Talking about Port Centers

Talking about Port Centers

Since the last post there has been no time to write about the ongoing research… until now. Over the last month the main topic in the investigation has been the social integration on ports and how affects the relation between cities and ports.

During this time we have been collaborating with the AIVP or the development of a guide of good practices focused in the Port Centers. In this post we will explain this concept and how it has evolved since the creation in the 1980’s. The text here presented is partly shared with a contribution for the next AIVP World Congress, that will take place next October.

Next AIVP Congress will take place in Rotterdam and it will be focused in the crossovers between cities and ports

The Social License to Operate

During the ongoing research we have come to notice that, in order to have a peaceful coexistence between ports and cities, the concept of Social License to Operate (SLO) is of great importance. As explained by other authors like Dooms or Boutilier and Thomson, the SLO is, in its broader concept, fulfilling the expectations of stakeholder and local communities in dimensions that go beyond the creation of wealth. In other words: the SLO is the social acceptance of port activities by local communities. This issue has started to gain attention from researchers and practitioners, particularly related with the relation between ports and cities. In several studies published in recent years the importance of the SLO has been enhanced, like for example the Port-City program from the OECD led by Merk.

The relation between ports and politics is clear. In case the port activities are not approved by the citizens, it could later transform into a lack of political support to the port and finally condition the expansion of the harbor or the increase in the port activity. In this situation seems important that the port is able to have a positive relation with the local society and overcame the isolation in which remained in the past.

Soft Values of Seaports

To reach this goal ports count with an asset that most industries do not have, the soft values. This concept, defined by Van Hooydonk as “the non-socioeconomic values which include among others historical, sociological, artistic and cultural sub-functions that form the soft-function of seaports”, gives to the ports an additional advantage. They are not just industrial areas on the waterfront, but, in the majority of cases, the main identity element of the city. The port is an element of great cultural values that should be appropriated by the citizens.

The book Soft Values of Seaports by Prof. Van Hooydonk (2007). In this publication the soft values are explained, as well the evolution of the relation between the ports and societies. In order to improve their disclosure the author proposes a new figure in port authorities, the soft values manager.

The Port Center Concept

Over the last two decades one of the instruments that has proven more efficient for the explanation of the port and the disclosure of the soft values has been the Port Center. This sort of initiative is focused on explaining the port to the inhabitants, particularly the younger generations, and to change their vision of the port as something of their own and important for the future of the city as explained by Marini, Ghiara and Dooms in an article in 2014. Two different generations of Port Centers can be identified since the late 1980´s when the first one was created.

Port Center Schema.jpg
Port Center Concept: The founding partners (Port and public authorities, as well as some private partners) form the Port Center that through a series of initiatives (exhibitions, tours, events, etc) and collaborating with different stakeholders (companies, universities, cultural institutions, etc) will have a positive impact in the social integration of the port in several dimensions.                                                                                                                                                  Author: José Sánchez, based on a previous model from Greta Marini


First Generation

The first generation is formed by two centers in two of the main European ports, Antwerp and Rotterdam. The first one, created in the Belgian port in 1988, had a central location inside the port territory. The Lillo Center, founded by the province, has achieved great success receiving 50000 visitors per year. The second one, named EIC, was created in Rotterdam in 1994, it is also centrally located in the port area and hosts 22000 visitors per year. The target audience of both centers is the youngsters, which have been developing a certain detachment towards the port and no longer consider it an attractive place to develop a professional career. This issue might later have serious consequences since in some cases a shortage of qualified professionals could be detected. The access to these centers was reserved to the school groups in visits previously scheduled, including the payment of an entrance fee.

Images from the Lillo Port Center. Source:
Images from the Lillo Port Center. Source:

The port authority was only present in the Rotterdam project although it was not the leading partner, a role taken by Deltalinqs, an organization of the private companies operating in the port.

From this first generation we can see that the location can have an important impact in the visibility of the port center. Although it might be convenient to be placed inside the port territory it might also hinder the impact or the possibility of opening to a broader audience. In these projects was also clear that the port visits, either by boat or bus, are one of the most attractive activities for the visitors and is the best way to explain the complexity and scale of the port. Finally they both were pioneers regarding the use of the infotainment concept applied to the port.

Second Generation

In the early 2000`s we can identify a second generation of port. The renaissance of the concept and its broader application could result from two factors, the success of the first generation and, mainly, the acknowledgement by the ports of the necessity of explaining themselves to the citizens, going beyond an agenda of single events. They need a physical location in which they have a constant disclosure of the port value. In cities like Genoa, Ashdod, Le Havre, Livorno, Vancouver, Melbourne or Rotterdam, we can identify new centers or similar structures that fulfill the goal defended by the first generation, with several innovations.

The time gap has allowed the development of new technologies improving the edutainment, allowing greater interactivity and making them more appealing to the younger generations. The core target group remains the same: the youngsters. However, in some cases, the general public is also allowed to visit the Port Center on their own initiative, therefore reaching a broader audience.

Regarding the location it seems clear that opening up to the general public requires a better accessibility. Several centers of the second generation are placed near the urban center, in the limit between the port and city, in some cases in buildings with a historical value, increasing their visibility and the interest of the inhabitants.

We can also find changes in the partners structure. In several centers the Port Authorities have a leading role or are the single developers of the initiative. However we also find projects in which a greater number of partners have cooperated for the development of the center, including public entities like the municipality or the region, but also private companies or the chamber of commerce.

The financing model has also evolved. The entrance fee has in most cases been reduced or even disappear. The main financing sources  still are the founding partners but we can also find initiatives, like the FutureLand in Rotterdam, that have developed secondary resources, such as the cafeteria or the bookshop.

rotterdam post 3
FutureLand, Maasvlakte 2.  Author: José M P Sánchez

Simultaneously to the second generation, the Port Center Network inside the AIVP was created. This initiative links the different centers and shares the good practices. At the same time it gives information  to new projects, that can count on the existing expertise.

Future Challenges

We have seen the evolution of the concept and how it is being increasingly used by port cities around the world, however several challenges arise. One of the main issues is the financing of future projects. Although  there is growing awareness of the importance of the social integration of ports, the Port Centers have proven fragile regarding their financing schemes; hence the diversification of the economic sources is necessary in order to increase the resiliency of the new initiatives. There are lessons to be learned from other cultural venues that could be applied to the centers.

The integration of these structures with the existing Soft-Values agenda can also be improved. In some cases we have seen that the Port Center has not been as active as it could in the social activities related to the port. One of the main goals of this sort of initiative is to work as a central element for the Soft-Values agenda; therefore they should also play greater roles than what they have done so far.

Finally it seems important to highlight the issue of linking with other existing organizations and networks that could increase the divulgation of the port-center, for example with the tourism offices. There is a growing trend of industrial tourism that could be an opportunity for increasing the disclosure of the Port Center beyond the local network and gain support of the port in a regional or national basis.

The Port Centers have contributed to improve the communication between the city and the port and allowed a better understanding. In the future they should go even further, developing the port identity present in all the port cities around the globe and allowing the emotional appropriation of the port by the citizens.