The port of Rotterdam is 40 km long, 10 km wide, and accommodates 30,000 oceangoing ships and 130,000 river ships each year. It has 2,000 hectares of basins for a total of 10,500 hectares, including warehousing and industrial areas. In 2018 the port handled 469 million tons of freight, including 14.5 million TEUs of container traffic. These figures make Rotterdam the fifth most important bulk port in the world as well as the 11th largest container port. Rotterdam provides a good example of the morphological development of port terminal activities, with a clear downstream progression of expansion:
- The port originated adjacent to the old city center. Since its beginning as a fishing port in the 15th century, Rotterdam became in the 19th century a major commercial port handling the trade of the Dutch colonial empire. It became one of the first global ports, a tradition that still dominates today as Rotterdam is the maritime gateway to continental Western Europe. With the growth of industrial activity in its hinterland, especially in the Ruhr (Germany) in the Nineteenth Century, the port began to expand downriver with a westward migration along the Rhine and towards the North Sea. Bulk transshipment facilities were added in the 1920s and followed by petrochemical facilities in the 1930s. The port became one of Europe’s main oil transshipment and processing facility; a role still assumed today as Rotterdam is the world’s largest petrochemical complex. The importance of the port resulted in its complete destruction during World War II.
- After 1945 there was some re-building of the larger older docks on the south bank of the river, but the major emphasis was creating new facilities further downriver at Botlek.
- By the 1950s, the port authority realized that these were inadequate to meet the demands of ever-larger oil tankers, and initially sought to build new terminals on the north bank of the river. The proposed sites were adjacent to urban development, and there was intense local opposition. The port authority then proposed development on reclaimed land south of the river, the Europoort complex. This was built in the 1960s and became the heart of Europe’s major oil refining and petrochemical industry. In 1962, the port surpassed New York to become the largest in the world.
- Containerization led to converting several old sites in the Waalhaven and Botlek areas in the 1970s into container terminals.
- The growth of container traffic, along with the continued expansion of bulk traffic, incited the port to consider expansion out in the North Sea. This led to the construction of an entirely new facility on reclaimed land at Maasvlatke in the 1980s. In turn, this process was reinforced by the development of distribution facilities, making Rotterdam and the Netherlands the hearth of European freight distribution.
- Subsequent traffic growth in the 1990s resulted in the port authority proposing a new facility further out in the North Sea: Maasvlatke II. After years of opposition from environmentalists, the project began construction in 2008 and was made available in 2013. The first container terminal opened in 2015. By 2030 this phase is expected to be completed, leaving the Port of Rotterdam with few other options to grow outside the reconversion of existing facilities.
In form, therefore, the port has been squeezed like toothpaste between competing land uses, to the north largely by urban pressures, and to the south by agricultural land.