Spatial Development of the Port of Antwerp and Waterfront Redevelopment

Spatial Development of the Port of Antwerp

Antwerp is Europe’s second-largest port in terms of cargo throughput and Europe’s second-largest container port behind Rotterdam. The port is the European market leader in conventional general cargo like steel, fruit, and forest products. It has covered warehousing space in the port area of more than 6 million square meters. The port of Antwerp in Belgium is located on the river Scheldt, 90 km from its delta in the North Sea. In the past – and even nowadays – the river Scheldt has been the action of religious and political conflicts. From the 16th to the 19th century, the access to the river Scheldt was blocked. As the commercial attractiveness of the city of Antwerp was directly related to the success of the port, this historical fact was reflected in the prosperity of the city of Antwerp. From the 19th century, the river was reopened, and the Antwerp region was commercially revived again.

The Antwerp port system exists of harbor docks separated from the river with locks. In ancient times, the ships moored in the middle of the city center. However, due to the lack of handling capacity at these berths, the port expanded downstream to the north. Only some artifacts of this ancient port infrastructure in the south of the city are still visible. This area is now reclaimed for other functions, such as housing and recreational activities.

Parallel to the expansion of the city of Antwerp, the port boomed as well. The most significant expansion of the port of Antwerp took place after World War II with the implementation of the Ten Year Plan 1956-1965. Whereas the port of Antwerp occupied only 1,400 hectares of land just after World War II, this land use increased to 10,633 hectares after the realization of the Ten-Year Plan. Nowadays, the port occupies close to 14,000 hectares of land.

Thanks to the Ten Year Plan, not only maritime-related industries but also port-related industries (e.g. chemical and petrochemical industries) were accommodated in the port of Antwerp. These industries are primarily located on the right bank of the river Scheldt, situated in the center of the port area, squeezed by the river Scheldt and the dock system. With respect to environmental effects and safety, this location was seen as the most suitable for this type of industry.

Although the port of Antwerp is a typical landlord port using a system of land concessions, some of the maritime-related industries that settled in Antwerp in the late 1950s and early 1960s (e.g. BAYER, BASF, and General Motors) managed to buy land at a fair price. This policy fitted in the framework of creating a Maritime Industrial Development Area (MIDA) in the port of Antwerp. Besides attracting port-related industries, the port transformed from a transshipment port to a multifunctional logistics and distribution hub for containerized and non-containerized cargo.

As a result of the port expansions, the Antwerp city-port interface changed dramatically. On the one hand, the changes in the maritime industry affected the transport system and logistics approach. Increasing vessel sizes, containerization, and indirect transshipment incited terminal operators to look for deeper (tidal) draft berths and more extensive terminals. On the other hand, the enlargement of the city of Antwerp and the abandonment of port areas in the neighborhood of the city center resulted in problematic planning zones that are difficult to incorporate into the urban design of the adjacent city center.

In Antwerp, three ancient port areas can be distinguished:

  • ‘t Zuid (the South) under redevelopment in the context of the Nieuw Zuid project.
  • Kaaien or Quays stretching about 4 km along the river next to the City center. These are under redevelopment.
  • Eilandje. The latter zone or ‘Little Island’, thanks to its name to the small islands formed by excavating the Willem dock, Bonaparte dock, ‘Kattendijk’ dock, ‘Hout’ dock, and ‘Asia’ dock.

The Eilandje (Little Island) became a part of the town in the North of Antwerp for the first time in the 16th century. However, to find out the true origin of the current Eilandje, one has to go back to Napoleon’s time. Napoleon had his heart set on the port for military reasons. He had a dock dugout, the Bonapartedock, early in the 19th century in the Antwerp port area with its already existing waterways, warehouses, enterprises, and breweries. A second dock – the Willemdock – followed several years later. After the fall of Napoleon, the constructed infrastructure continued to be used, and several trade establishments were added. This resulted in the port’s economic prime. The number of ships and their sizes increased, so a more northern dock, the Kattendijk dock, was dug. The city center grew around the docks, and not much later, port activities and city life started to blend.

Due to the alternation of blocks and docks, it seemed as if the buildings were on ‘islands’. This explains the name Eilandje, which is still used today. Before the end of the 19th century, there was yet another expansion, even more towards the north. This resulted in the port and the city increasingly separating. Due to the internationalization and expansion of shipping in the 20th century, the hectic port life disappeared. People left and the Eilandje was left behind desolated. It was the general urban plan of Antwerp in 1990 that gave the starting shot for a mental process in which the future development of the city took shape, later resulting in the ambitious ‘Stad aan de Stroom’ (City on the River) organization. The Oud Zuid and Nieuw Zuid and Scheldekaaien (Scheldt quays) areas and the Eilandje were to give the river Scheldt a new ‘face’, in which it would act as a central part of the city: the city on the river. In close cooperation with the City and Port, the plan was further deepened, widened, and embedded in the total urban structure. The Board approved this Master plan on 20 March 2002.

The main objective of the Eilandje redevelopment project is to improve the standard of living in this ancient port area. The functions for Eilandje have the following breakdown: 60% housing facilities, 30% business facilities, and 10% facilities for cultural, commercial, and leisure activities. Several parties have joined forces for the development of Eilandje. The City of Antwerp, the Gemeentelijk Havenbedrijf (Antwerp port authority), and the Flemish Region (government of Flanders) are working together. The city and the port of Antwerp covered a portion of the significant initial investment to increase the project’s financial attractiveness to potential investors. The investments were made in public services, road infrastructure, and outdoor areas.

The more north you go, the more the districts change from a close urban structure to the vastness of the international port. The area features some striking architecture and new landmarks such as the MAS Museum and the new headquarters of the Antwerp port authority. The MAS museum on the Hanzestedenplaats was designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects and is designed as a living museum, an urban foyer where inhabitants of Antwerp meet. The new Port House designed by Zaha Hadid is located at the northern tip of the Kattendijk dock (and thus in the most northern part of the Eilandje). The building complements the MAS museum, the landmark on the south side of the Eilandje.