i.3 – Seaports: Social and Environmental Value

Authors: Dr. Theo Notteboom, Dr. Athanasios Pallis and Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Seaports often suffer from a negative public image, mainly due to their environmental impacts and the disconnection between cities and their ports.

1. The Public Image of Ports

The general public often considers port areas as desolate, dangerous, dirty, and unattractive, characterized by buildings with low aesthetics and large machinery emitting noise and air pollutants. People might feel disconnected from ports, particularly in those areas where the port has moved away from the city. In short, ports cannot take broad public support for granted. This aspect of port competitiveness will undoubtedly become more important in the future as resources such as land are becoming increasingly scarce and as broader social and environmental functions are challenging the economic function of seaports.

As such, port managers and government bodies nowadays are trying to make sure that new port developments are socially broadly based. Conflicts of interest among different stakeholders may overshadow the community of interests. Major socio-economic confrontations related to port development and operations can occur when community groups perceive a clear imbalance between the benefits and costs for the local community of having larger ports. Public support for ports becomes particularly bleak when a large part of the population is unaware of how the port is organized and operated and to what extent the port contributes to the local economy. The concerns solely focus on potential negative effects for the local community, such as road congestion, intrusions on the landscape, noise and air pollution, and the use of scarce land. The potential erosion of public support for seaports is a real concern to port managers.

Next to pure economic effects, ports increasingly need to be guided by social and environmental considerations. Public policymakers and port managing bodies are challenged to design effective port-related policies in the fields of urban planning and expansion, safety, security, and sustainability. The economic value of a port now tends to be taken as given by some stakeholders, so the argument concentrates on environmental issues and social issues.

Ports must demonstrate a high level of environmental value to ensure community support. However, environmental aspects also play an increasing role in attracting trading partners and potential investors. A port with a strong environmental record and a high level of community support is likely to be favored. From an environmental perspective, port planning and management should ensure sustainable development. The environmental sustainability of port projects and activities has become as important as economic and financial viability.

Measuring the social value of ports is an extremely difficult exercise. Many ports directly support a wide variety of community events and projects through sponsorship in an effort to attract community support. However, it is the indirect social contributions that most benefit local communities. For example, ports might invest in training and education programs. Such forms of social commitment are an important part of the success of ports, linking commercial responsibility to social acceptability and accountability.

Ports are challenged to improve their public image, which can be done by combining several approaches:

  • External communications policies and public events and festivities in and around port areas – such as Port Days.
  • Convince the general public of the importance of ports by presenting figures on employment effects and added value.
  • Adopt a green port management strategy the focuses on mitigating externalities such as energy consumption, the emissions of pollutants, and waste disposal.
  • Stakeholder relations management, such as the development of good relations with all parties concerned, particularly with respect to port expansion plans or redevelopment/regeneration plans focusing on older port areas (i.e. waterfront redevelopment).

Reinforcing the public image of ports is also a matter of attracting a new generation to work in the port. Ports have to offer attractive careers by offering good working conditions, and the potential for career advancement, and by stimulating a sense of pride about the port.

2. The Port-City Interface

The port-city interface is a core theme in discussing the public image of ports and the balance between economic, social, and environmental aspects. Ports and cities worldwide have developed extensive initiatives to (re)establish mutual links. The redevelopment of older abandoned port areas, also called waterfront redevelopment, is one of the focus areas.

A waterfront redevelopment program that respects the maritime heritage of the port and re-establishes the link between the city and the port can revive the public acceptance of ports. It can also bring new jobs to derelict port areas. In many ports, public and private investments have been channeled to revitalize older port areas encompassing housing, hotels, maritime heritage projects, sports, recreation, tourism, and local commerce. Residential, recreational, commercial, retail, service, and tourist facilities are mixed to create multifunctional areas with a broad range of employment opportunities.

At first glance, redeveloped docklands all over the world look very much the same. However, the objectives, approach, and focus of waterfront projects can differ considerably. For example, in the pioneering London Docklands scheme, the focus was on the provision of office accommodation. In Barcelona (Spain), the waterfront conversion project contributed to an unprecedented investment, tourism, employment, and population boom with a clear emphasis on the creation of leisure and shopping facilities and the rearrangement of traffic flows. Similar redevelopment initiatives have been taken in other port cities as well, turning port areas into very attractive places for living, working, and recreation.

Many waterfront projects bring in a clear cultural component through museums (e.g. the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, ‘Museum aan de Stroom’ in Antwerp), opera houses, and concert halls (e.g. Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg), and conference centers (e.g. Dalian International Conference Center in Dalian, China). The link with the maritime heritage is often enhanced by the establishment of port museums. The new urban waterfront also provides many service jobs linked to bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and jobs linked to the usual range of services expected by the new residents of the waterfront. Hotels have become a prominent feature of urban waterfronts all over the world. These hotels are usually accompanied by a cluster of restaurants that look out over the water and often specialize in seafood. Increased visitor expenditure through multipliers can create new investment and employment opportunities. Waterfronts are also recreation areas with facilities for yachting harbors and marinas, watersport areas, and theme parks. Many ports provide jobs to people working in marinas, sailing schools, yacht and boat repair and maintenance yards, and similar waterfront operations.

A number of ports have become turntables in the cruise industry, with most cruise terminals located close to the city center. Cruise vessels near the city generally reinforce the maritime link between cities and ports and are visible signs of the touristic attractiveness of the city. Expenditure by passengers from visiting cruise ships may have a significant impact on the regional economy. This is most likely to occur where the port has relatively frequent visits by cruise ships, or the region is small. Cruise passengers may also spend time in the metropolitan area before or after their voyages, generating additional economic impacts through their visitor expenditures. Cruise vessels calling at a port also generate jobs at the level of pilotage, tugs, provisions, fuel, crew shore leave, passenger services, inspections, immigration, hotels, restaurants, local attractions, and other visitor activities in the port area. Further employment is provided by inland transportation involving cruise passengers, including air, private car, bus, transit, and taxi. Some ports (e.g. Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Antwerp in Europe, or Chongqing, Yichang and Shanghai in China) are regular ports of call for river cruises on major rivers (respectively the Rhine and Yangtze).

3. The Greening of Ports

From an environmental perspective, port planning and management should ensure sustainable development. The environmental sustainability of port projects and operations has become as important as economic and financial viability. As clusters of economic actors and activities, ports have adopted an environmental role and function and thus contribute to the greening of supply chains.

Ports, as nodes in extensive global transport networks, and intersections of large bundles of supply chains covering a multitude of commodities and cargo types, create environmental impacts through their various functions. Terminal activities are one source of the environmental impact of seaports which can be summarized in several categories, namely:

  • Pollution related to port construction and maintenance.
  • Air emissions of ships at berth and terminal handling equipment (such as cranes and yard equipment).
  • Noise associated with cargo handling operations.
  • The environmental effects and potential congestion associated with landside operations of barges, rail, and trucks.

Environmental impacts occur at all stages of a terminal’s life cycle, such as port planning, terminal construction, terminal operation, terminal expansion, or terminal closure/termination. Regarding landside operations connecting inland transport, environmental impacts caused by intermodal connections and congestion lead to adverse effects such as air pollution. Depending on modal choices and the associated cost and transit time requirements from shippers, such environmental effects vary. Other port functions also generate environmental impacts, such as industrial and semi-industrial activities in ports and warehousing and distribution activities.

Port-related pollution damages the ecological balance of nature and the urban environment. It causes an adverse effect on global climate change, further increasing the risk associated with port operations. The development of a low-carbon economy is considered to be a fundamental way to solve environmental problems.

The greening of ports is attracting growing attention. In business practice, it is mirrored in the many green initiatives of individual ports and the coordinated actions of the wider port community. The emergence of the green port concept is closely associated with the growing environmental awareness of seaport actors. The concept of green port (or low-carbon port) was officially proposed at the United Nations Climate Change conference in 2009. Based on an organic combination of port development, utilization of resources, and environmental protection, the green port concept refers to a development characterized by a healthy ecological environment, reasonable utilization of resources, low energy consumption, and low pollution. The green port concept or sustainable and climate-friendly development of the port’s infrastructure in a broader sense entails responsible behavior of all stakeholders involved in port management and operations.

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