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: