economy using 3D printing and bio based raw materials as there tools. Moreover, relations with the knowledge sector are of great importance. In Rotterdam we work with communities of practice where researchers, policy-makers and market parties meet one another and share expertise about the latest developments.
With these new Rotterdam planning practices, we think that we can take more advantage of what will certainly be an uncertain future in port-city developments. Based on this changing understanding of the port-city interface in Rotterdam, we are exploring new ways of port-city planning. Via this contribution I want to share the pros and cons of these new practices based upon my experiences as a professional planner.