Port Cities: Historical Urban Narratives and Contemporary Design Approaches

F. Tanis, F.D. van der Hoeven, Lara Schrijver

Research output: Other contributionScientific


Port cities have traditionally played an essential role in local and transnational networks. The spatial imprints of cross-border flows and socio-spatial interactions in port cities have left intertwined and entangled histories. However, the physical presence of these rich histories is not always visible.

Port cities went through a socio-spatial metamorphosis since the early 20th-century. A series of local and global events have triggered significant transformations, among these: globalisation, natural and human-made disasters, de-industrialisation and changes in regulation (neo-liberal policies), changing social conditions (migration and population exchanges).

Such events have resulted in rapid, sometimes haphazard, urbanisation while regeneration projects have erased in many places tangible traces of history. Many European and East Mediterranean port cities were also affected by armed conflicts. Contemporary waterfront regeneration projects produce generic results that further conceal the marks from the past.

Despite the physical transformations of port cities, historical narratives remain. Global trade and transnational exchange left tangible imprints on urban patterns and manifested itself in cultural expressions such as paintings, engravings, travelogues, novels, travel books, and poems. Authors, artists, and travellers found inspiration in port facilities such as quays, customs houses, warehouses and site-specific urban typologies and street patterns, as well as social spaces in the cities.

In such narratives, many protagonists are brought together, from elite traders, local governors, and white-collar workers (e.g. engineers, developers), to the domestic and foreign labour classes, transit passengers and sailors, and local inhabitants.

This issue seeks to investigate port-city narratives and their relevance to the architecture of port cities in two eras: the development of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, and current transformations.

First, we approach the theme from the historical point of view, aiming to compile 19th-century and beginning 20th-century urban narratives that evoke memories of port cities and define their cultural narrative today.
Secondly, we look at transnational traces in port cities and in former port areas that are subject to contemporary developments. In studying the past and present of European and East Mediterranean port cities and their intertwined histories, we aim to reveal several questions:

How may narratives inform designers, and how can narratives be used in contemporary design approaches?
What is the role of the architect/planner in the contemporary narrative formation of port cities, particularly in the changing context of port-city relations?
Lastly, how can narratives be a tool for the preservation of the built environment that is subject to transnational exchanges?
We encourage authors elaborating architecture projects that have been or are being developed in former port areas, in relation to the narratives. It is also possible to come up with new narratives for the futures of port cities by addressing following questions:

What are the possible narratives and tools which may re-connect the citizens to the port city and its history?
How can urban narratives contribute to the further development of the city and influence decision-makers?

Papers with a historical focus that elaborate on diverse societies (i.e. elites, intellectuals, travellers, clientele, peoples), and touch upon promotional, touristic, ideological or political intentions;
Papers that provide insights for urban agenda's (both for urban developments and conservation plans);
Projects or experimental designs that propose a design approach and ideas based on the representational value of port cities. We are particularly interested in the contributions that would reflect on how historical narratives can be used for contemporary design within the changing socio-spatial context and shifting viewpoints in the depiction of the cities.
Original languageEnglish
TypeCfp for Spool Journal
Media of outputWebsite
PublisherTU Delft OPEN
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2019


  • Port city
  • narrative
  • Urban design
  • architectural design
  • conservation
  • cultural heritage


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