Chapter 2.1 – The Changing Geography of Seaports

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

Ports are embedded in their geography, with their location impacted by technical constraints such as the nautical profile, port users, inland transport networks, and maritime shipping networks.

1. The Geography of Ports

A. Geographical considerations

Ports serve both ocean and land interests by supporting global trade and articulating maritime shipping networks. Maritime shipping networks can be flexible as ship assets can be repositioned, but ports are fixed in space. The geography of the port is derived from its site and situation. While the site relates to the nautical profile and the physical characteristics of the harbor, the situation is derived from the port’s centrality to major hinterland markets and its intermediacy to main shipping lanes. On the ocean side, it is beneficial for a port to be located near major maritime networks to allow access to foreland (overseas) areas. On the landside, close proximity to hinterland areas is also beneficial. Three relative states of oceanic and land port location conditions apply.

First, when both shipping lane proximity and hinterland location centrality are well met, the port will likely succeed in its mission to serve shippers’ needs, given the necessary port infrastructure and effective management. Second, it may be that the foreland and hinterland conditions at each location are not equal, with one being superior to the other. In such cases, one condition may make up for a deficiency in the other. The lack of shipping lane proximity (foreland accessibility) may be offset by high hinterland centrality or access to a valuable resource. Alternatively, nearness to maritime networks may offset a land location of limited market opportunities. In both cases, ports may be peripheral to shipping lanes and overseas or land markets. Finally, in regard to relative location conditions, if ports lack both intermediacy and centrality, they are likely to offer a limited value proposition.

The geography of ports takes shape at different scales, ranging from the port and its terminals locally to the global maritime shipping system. Even if maritime shipping networks have a global dimension, ports are deeply regional or local entities. They are the interface between global and regional processes, taking advantage of sites suitable for maritime activities, which is a combination of the foreland (maritime side) and the hinterland (landside). These sites can be modified by adding infrastructures such as piers, docks, basins, and breakwaters, forming a harbor. Therefore, geography is at the core of the added value provided by maritime shipping, and ports are the locations generating this value.

B. Historical considerations

Throughout history, port cities have continuously had an advantage since maritime transportation allowed long-distance trade, while inland transportation was expensive and of low capacity. The location of port cities reflected the nautical advantages of the site, expanded by hinterland opportunities. Due to the uncertainties of sailing and the vulnerability of ships, a protected harbor was an important factor in port site selection. Ships spent a large amount of time at harbors, implying the need for protection from physical risks like wind and tides as well as security risks such as piracy. Ships carried valuable cargo, and port cities were among the wealthiest. These requirements remained relatively unchanged through the ages, as port sites during the Roman Empire were based on the same considerations as ports operated through the end of the Middle Ages.

Ports along rivers and at the head of a river delta faced an enduring problem of siltation as pre-industrial societies were highly dependent on wood as a fuel and construction material source. Since rivers were commercial arteries, forested areas around rivers were subject to deforestation, leading to more runoff and silt carried downstream. Over decades, ports such as Portus (the main port servicing Rome by the second century) could cease to be commercially relevant as their harbor and access channels became clogged by accumulating sediments carried by rivers. Remedial work could be expensive, particularly if economic resources were scarce. Therefore, a port site could be abandoned for a more suitable alternative for security and economic reasons but also owing to specific environmental factors.

Throughout history, port traffic has been associated with urban development and has often been the key driver of the function and rank of a city within regional and even long-distance shipping networks. Ports offer access to markets and resources, which are important factors sustaining urban growth. Cities gained prominence because of their port and, at times, lost their prominence because of commercial and technical changes undermining their port. For instance, from the 10th to the 15th centuries, city-states such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa competed to project their respective maritime power over controlling trade routes with Central Asia and the Middle East. Later, the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the search for new maritime trade routes enabled new seaports, such as Lisbon and Barcelona, to achieve primacy in the 17th century.

Up to the industrial revolution, the balance between maritime connectivity and hinterland accessibility did not change much, implying that ports remained the most connected and commercially active locations compared to inland counterparts. The Industrial Revolution unleashed a series of changes for ports and maritime shipping. On the maritime side, with the introduction of steamships in the 19th century, capacity and steering limitations associated with sailships were removed, allowing for a change in network structure with more direct and quick connections. The decline in cargo costs was linked to a surge in long-distance trade, particularly across the Atlantic.

On the port side, the construction of dedicated facilities led to a specialization of port functions within the port area, such as industrial and energy generation. The transfer of bulk cargo could be undertaken with new systems of cranes and conveyor belts, but break-bulk cargo still needed to be handled manually. This increased the requirement for port labor and the emergence of vast port-based communities adjacent to port sites. The outcome was a significant rebalancing of the global port hierarchy to the advantage of emerging industrial countries such as the UK, the United States, Japan, and Germany. By the early 20th century, industrial and commercial ports in advanced economies became dominant.

2. The Evolution of Contemporary Ports

Ports are contingent on geographical constraints, and changing commercial and technical aspects in maritime shipping are related to changes in the geography of ports. At the regional level, transport terminal development tries to ensure that the supply of infrastructure copes with and even anticipates transportation demand. However, the presence of infrastructures does not necessarily guarantee traffic, as maritime shipping lines can reallocate the sequence of the ports they service as business opportunities change. The growth in port traffic implies the need for more space and better maritime profiles, such as depth and pier length. Therefore, as maritime traffic grows, port terminals and activities tend to expand away from their original sites towards locations offering better maritime and land access.

Port sites are thus the object of a valorization process through capital investments in infrastructures, the convergence of inland and maritime transport networks as well as the complex management of the concerned supply chains. Port development can be perceived within a sequential perspective, where each phase builds upon the previous, from port cities of the 19th century to the emerging port logistics network of the 21st century. The scale of port activities has increased with the volumes they handle as well as the scope of the activities involved, such as terminal operations, distribution, stakeholder management, and hinterland connectivity.

A. Conventional port sites

Conventionally, port terminals were located close to city cores, as many were the initial rationale for the existence of the city; most of the world’s major cities are port cities. The proximity to downtown areas also ensured the availability of large pools of workers to perform the labor-intensive transshipment activities that characterized port operations. These activities tended to have low productivity levels, as a stevedoring team could handle ten to 15 tons per day, and a berth could handle 150,000 tons per year. At their peak in the early 1950s, ports such as London and New York each employed more than 50,000 longshoremen.

Over time, changes in ships and handling equipment gave rise to new site requirements. By the post-World War II period, a growing specialization of vessels emerged, especially the development of bulk carriers. These ships were the first to achieve significant economies of scale, and their size grew quickly. For example, the world’s largest oil tanker in 1947 was only 27,000 dwt; by the mid-1970s, it was in excess of 500,000 dwt. Thus, there was a growing vessel specialization using semi-automated transshipment equipment and an increase in size, which resulted in new site requirements, especially the need for dock space and greater water depths.

B. Containerization

The introduction of container vessels in the 1960s meant larger cargo volumes per port call and shorter handling times per ton. Both factors made direct transshipment no longer feasible since it would require a large number of trucks, barges, and trains to be in place during the vessel’s short port stay. Due to congestion, capacity, and availability of inland transportation, containerization contributed to a modal separation at terminals and the setting up of a significant buffer in the form of large stocking yards. Each transport mode received a specific area on the terminal so that operations on vessels, barges, trucks, and trains could not obstruct one another. This modal separation in space required setting up a system of indirect transshipment whereby each transport mode follows its own schedule and operational throughput, implying a modal separation in time.

The containerization of cargo handling changed port storage requirements. Since the container is its own storage unit, port terminals act as temporary storage facilities. Greater vessel capacities have greatly extended the space demands for port activities. Further, growing ship sizes have implied several new constraints for port sites, such as deeper waterways, larger terminal space, both for ship handling and warehousing, and more efficient inland road and rail access. Containerization dramatically lowered labor demand for port operations, further helping to disconnect terminals and labor availability. For instance, the number of longshoremen jobs in the Port of New York and New Jersey declined from 35,000 in the 1960s to about 3,500 in the 1990s.

C. Mega port facilities

Commercial opportunities and strategic locations within the maritime shipping network allowed for a select group of ports to develop extensive facilities and to become mega ports. Many ports, such as Rotterdam and Antwerp, are larger in area than the cities they serve. The expansion of large Chinese ports, such as Shanghai, has required entirely new sites outside central areas. Modern port infrastructures are often capital-intensive, and several port authorities struggle to keep up with large infrastructure investment requirements. Over this, four recent megaprojects are particularly revealing due to their size and capital requirements:

  • Maasvlakte II (Rotterdam). For decades, the port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, has expanded downstream. The growth of container traffic along with a continued expansion of bulk traffic caused the port to consider expansion out in the North Sea. This led to the construction of an entirely new facility on reclaimed land at Maasvlakte in the 1980s. However, subsequent traffic growth in the 1990s resulted in the port authority proposing a new facility further out in the North Sea: Maasvlakte II. The project began construction in 2008, and operations began in 2013, with full completion expected by 2030. Once completed, this terminal facility would likely mark the end of geographical expansion for Rotterdam, outside the reconversion of existing terminal sites into more productive uses.
  • Deurganck dock (Antwerp). Like Rotterdam, the expansion options of the port of Antwerp are limited. With the right bank of the River Scheldt, where the bulk of the port’s facilities are located reaching capacity, a new dock complex was built on the left bank. The Deurganck dock opened in 2005 and added about 9 million TEUs to the existing container handling capacity. Two large terminals are located alongside the dock: the Antwerp Gateway terminal operated by DP World and the MPET terminal (MSC and PSA). In 2016, the move of the MPET terminal (formerly known as the MSC Home Terminal) from its old location at the Delwaidedock on the right bank (recently renamed Bevrijdingsdock) to its larger new location at the Deurganck dock presented a huge terminal relocation operation. The port of Antwerp is preparing to expand its container handling capacity further with an addition of more than 7 million TEU through smaller extensions of existing facilities and the creation of a new boomerang-shaped dock connected to the Deurganck dock.
  • Yangshan container port (Shanghai). This is a rare case where a completely new facility has been built from scratch, and this is well outside the existing port facilities in the Changjiang Delta at a facility located in Hangzhou Bay, 35 km offshore. The first phase opened in 2005 and was built for two purposes. The first was to overcome the physical limitations of the existing port facilities at the Waigaoqiao area at the mouth of the Yangtze River, which is too shallow to accommodate the latest generation of containerships. The second was to provide additional capacity to meet traffic growth expectations as well as room for new terminal facilities if container growth endures. The fully completed port would have an expected capacity of 15 million TEUs. The world’s third longest bridge, with a length of 32.5 km, was built to link the port to the mainland. In 2017, a fully automated terminal complex opened at Yangshan (phase 4).
  • Tuas container port (Singapore). Singapore is the world’s most important transshipment hub, connecting maritime routes between East Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and South Asia. The oldest container terminal facilities of Singapore (Tanjong Pagar, Keppel, and Brani) are located next to the central area. The Tanjong Pagar has been vacant since 2017. In 1993, the construction of the Pasir Panjang 1 project began and was completed in 2009. This was followed by the construction of Pasir Panjang 2. The Tuas port expansion project represents a unique case involving a gradual and complete relocation of Singapore’s container terminal facilities. Construction began in 2019, and reclamation works for the first phase were completed in November 2021. The first two berths of the first phase opened in late December 2021. The first phase entailed soil improvement for 414 ha of land, including 294 ha of newly reclaimed land. Construction of the first phase also included the fabrication and installation of 221 10-storey tall caissons of 15,000 tons each to form 8.6 km of seawall. When all phases are completed in the 2040s, Tuas Port is expected to be capable of handling 65 million TEU on about 1,337 ha of land. Phase 2 of the mega port is underway, involving the construction of 9.1 km of caissons. It is expected that the Keppel and Brani facilities will be relocated to Tuas by 2027. By the 2040s, the remaining Pasir Panjang facilities will be consolidated at the Tuas complex, with the port reaching its capacity of 65 million TEU. The move of port operations to Tuas makes way for the upcoming major city expansion towards the south, also known as the Greater Southern Front development.

The success of major container ports is jointly the outcome of a shift to containerized shipping in developing economies, the quality of their infrastructure and services, and an efficient interface with inland transport systems. Still, container traffic is subject to fluctuations mainly related to seasonal variations in demand that vary according to the markets. They remain bound to the economic structure and dynamism of the hinterland they service.

D. Ports on the periphery

On the opposite side of the spectrum, ports on the periphery are characterized by a limited domestic market and a more remote potential hinterland, for which they may have to compete with other ports. These ports are a specific category that faces a unique competition challenge. It is almost impossible to change a port’s location relative to major shipping lanes. Ships are attracted to areas of cargo generation and consumption to serve their derived demand function. How they access those areas depends largely on great circle routes, weather patterns, and maritime chokepoints, such as major straits or canals that limit movement options. Thus, if a port lacks intermediacy, it has little chance to change that condition unless it can generate sufficient cargo to offset extra shipping costs of deviation.

On the other hand, it is not as difficult to overcome a lack of centrality, as long as intermediacy is strong. For this to occur, the land transportation system must be extensive and focused on catering to shipping interests. Otherwise, no amount of advantageous ocean location will overcome the peripheral landside disadvantage. The last situation involving good intermediacy and poor centrality applies to those ports serving interior continental markets with competitive hinterlands.

To improve their competitiveness, peripheral ports need to be more proactive than centrally located ports near maritime networks or large domestic markets. Proximity to a great circle route and having good facilities and good infrastructure connections are not sufficient. Advantages may be found in a better-performing inland transport network, a more customized client approach, a more flexible business environment, and greater reliability that comes from some availability in assets. Competition may differ for these ports depending on whether they compete against a single, large competitor in the region or whether the competitive situation has no single dominant port player.

E. Automation

Another aspect of port development concerns the automation of port terminal operations. Although container ports are highly mechanized entities, their equipment is conventionally operated manually. Therefore, it is possible to automate one or all three of the main stages of port operations; the portainer (ship-to-shore moves), the dock-to-stacking yard movements (lateral moves), and the stacking yard gantry cranes.

growing number of container terminals are being automated, either fully or partially. A notable advantage of automation is the ability to operate on several work shifts per day. Although a conventional container terminal can add additional work shifts if required, this is easier to implement in automated terminals since fewer workers are involved.

3. Port Migration

As the geography of port traffic can change given shifting commercial trends, the location of port terminals can also be subject to migration and relocation. The main difference between terminal migration and relocation is that relocation implies closing the old terminal facility once the terminal has migrated to a new site. In contrast, migration involves using a new terminal site in addition to the existing site. This typically implies a development from obsolete facilities near the urban core to peripheral locations with ample space and better nautical accessibility for ports within urban areas. These can be downstream on a river, laterally along a coastline, or outward into the sea through land reclamation. If a large share of a port’s terminals migrates, then the port itself is said to have migrated, which may incite changes in its governance structure as the existing port authority may not have jurisdiction in the locations the facilities have migrated to.

The main drivers of port terminal migration involve:

  • Draft limitations. The push towards economies of scale has been an important driver in maritime shipping, which has led to larger ships with more constraining technical demands in terms of draft and pier length. While a draft of 10 meters was considered suitable for terminal operations in the 1990s, 15 meters is now considered the standard. The existing terminal site may not be suitable, triggering migration to a site with better nautical attributes.
  • Liner connectivity. Locations involving lower port turnaround times offer better connectivity to liner shipping networks. If a new terminal location implies less harbor navigation time, it offers better connectivity to maritime shipping networks.
  • Land availability. Under the indirect transshipment system, the terminal stacking yard functions as a buffer and temporary storage area between deepsea operations and land transport. Consequently, and despite higher turnover levels, the space consumed by container terminals increases substantially. In turn, these space requirements changed the geography of ports and have promoted the migration of terminals to new peripheral sites.
  • Inland connectivity. The migration to a new terminal facility can result in better access to regional transportation networks such as highways and rail. Peripheral sites usually have less inland congestion, allowing improvement in the capacity and efficiency of hinterland logistics.
  • Cost differences. The high costs of production factors such as land, labor, and capital at an existing terminal site can incite migration to peripheral sites where these costs are lower. Since ports are usually near urban core areas, rent pressures are intensive due to other competing activities, such as commercial and residential uses.
  • Regulations. An existing terminal site may face increasing environmental regulations and other constraints, such as opening hours and circulation bans. These regulations negatively impact terminal operations, and could be mitigated by migration to a new site.

Therefore, the port and its geography continue to adapt to technological and economic changes, leading to a variety of location factors and associated port functions such as manufacturing ports, industrial ports, gateway ports, and transshipment ports.

4. Maritime Regions

The geography of seaports is concerned with the location of terminals in relation to the technical characteristics of the site, the main users (importers and exporters), inland transport networks (road, rail, barges), and maritime shipping networks. To understand this geography, the maritime range concept allows a look at the largest scale of functional analysis of port systems.

A maritime range is a bounded region where a set of ports are either in competition, complementary, share a common regulatory regime, or have some basic geographical commonality, such as contiguity, proximity, or being part of an archipelago.

The world can be divided into 28 major ranges in which ports have a higher level of internal commonality than adjacent ranges. They may compete over similar hinterlands or may be part of similar feeder services. Maritime ranges can extend over several countries if a common regulatory regime applies or if there is a geographical homogeneity, such as for the ranges of Europe. Implicitly, maritime shipping companies have range-based commercial strategies since their services link maritime ranges (deep-sea services) or connect the range with regional, feeder, or cabotage services. Although global terminal operators maintain a transnational portfolio of terminals, this transnational port geography has a high regional orientation focusing on specific regions such as East Asia, Europe, or North America.

Changing economic conditions impact the structure of shipping networks since maritime ranges are associated with the commercial dynamics of their forelands and hinterlands. Containerization for the maritime shipping industry is illustrative of that process as its dynamics have followed commercial changes.

The diffusion of container ports initially took place within the core economies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, which saw the first major container ports emerge in the 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, container ports developed in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the developing economies of Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong) as trans-nationalism emerged. The 1990s saw Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia become the main drivers of container port growth due to the setting of global supply chains and the growth of transshipment hubs. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the dominance of China in port growth as its economic development strategies based on exports became a major component of global manufacturing. Outsourcing and offshoring changed the profile of global maritime shipping with additional flows of parts and finished goods. By 2020, global container volumes may have peaked in light of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the substantial changes in consumption patterns, and changes in procurement strategies outside China.

The geography of ports considers the historical and locational evolution of ports that follows economic, commercial, and technical changes. Many initial port sites are no longer suitable for the requirements of contemporary maritime shipping, and new sites have emerged. The process is likely to continue in the future.

Related Topics


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