The biggest port in Europe: Rotterdam

The biggest port in Europe: Rotterdam

The city

Rotterdam is the second city in the Netherlands and an important transport hub in the continent. It has a population of approximately 620 000 inhabitants with a high percentage of immigrants. In the city we can find several industries connected to the port that create jobs. In 2015 it was selected city of the year by the academy of urbanism.

In 1340 Rotterdam received municipal rights from Count Willem IV of Holland. Later on, in 1872 the Nieuwe Waterweg was opened allowing a better connection between the port and the North Sea. This new construction would be crucial for the future development of the port and the city. Short after, in 1877, the new railway line connecting Rotterdam with Paris was opened. This new infrastructure would also boost the urban development of the city and its international connections.

Rotterdam 1649 Source:
Map of Rotterdam 1649 by Joan Bleu Source:

At the beginning of the XXth century it was already one of the main European ports. The ever increasing harbor activities and an incipient industrial sector attracted many workers from the countryside. For this reason the city experienced a significant demographic growth during this time.

During the WWII Rotterdam suffered the strongest air attack from the German Luftwaffe in the Netherlands. In 1940, after five days of fight, the city and the country surrendered to the invaders. The destruction in Rotterdam downtown was considerable, 25000 houses were destroyed and 900 person killed, mainly civilians.

After the war the reconstruction process began inspired mainly by the American urban planning examples. The main goal was to recover the city center, from which almost no building was standing. One of the characteristic of the reconstruction scheme was the idea of leaving the downtown for services and almost no housing. Later on, during the 1980´s, the consequences of this path would be clear and the priority changed to bringing back the people to an empty downtown.

The development of the city continued linked to the port activities. In the 1990´s the port of Rotterdam was the most important in the world, before the Asian growth of the years after. In last decades we have seen several waterfront redevelopments, but mainly we could highlight two, the Kop van Zuid and the more recent one Stadhavens.

The port of Rotterdam

The impact the port has in the identity, the urban structure and the economy of the city is obvious. It is deeply connected with the history and will play a major role in the future development of the city, the region and the country. Along history the port went through continue expansion. From its original core near the city center evolved towards the sea.

Expansion of the Port of Rotterdam Source: OECD
Expansion of the Port of Rotterdam
Source: OECD

Nowadays the port of Rotterdam is the only European one that can compete with the Asian rivals. According to recent data is in the 8th or 11th position, pending the source, in the world rankings regarding tonnage. It had a total cargo throughput of 444,7 million metric tons. From this figure the main types of cargo are liquid bulk, including oil and its products, around 45%, container 30 %, and dry bulk approximately 20%.

In the harbor we can find several other activities, such as shipyards, companies in the maritime cluster with industries related with the port, and cruise ship. It is relevant to say that Rotterdam is mainly an industrial port, the passenger traffic is relatively reduced when compared with other cases, particularly with Mediterranean ports.

The port has a significant role in the city and regional economy. It generated in 2013 93 766 jobs directly related with the port, and had an added value of 12 506 million € according to the Port Authority of Rotterdam. The total port area, as explained in the same document, is 12 603 Ha (126 sq km). The figure is quite relevant when compared with the municipality which has slightly over 200 sq km.

In terms of organization the port is owned by the city (70%) and the country (30%), but functions as a semi-independent corporation. The land where operates is owned by the municipality leased with long term contracts. At the same time the port manages the area by leasing it to the different firms which develop its activities in the harbor. This means it is a landlord port, where the Port Authority is in charge of providing the basic infrastructure for the companies there placed.

One of the main advantages of the port of Rotterdam are the connections with the hinterland. It has several ways to distribute the cargo, including road, rail and canals networks.

Maasvlakte Autor: José M P Sánchez
Autor: José M P Sánchez

The ports faces many challenges in the future. Since the oil sector has a significant impact in its cargo throughput it must develop alternative strategies for the scenario in which this sector diminishes its activities. At the same time it has one major advantage when compared to other Europeans ports, like Hamburg, the expansion land. The port of Rotterdam does not faces the problem of finding land for its future needs, it is currently developing the expansion projects in the Maasvlakte 2. This new area placed in the mouth of the Maas river will increment significantly the available territory for logistic operations, mainly Container shipping.

Rotterdam Waterfront

During the last decades we have assisted to several waterfront regeneration projects in this city. From more central areas with a relation with the past to port brownfield that changed to urban use, like the Kop van Zuid. More recently we can identify a very ambitious operation that is very particular regarding the organization, the goals and the existing dialogue. This project is the Stadshaven. We will make a short comment from both and in the next post they will be analyzed into further detail.

Kop Van Zuid

This area placed near the city center on the south side of the river Maas used to be part of the port land. Until the WWII integrated several functions of the port, but during the reconstruction years, the decision was made to expand the port towards the west. The creation of the Europort with more efficient infrastructure led to the decay in the Kop van Zuid (head of the north in English). In the 1970´s and 1980´s the area was a mix of port brownfields and neighborhoods with several social problems and high unemployment rates.

In the end of the decade the plan started to be prepared with two main goals, the integration of the river Maas in the city structure and to finish the perception of the river as barrier between the two sides. Besides there were other secondary goals like providing the city with more housing alternatives, mainly high class and single family dwellings. The plan was developed by Prof. Riek Bakker and Teun Koolhaas. The new development land was organized in 6 different areas: Entrepot, Wilhelmina Pier, Landtong, Zuidkade, Stadstuinen and Parkstad.

Kop van Zuid plan Source:
Kop van Zuid plan

The plan granted official approval in 1994 promising the creation of 5300 new housing units and 400 000 sqm of office space, besides new connections with the north and cultural venues. The construction began with the transportation infrastructure and in 1996 the Erasmus bridge was opened.

In the project the preservation of several heritage elements was contemplated, as old cranes, bridges or warehouses. Also the old offices of the Holland-American line, now converted into a Hotel.

High-rise in the Kop van Zuid Author: José M P Sánchez
High-rise in the Kop van Zuid
Author: José M P Sánchez

The new district became a new high-rise area for the city, particularly the Wilhelmina Pier. In this land several star-architects have left their mark. Sir Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Alvaro Siza and more recently Rem Koolhaas have all designed a building in the pier.

Nowadays the project is heading towards the final stage. There are several active construction sites for new apartment and office buildings. This was a complex and ambitious project that suffered with the economic crisis from 2008. Therefore we observe delays in the expected conclusion dates.


The plan for Stadhavens  is one of the most innovative ones in Europe regarding waterfront regeneration. This project could be assumed as new model for this sort of projects, more efficient and adapted to the pos-crisis scenario we currently are.

Stadshavens Rotterdam
Stadshavens Rotterdam

In 2004 an agreement was reached between the city and the port for the redevelopment of the port areas that were still placed inside the city´s highway ring. The area considered is relatively large, 1600 Ha. To put it in perspective the Hafencity project in Hamburg has 165 Ha.

The project started with some ambitions to “urbanize” the areas, but short after was seen that this model was not appropriate for the size and location of the intervention. The platform remained as a structure for the dialogue, negotiation and coordination of the several projects.

One of the most remarkable features of this plan is the fact that the main goal now is the transition from port area to port cluster and in a later phase to possible urban programs compatible with the existing industries.


For Rotterdam we will follow the same methodology applied in the other cases. Therefore we will visit the relevant institutions and have interviews with representatives from the port and city authorities. However there is an exception regarding this case-study, the available time. During the first week spent in the city we participated in the ISOCARP congress. In this event we did a presentation named: “Port-City relation: integration – conflict – coexistence Analysis of good practices. Hamburg and Genoa.” In the workshop: “How to develop unprecedented port-city synergies?”.

You can see the presentation here:


The Helsinki Experience

The Helsinki Experience

For the last couple of weeks we stayed in the Finnish capital. This city, as we mentioned in the last post, is undergoing great transformation. In the year 2008 the industrial port left the city center to move to the new Vuosaari Harbour. Since then several important waterfront developments have being taking place and the city skyline will change considerably over the next decades. The experience in Helsinki allowed us to know better the transformation process, the relation between the city and the port and the concerns for the future.

Bird's eye view Source: Helsinki ESPO award application
Bird’s eye view
Source: Helsinki ESPO award application

The work process followed was similar to the other cases analyzed so far. On the first place we made an intensive visit to the city and the affected areas, including the new port. During this time a photographic survey was carried out. The result can be seen in this gallery. At the same time we visited the relevant urban information institutions that could give us significant information regarding the urban evolution and the port-city relation. For this reason we visited the city museum, the urban development information center Laituri and another info-center focused in the Jätkäsaari area. Unlike other cases we did not visited the maritime museum since it is placed in another city, Kotka, and it is more focused in the maritime history than in the port.

In order to get the necessary impartial vision of this case we met with representatives from the port and the city. In this occasion we were able to interview Ms. Satu Aatra (SA), Planning Manager in the Port of Helsinki, and with Mr. Rikhard Manninen (RM), head of the Strategic Planning Division at the City Planning department of Helsinki and responsible for the team developing the new Masterplan.

The relation between the port and the city

Institutional level

During the research we came to know that the Port of Helsinki has changed it status very recently. This institution was until the end of last year a department of the municipality, as an independent entity but under the city hall management. In the beginning of this year, as told by SA, the port changed to be a limited company, however still under the “umbrella” of the municipality. This transformation gave them more independence and a stronger position when defending the port interests. Besides the direct and indirect economic impact and jobs generated by the port another argument for its presence in the city is its economic independence, the port is self-sustainable. It is an economic asset that does not cost money to the city in terms of investment or maintenance.

Another important aspect in the case of Helsinki is the ownership of the land. In many other port-cities one of the main challenges is the fact that the port is an important owner of valuable land. For this reason it has a certain power over what happens in its territories and what would happen in case they released it for urban uses. This situation very often leads to intense negotiation regarding the price of the land and the economical compensations. In some cases this issue might be the solution for financing the new port infrastructure, as we saw in Oslo. In Helsinki the situation is rather exceptional since the municipality is one of the main landowner in the city. Even the land the port uses for its activities is owned by municipality. In this case it works with long terms concessions allowing the port to build the necessary equipment or terminals remain as their property. Given the situation is clear that the city has a very powerful position and the port is in a weaker position when compared with other cases.

When we spoke with the planning professional they both explained that the relation between both institutions is complex and regarding some subjects rather tense. The most controversial issues affecting the relation are mainly the ferry traffic and its consequences and the fact that for some political sectors the port should be completely placed in the new harbour, releasing the territories in the city center. Also relevant was the process for the new Guggenheim museum that could explain how the relation between institutions works. These issues will be addressed later in this article.

It is important to mention that although there are some tension points, there is an effort being made for the collaboration between the planning departments of both organisms. During our meeting with RM he explained that there is a minimum of four meetings per year between the port and urban planning authorities in order to synchronize main planning goals and agendas. To these meeting also representatives from the ferry companies attend to exchange ideas that could improve the collaboration between the different stakeholders.

Emotional level

The history of the city is deeply connected with the port. Helsinki was founded as a commercial port and we see the maritime character of the city in its evolution and in the waterfront. During the time spent here we were able to notice that this connection still is important for the citizens. Both interviewees agreed that for the city the port is a relevant part of its identity. As it was mentioned by SA, for the inhabitants the port holds an important place in the collective memory, although it might be somehow bucolic and detached from the current operation of the port. It is generally known that the ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security) code does not allow a direct interaction with the port activity as it used to be. For this reason the more mature citizens pass their memories to the youngster and these ones still identify the port as an important place for them, although they did not experienced the same interaction as their grandparents.

South Harbour Source:
South Harbour

The City Museum explains vaguely the importance of the port, but this issue might be solved in the next years when the new city museum is opened. When we asked other people who have no direct relation with the port or planning department they all agreed that the port is part of the city.

In the current moment the port only takes 11 km of the 130 km waterfront, hence the port is no longer an obstacle for reaching the water. The regeneration project could play an important role if they are able to keep the port identity. If the people feel the port as their own probably they will support its location in the city center. This aspect along with the location needs from ferries and economic benefit they bring might be the best argument the port has to keep its presence in the city.


The move of the port facilities from the city center to the Vuosaari Harbour was decided by the city planning department in the masterplan from 1992. At that time, as it was explained by RM, the discussion was mainly focused on improving the port capacity. During the discussion an alternative location was considered, in Kirkkonummi, west from Helsinki. At that time the municipality acknowledged the important economic role the port played for the city and the region. Only later the planning authorities saw the potential of the areas released by the port in the city for implementing a waterfront regeneration project focused on housing and mixed use.

The construction of the new terminal, as explained by SA, was a joint venture between the urban and national authorities. Although there was an existing large shipyard, more land was needed for the construction of the new port. At the same time there was a necessary coordination with the national authorities, not just for the financing but also for the connections with the road and railway networks. RM explained that it was a complex and long process. The location is near a Natura 2000 area which needed to be protected from pollution and noise. At the same time there was a difficult negotiation with a private landowner. Finally the project was developed between 2003 and 2006.

After the new harbour was built and the port started to work there in 2008, the institution has felt a certain pressure regarding its current location. We have seen during the second half of the XXth century that the waterfront have become one of the preferred location for new urban development projects. This international trend has been seen by the port with certain apprehension and somehow a possible threat towards its position in the city. This behavior is understandable if, as mentioned by SA, we see that the general process has been to “expel” the port from the city and also that there are political sectors who believe all port activities, including the ferries, should be located in Vuosaari. This critical voices might have forgotten what was acknowledged in the masterplan from 1992. The port is relevant for the city for economic and identity aspects.

Vuosaari harbour Source:
Vuosaari harbour

In the new masterplan we will see that a future expansion for the Vuosaari harbour is considered. As explained by RM the port accepted this decision with some mistrust since it could be seen as an argument to force moving all the ferry traffic outside the city. In the same interview it was also explained that the main reason for this expansion is possible future port growth and new logistic needs. These issues were consulted with experts from the city hall.

The ferries

The ferries activities are the main issue in the port-city relation. In the case of Helsinki this is a particularly complex situation. The elevated number of connections, almost 11 million passengers and a considerable cargo traffic difficult the integration of this infrastructure in the city. These figures are even more impressive if we consider that they have been reached after 10 years of unstoppable growth. One decade ago, before the Vuosaari harbour was developed, nobody could foresee the impact this sector would have in the city and port economy, and in the urban traffic.

We already saw in Oslo that this is a difficult problem. In order to be profitable these companies, just like the cruises, need a fast access to the city center, therefore its location outside the urban core is not possible. We must consider that this specific sort of maritime traffic is particularly complex since it combines passengers, many taking also their own car, with cargo, mainly trailers, that will be directly taken by trucks when arrived to destination.

The ferry companies need the combination of the different activities in order to be profitable. In the case of Helsinki the situation is more intense than others because we find not just tourist that come for a short visit, but also commuters that live in Tallinn and work in Finland. For this reason there is not a seasonality as strong as in the cruise industry, therefore the traffic generated is constant all year around.

At the present moment there are three ferry terminals near the city center (Katajanokka, South Harbour and West Harbour) and one in Vuosaari. As it was mentioned, through these terminals pass every year almost 11 million passenger and between 25% and 30% of the port cargo. This intense traffic, as explained by SA,  might bring up to 4000 vehicles every day to the city, which is a significant number. Although we have to put this figure in perspective with the general traffic in Helsinki main roads. There is no argue that the ferry traffic makes an impact in the city, but in general terms the city needs to improve the traffic management system. This is one of the main concerns for the new city plan, and it will be handled properly.

Ferries in the south harbour
Ferries in the south harbour

The traffic problem is a challenge for the next masterplan, particularly to one of the boldest ideas developed on it, the transformation of urban highways into more urban boulevards. The positive effect this change could bring to the city is unquestioned, but how it can deal with the traffic generated by goods transportation, not just generated by the ferries but also by the business operating in the city center, is yet to be seen. This issue will be studied in further detail in the implementation plan, the following step once the masterplan is effective.

In order to deal with the heavy traffic generated by the ferries there was also considered the option of building tunnels under the city center. This possible solution that could indeed solve the issue still is considered in the masterplan, but will be up to the decision makers in the municipality to see if it is a viable option. As we know, this option implies a significant investment and a complex construction process that could last many years. On the other hand, this solution has already been developed in other cases with positive outcomes, just like we saw in Oslo in previous posts.

The discussion regarding the location of the ferry terminals has been going on for several years. The necessary common ground could have been found. In the West Harbour redevelopment project a new ferry terminal is under construction. Once this strategic decision has been taken it seems unlikely that the ferries will be forced to move outside the city. Also during the interview with the Urban planning department RM clarified that the ferries and passenger ships traffic has been accepted as one important element of the cityscape, it would not be reasonable to insist in moving them outside the center.

New ferry terminal in West Harbour Source:
New ferry terminal in West Harbour

For this issue there is even another possibility being contemplated. If the ferry traffic continues to grow it might be necessary to consider a redistribution of the terminals. In this scenario the possible relocation of some ferry lines in Vousaari could be considered. In order to make this solution effective the existing subway line should be extended until the harbour area. This is a considerable investment, that is also difficult to justify if it is only going to be made for the ferry passengers. In the masterplan the subway extension is an open possibility that will have to be decided in the future.

New areas in the Waterfront

Helsinki urban development areas Source:
Helsinki urban development areas

West Harbour – Länsisatam – Jätkäsaari

The project to be developed in the West Harbour is probably the most relevant for the port-city relation. This project, along with the south harbour, is the only new area where port and urban activities will still have to coexist. The new district will host the new ferry terminal build to give answer to the increasing demand in the Tallinn-Helsinki connection. This new terminal will be placed further south extending the area to the end pier. At the same time the new construction will allow new berths for the ferries making this connection.

The construction of the new city district is currently taking place and several housing areas have already been developed. But the greater construction phases are yet to come. In the waterline we see a new landmark gaining shape in form of a 16 floors tower that will host a hotel. This project will give an interesting urban landscape since this new construction in Jätkäsaari will contrast with the existing shipyards. This industrial settlement will continue where it is. The company that owns the shipyards has the intention of staying in Helsinki and the masterplan also counts with its presence in the waterfront.We will be able to see an urban maritime atmosphere in this area like in very few places in the city.

West Harbour Project Source:
West Harbour Project


In the North harbour, or fish harbour as it used to be known, the presence of the port activities will disappear. Nowadays the responsibility of the port is resume to keeping the access and the dock for the coal supply for the existing power plant. In the future with the probable deactivation of the plant this function will no longer be required.

In this new city district we will see one of the biggest development projects in Helsinki, including several skyscrapers. The focus of the plan is mainly housing, but it will also include several office spaces. The main question remains what will happen with the existing industrial areas. As mentioned, before the power plant is a major decision for this new district, its future is currently under discussion. If Helsinki wants to succeed in its quest of being carbon neutral the presence of a coal powered will hinder this goal. When the decision to deactivate the plant is reached, then the issue would be what to do with this important mass placed in the waterfront. The construction characteristic do not allow an easy reconversion, but it could be considered as industrial heritage element, perhaps for cultural purposes.

We have seen that many housing project will be developed. Very often in the waterfront regeneration projects these new apartments have high prices, hence the new inhabitants are probably from high income classes. The gentrification process is very strong and in some cases inevitable. In Helsinki this might not happen so clearly as in other port cities. The strong position of the municipality as landowner allows a bigger regulation of the market. Therefore, since the land owned by the city is very often not sold to a private but instead long term rented the city can apply certain rules. In the areas here presented, as it was told by RM, the distribution will be: 20% of all housing should be subsidized, 40 % would have controlled prices, following the Hitas system. Finally the remaining 40% should be traded in a free market.

The system used by the municipal authorities allows a better social diversity, hence the waterfront has a more public character that in other port cities.It is important to know that although the majority of the land belongs to the city, there are some plots that have been sold to private. Also the area where the oil harbour used to be belongs to private hands and is currently under development.

Kalasatama urban development Source:
Kalasatama urban development

The Guggenheim process 

The Guggenheim museum development process has been an important matter for the city and the port in recent times. Also a complex issue between different institutions. As we know the construction of a new museum of this scale very often generates a lot of discussion at different levels.

In this case the architectural competition for the new cultural venue took this issue to the international stage. The scale of the competition, 1715 entries, generated a significant debate in the media regarding the work produced, the different approaches and even an analysis to state of the arts in architecture. In a more local context the public argument is whether is reasonable to invest in this new infrastructure if Helsinki already has an important cultural venues network, and other museums are already under construction. Also there is the problem of paying to a foreign cultural institution to place in the city a franchise of their museum. The ongoing debate might have undermine the public support to the initiative even before the final design is known.

Winning design Source:
Winning design

The main issue regarding the port-city relation in this case is the fact that the new museum will be placed in an area the port is currently using. The activities happening there, parking lot and catamaran ferry to Tallinn, could certainly be rearranged and improved, but this issue was not considered as one of the priorities of the competition. Is important to remember that the city owns the land where the port is placed therefore has great decision making capacities in this area. On the other hand the conciliation between the different activities, cultural, urban and port, was not a priority. The nonexistent role played by the port in the whole process is clear not only in the competition report, but also when we see the composition of the jury. Out of 11 members not one was representing the port.

We must also point out that the process is only in the beginning, the chance for collaboration is still possible. The winning design by Moreau Kusunoki Architectes has a certain flexibility, besides the inherent architecture quality. This aspect leaves the door open to a future integration of the different activities existing in the area.

Winning design from moreau kusunoki architectes Source:
Winning design from moreau kusunoki architectes

Port strategy towards the city

During the interview with SA we were able to see the what are the main strategies followed by the port to have a “healthy” relation with the city. At this point is relevant to know that the Port of Helsinki received an award from ESPO in the year 2010 for the societal integration of the port. If we read the application document we see that indeed the port carried numerous initiatives at that time, perhaps motivated by the move of the port to Vuosaari.

The port continues to develop a social program to insist in its integration. For example, besides the official website with all the port information and the different publications, we can also find specific information webpages. There is one specific important case, the website dedicated to the port development projects. In this page we can see what the port is doing in the west harbour or the different initiatives taking place at the moment.

The activities aforementioned have a particular focus in the younger audience. The PA has developed a stronger program with the schools to allow the youngsters to visit the port and get to know how it works from the inside. This measure presented several security challenges that were solved without affecting the port operations.

In terms of the general public the port has hosted several open days in recent years, but without an specific date. This events often take place associated to other venues, or in some cases they are linked to different target groups.

Helsinki (44)
Information Billboards

Regarding the existing information billboards placed along the waterfront we came to know that they do not belong to the port. They belong to the city and were placed long time ago, when the port was still a city department.

At the moment there is no port-center where one could get to know the history of the port and the role it plays in the city. In the city museum the information is relatively scarce. This issue, as mentioned before, might be solved next year when the new city museum open its doors.

Port innovation: Buffer zones, lighting, sound barriers, traffic control

One of the most relevant aspects in the Helsinki study case is the use of buffer zones. We have seen before that they were necessary for the Vuosaari harbour in order to protect the existing Natura 2000 spaces. These green areas, besides protecting the natural reserve, also work as “cushion” between the housing developments in Vuosaari and the harbour. They were also used for creating a new golf course, a compatible activity with the industrial port activities.

In the new port we also find several other aspects that are innovative. For example the lighting scheme and sound barriers developed by the architectural office APRT. The illumination is a very important subject in Finland since they have very reduced amount of sunlight during great part of the year. For this reason is normal to develop proper illumination projects with architects and landscape architects. The sound wall is particularly relevant because it is the “façade” of the port to the natural reserve. Besides reducing the acoustic pollution produced by the harbour activities, integrates the vegetation in its structure and contains an sightseen point for the port and the natural park.

Vuosaari at night Source:
Vuosaari at night

The other relevant innovation are measures being developed to diminish the impact of the heavy traffic generated by the ferries. This strategy consist in the combination of an already efficient automatic check-in system for the trucks with several waiting areas, placed outside the urban core, some of them in the buffer zones. This system would allow the traffic generated by the cargo coming in the ferries to flow with less waiting areas required. At the same time the trucks could await in places where they do not cause any problems, releasing the waterfront for other uses. A similar system has been working in Valparaiso, Chile.


Helsinki was an important industrial city. Part of this past can be seen in several building in the city, like the Kaapeli factory or the gasometers in Kalasatama area. The port only owns one building listed as heritage, the Olympia terminal, next to its headquarters. The port is responsible for its properties and looks after them. However there are several old warehouses that probably were port property but are now private and have been transformed to alternative uses. We can find them in Katajanokka, where another waterfront regeneration project took place in 1980’s.

The old cranes are another important part of port industrial heritage. In Helsinki we can find them in the Munkkisaari area. They are owned by the city and the main concern should be to keep them as a memory of what once used to be there. There is a anew project prepared for the area where they are placed, and hopefully these cranes will be respected and integrated in the design.

Old cranes by the docks
Old cranes by the docks

Personal Opinion

The case of Helsinki is very particular regarding the powerful position its municipality holds. This characteristic has on one hand limited the decision making capacity of the port, but on the other hand has allowed a plan led waterfront regeneration of significant proportions. In this context, and in an often difficult position, the port has tried to defend its interests and stay in the city. The efforts have resulted in a compromise between the responsible authorities to allow the presence of the port recognizing its economic and identity value.

The dialogue between the concerned stakeholders is crucial to find the common ground for a sustainable development. In this case the regular meetings and mutual recognition are the backbone of the relation. The problem might surge when the stronger actor abuses of its position to impose its will without the agreement of the other actors. So far this has not happened, although the port recognizes a certain pressure towards its position.

During the time spent in this city we acknowledged how difficult the ferries situation is. The success of this sector is definitely something from which city and port benefit. Is a crucial part of the twin-city program. However there is the risk of dying of its own success. If the traffic and other externalities caused by these activities become too big the port risks losing the favorable public opinion. We have seen that the people living in nearby areas already might not be so pleased with the current situation. In this case the constant dialogue with the neighbors is important, but it might be necessary to go further. For example, in Hamburg a commitment was found with the developers of the housing projects near the port to implement a certain type of construction quality regarding windows and soundproofing, or even designing the house distribution to diminish the negative effects of living near the port. In the case of Helsinki a positive reinforcement program could be developed, for example by giving one free ferry ticket per year or a discount to the most affected citizens.

The Guggenheim process could be a metaphor of the relation between the different parts, where the stronger stakeholder is somehow imposing an agenda. Besides the discussion if it is reasonable or not to develop yet another cultural venue, we could see the process as a missed opportunity for the collaboration between city and port. It would have been a very interesting approach for both the museum and the harbour.

The mixed programs building are a path into the future for several reasons. They allow occupancy at different schedules; they are economically more viable; in terms of environment are more sustainable; also the risk of a failed investment is reduced. At the same time it would have been very interesting to see under a new development the transition of uses, from the most intense port activity, including the cargo coming through the ferries, to the most urban ones, the cultural agenda of the city. If we see it from another point of view, it could be considered as a connection between local challenges and global fluxes, both in terms of transport and it terms of culture if the inclusion of a ferry terminal and port center in the project would have been considered. The process is not finished so there is the possibility to correct the path and use this development as a chance to strength the port-city identity of Helsinki.

The maritime identity of the city is very clear when we walk on the waterfront, we can see old wooden ships, ice breakers, marinas, ferries and fishing ships. Besides there are also the shipyards, old warehouses and old cranes. This Genius Loci must be preserved. The new development projects must integrate these elements without affecting their meaning. Not all waterfront areas are the same, the variety should be protected and enhanced. A special sensibility is required when acting in these areas, otherwise there will be 130 km of green waterfront without a particular attachment to the place and the history. The construction started recently and the process will last for several decades, for this reason the benefit of the doubt is here needed.

When we see that the city and the citizens have the port as an important part of the collective memory it would be important to reinforce this aspect. The communication strategy followed by the city and the port regarding the port history could be improved. The city museum contains insufficient information and the existing billboards on the waterfront are in poor condition. In order to give to the people the information about what used to be there it would be interesting to find a more effective communication strategy. The project developed in Oslo could be a good example of how to do it.

The transformation of Helsinki is only in the beginning, therefore some aspects of the case are difficult to evaluate. The first steps are promising and looks like the change will improve significantly this growing city.

We could learn from several innovative practices developed by the PA and the city. The Vuosaari move was very successful and is a good example of how to implement a new port in the XXIst century. The way it relates with the context, the transparency, the sensibility to certain elements (like the lighting) and the general organization are positive aspects to be studied. The traffic management strategy to be implemented could be an important innovation to be applied in other cases. Helsinki is a proud port-city, the relation of the port with the citizens is probable the most important element of this case. This is something to be admire and to replicate in other contexts, for example Lisbon

The daughter of the Baltic Sea: Helsinki

The daughter of the Baltic Sea: Helsinki

Helsinki, Port City, capital City

Helsinki is the capital of Finland. A city with over 600 000 inhabitants and approx. 1,4 mill in the metropolitan area. These are relevant numbers if we consider that the overall population of Finland is just of 5.5 million persons. Also the Helsinki metropolitan area is responsible of approx. one third of the country´s GDP.

The city is placed in the shore of the Finland Gulf, a region that also includes other important cities like St. Petersburg and Tallinn, with which Helsinki has historical bounds. Geographically is a very complex area, as we can see in the images, the city has around 300 islands of different sizes and almost 130 km of waterfront. This context has forced a complex urban settlement and it is an important challenge in terms of urban and port planning.

Finland’s capital is a relatively young city when compare to others. It was founded in 1550 slightly northern than its present location, in the shores of the parish of Helsinge, by King Gustavus I Vasa, from Sweden. The goal was to create a merchant port city to rival with Tallinn on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. Later on, in 1640, the city was moved to its current location, from where the sea was more accessible.

Helsinki and Finland have spent most of its history under control of foreign kingdoms or empires. Until 1808 was integrated in the Swedish Kingdom as an important city for commerce and strategic reasons, but no as a Capital. During this period the city suffered several important fires and invasions by foreign troops, mainly the Russians. In 1808, after another Russian invasion, it passed to the hands of the emperor Alexander I. From that moment it gained the status of capital city of the Grand Duchy of Finland. During this time the city grew and gained several institutions that would express its capital city role, like the University, the Theatre or the Senate. The urban plan was drawn by J.A. Ehrenström, and C.L.Engel was appointed architect for the construction of the city.

Map of Helsinki, 1837 Source:
Map of Helsinki, 1837

During the Russian domination Helsinki established itself as capital city and developed an important cultural life. At the same time it gained a multicultural profile and even tourism started to flourish with the neighbor city of St. Petersburg.

During the first World War Helsinki was an important naval base, particularly the fortress of Suomenlinna, an important Landmark in Helsinki´s shore that has played a relevant role in its history. During the last phase of the World War I, in 1917, and in a tense social atmosphere, Finland´s Parliament approved the declaration of independence and Helsinki is the capital of the new republic.

Right after Finland became an independent country the civil war took place, with two sides named the whites (conservatives) and the reds (pro-bolchevikes). The first ones won the war with the help of the Germans. Over the last century Finland has kept a complicated relation with the Russian neighbor and has been involved in different conflicts because of this reason. During the World War II Helsinki suffered several bombings but nothing compared to what happened in German cities during the same conflict. This allowed the city to recover relatively fast and to keep most of its relevant buildings intact.

The last half of the XXst century was a growing period for Helsinki, during which its population would pass the half-million mark and the city would grow significantly. This expansion took place mainly in the outskirts encouraged by the massive presence of automobiles. Later on this car dependence would become a problem the city tries overcome.

In recent times one of the major changes that we have seen in Helsinki was the relocation of the main industrial port facilities to the new harbor of Vuosaari. This change would allow several significant urban projects destined to plan the future of the city. It is expected a significant increase of the number of inhabitants, some indicate around 200 000 to 250 000 until 2050.

The port of Helsinki

In the case of the Finnish capital the port is the raison d’être of the city. Since always it has been one of the main gateways for the import and export of cargo of the country. Nowadays is a crucial infrastructure for trade and passenger traffic. In a recent study about the economic impact of the port in the country and region´s economy it was explained that in terms of GDP it has an impact of 1% in the country, 2,7% in the region and 4,8% in the city.

The importance of the port is also clear in terms of employment. In the mentioned study is said that the port employs 24 000 people, we guess that is including direct and indirect jobs but is not explained. This number means 7,6% of Helsinki´s workforce and 1% of the entire country.

Regarding the distribution of the impact in the GDP of the different activities we see that clearly the cargo traffic is responsible for the 77% of this effect in the economy, and passenger traffic for 23%. However, in the same study we can see that this distribution is not the same in jobs. In this case the passenger traffic is responsible for 44% of the generated jobs and cargo traffic for 56%.

Port of Helsinki, Key figures. Source: Port of Helsinki
Port of Helsinki, Key figures.
Source: Port of Helsinki

Besides the obvious economic importance of the port, it is also one of the main identity elements in the urban landscape, particularly in the waterfront. Although the industrial port is no longer present in the city, since it moved to Vuosaari in 2008, the passenger and cargo ferry traffic has an important presence, that somehow creates a dynamic skyline. This sector is responsible for the majority of the almost 11 million passengers that pass through the port every year. Also between 25 and 30% of the Port comes in the ferries. This intense traffic is focus mainly in three destinations: Tallinn, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. In the first case, due to the short distance between both cities (80km), is even a commuters service, serving people that live in Tallinn and come to Helsinki for professional reasons.

The port before 2008 it used to be in several locations along the urban waterfront. Besides the land where ferry terminal are, the port used to take also the areas of Jätkäasaari in the west harbor and Sompasaari in Kalasatama in the east part of the city. Several decades ago the port had even more territories, specifically the Katajanokka island. At the present time, and after the main industrial port areas moved to Vuosaari, the port has reduced its presence in the city to the passenger terminals, the cargo handling associated with them and the remaining shipyard in the west harbour.

The waterfront

We have seen that the presence of the port in the city has been considerably reduced in last decade. But the changes in the waterfront started long before that. In the article written by Kyösti Oasmaa we can read that already in the 1970´s and 1980´s the first waterfront regeneration project already took place in Merihaka and Katajanokka. Later on from the 1980´s until early 2000´s also in Ruoholahti we could see another port territory be reconverted. It is clear though that the major change is taking place now, a process that started in 2008 and will continue during the next decades.

Since the industrial port moved out of the city several simultaneous operation have been taking place. In West Harbour we can identify different projects happening right now. Jätkäsaari is the main one in terms of size, but there are others, like Hernesaari, Salmisaari and Telakkaranta. All this new areas will be transformed into a mixed use neighborhood and it will join the Einraranta project, already finished, to form a new urban area by the waterfront. The figures of the West Harbour development are remarkable, all together the transformation will affect an area of 200 Ha, creating housing for 30 000 new residents and 20 000 workplaces.

West Harbour Project Source:
West Harbour Project

On the east part of the city we also see a major waterfront regeneration project, Kalasatama. In this redevelopment project the area to be transformed is not just port territories, but also several major industrial brownfields or the transformation of functioning power plants. Just like in the West Harbour project the numbers are impressive, in this case the area comprises 175 Ha of land, the construction should last until 2035, it should create housing for 20 000 new residents and 8000 new workplaces.

Helsinki future development projects Source: Municipality of Helsinki
Helsinki future development projects
Source: Municipality of Helsinki

As we have seen Helsinki is undergoing great transformation. We will see how all these new projects affect the relation with the port, and what role should it play in the city. Also we will see how is the relation between the city and the port, both in an institutional level and on an “emotional” one. In order to get the most precise information we will interview Ms. Satu Aatra, planning manager from the Port Authority of Helsinki, and Mr. Rikhard Manninen, director of the strategic Urban Planning Division.