Resilience and Path Dependence: A Comparative Study of the Port Cities of London, Hamburg, and Philadelphia

Carola Hein, Dirk Schubert

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Port spaces, functions, and interests have shaped the growth and development of many cities around the world. At times, different stakeholders—private and public, local, regional, national and global—have collaborated to assure the continuity of port functions in old and new locations and, if the port relocates or if that effort fails, to redevelop former port spaces. Through the lens of port- and city-related urban developments in London, Hamburg, and Philadelphia, this article explores the multiple conditions that are part of port city resilience. It uses historical institutionalism as a theoretical framework for understanding these long-term changes, particularly in institutional and governance dynamics. It shows that the development paths of port and city spaces and the actors who shape them are not always aligned. Through the case of London, it shows a development path that is led by private investment building and relocating a world-class port and administrating it from the city center, while local and national institutions only intervene to balance spatial or social short-comings of the private actors. The case of the city-state Hamburg illustrates the development of shared port-city paths under long-term public leadership that has provided direction for the expanding port as well as for the growing city. In the case of Philadelphia, national interests, the Navy, and private investments played an important role in the creation of port infrastructure and, later, in the largely failed transformation of former port areas into public waterfronts. As shipping elites left the city and new land-based employers emerged, such as the University of Pennsylvania, the port-city path was partly discontinued. The article concludes by pointing to the expected capacity of each of these cities to address future challenges. Awareness of historical practices can help readers understand where current conditions may stand in the way of innovative solutions.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Urban History
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jun 2020


  • Hamburg
  • historical institutionalism
  • London
  • path dependence
  • Philadelphia
  • port cities
  • resilience

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