Dunkirk: from oil port to cultural heritage

Carola Hein, Christine Stroobandt, Paolo de Martino

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Since the mid-19th century, the history of Dunkirk has been closely related to the ebb and flow of oil streams transiting the city; since the mid-20th century, just two major oil companies, BP and Total, have shaped the form and function of the city. Their continual reorganization of the port and its fore-and hinterland—partly in response to changing oil flows and in competition with other ports on the North Sea and in France—has created economic and spatial challenges to local economies and decision-makers. How, specifically, have actors in Dunkirk engaged with and adapted to changing economic and spatial conditions in the past? What kind of oil spaces have they created? These historical precedents shape the ways in which local stakeholders respond to contemporary challenges created by the emergence of new technologies, new work forms and the transition towards new forms of energy systems. Moreover, understanding these dynamics, and the long-term impact of governance and the built environment in Dunkirk, can help us prepare for urban and social system transformation in other (port) cities in North Western Europe and around the world. This chapter draws on a diverse range of materials to piece together a comprehensive understanding of these interventions, as private companies have not done so. In examining how oil companies have shaped Dunkirk, this chapter shows the enormous spatial and economic impact of petroleum trade and transformation, and demonstrates the challange of overcoming that impact. In conclusion, it presents some recent design proposals which imagine how Dunkirk might nonetheless move beyond oil.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventThe resilience of European port cities : crisis and reinvention (XVIth-XXIth) - Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale (ULCO) Dunkirk (France), Dunkerque, France
Duration: 17 May 201818 May 2018


ConferenceThe resilience of European port cities
Internet address


  • petroleum
  • heritage
  • port cities
  • history
  • resilience


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