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Harbour cities without harbours

From economic powerhouse to cultural destination: like harbour cites throughout the north, Bremerhaven's former docks have been reinvented as a centre for scientific research and a symbolic universe dedicated to the local maritime tradition, writes Helmuth Berking.

"Port city" is a term common enough to evoke a succession of familiar images – fortunes made and fortunes lost; adventure and conquest; arrival and departure; infamous sailortowns; love bought and sold; hard drinking men and perpetual farewell. The hustle and bustle of the port once formed the centre of urban life, determined the atmosphere of the city, its sounds, smells and rhythm. "Nostalgia for the present" is the phrase used by Frederic Jameson to characterize a mode of perception that makes the observer look back with longing to something never lost. Nowadays, both the inhabitants and visitors of port cities seem to be confronted with a nostalgic present, offering reminders of a past they never knew. In the northern hemisphere, port and city have parted company; ports have left their cities behind. What remains is a void, a wasteland, docks and embankments in the city-centre, massive port-related infrastructures that once shaped the city. Other remnants include images and tales, traditions and cultural dispositions, which provide material for the invention of something new: the port city without a port linked to an overarching maritime culture, ready for the symbolic consumption of things past.[1]


This article is part of the Eurozine focal point Arrivals/Departures: European harbour cities

Harbour cities as places of movement, immigration and emigration, as places of inclusion and exclusion, develop distinct modes of being that not only reflect different cultural traditions and political and social self-conceptions, but also contain economic potential and communicate how they see themselves as part of the larger structure that is "Europe". [ more ]
Ports, especially sea-ports, are to global trade what global cities are to financial markets: centres of distribution, logistical planning and exchange. Close to 90 per cent of global trade is connected to the merchant navy. It is not the ports but the cities that present a problem. The spatial separation of port and city affects both environments. The port has lost its urban structure. Today, the sign reads: "Off limits" – no trespassing. The city, however, has lost its economic and social corner-stone. Urban design and spatial gestalt – once centred on the port – has become a major challenge. A mode of urban culture, built on longstanding mediation between global spaces and local networks, has withered away.

This raises the question whether any distinctive type of port city still exists at all. Architecturally, within the urban imagination, it is still there but the harbour itself and its peculiar economy are gone.

The distinctiveness of a port city, as opposed to an ordinary city, lies in its spatial layout and functions. Port cities are outposts, bridgeheads, gateways to the world. They are border cities with an infrastructure related to trade, storage, transportation and logistics. They are oriented outward. "In a more pictorial language one might envisage the centre point as the middle of a bowl, and the gateway as a funnel or spout".[2] But the port city is also a sluice mediating not just between land and sea but between different levels of complexity in the territories within its reach.[3] Ports were "world cities" long before the term became fashionable. The economy of the port was the economy of the city. Historically, the port economy was male dominated and its urban culture reinforced a particular image of masculinity.

Brian Hoyle distinguishes five stages in the development of the port city, shedding some light on the crucial transformation of the relationship between the two.[4] First, he identifies "the primitive ancient and medieval city-port". Until approximately 1850, sea ports functioned as centres for overseas trade. The port was an integral part of the city and, above all, the focal point of its commercial centre. Second came "the expanding port city". The transformation was determined by the industrial revolution, the expansion of global trade and a new phase of European colonialism. Around 1900, the sailing vessel was replaced by the steamboat in European ports, and the ports were integrated into an emerging European railroad-system. Once the end of the line in the network of global trade, the port now looked away from trade, towards distribution. The separation of port and city took place in the course of this transformation. The centre of commerce, along with most maritime services, moved from the waterfront to the city. The third stage was "the modern industrial port city" – a period up to the 1950s was characterized by an accelerated separation of port and city and the spatial expansion of the port due to new industries. This was a time when the maritime heritage served as a lively topic in city-discourse. The first nautical museums appeared, the media began publishing stories on the mythical powers of harbours and the sea, and once infamous sailortowns began to attract the general public. Fourth, came the appearance of "maritime industrial development areas". Outside the city, port expansion continued. Technical innovation – in the form of the container – revolutionized transportation. The end of Fordism brought down local labour markets. The port became a high tech enterprise, and the port city shrank economically, financially and demographically. The fifth stage – "waterfront redevelopment" – represented a form of cultural reassessment. Since the end of the 1970s, the main task of oppressed port cities has been to heal the wounds left by the exodus from the port. From Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco to the Docklands in London, from Marseille to Helsinki, urban design has focussed on drawing the harbour into the cultural orbit, and on the changing structure of city and port. Hamburg's HafenCity, for example, articulates the paradox of these visions, because what is at stake is a material as well as symbolic reinvention of the port city, within the body of the old town.

The port city implies not only a particular spatial and functional layout, but also a distinctive cultural disposition, an ethos that distinguishes it from ordinary cities. Its geographical reach, the longstanding mediation between land and sea, and the permanent presence of strangers make the port city a perfect example of the "translocal" society. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism are usually ascribed to it. The historical roots of the image of the port as a cosmopolitan city point to the first stage in the development of the port city: the dominance of merchant capital that gave it a distinctive style and mental gestalt. The "ideology of merchant capital" created a backdrop where the texture and symbolism of the port city cumulatively developed. Interestingly enough, historical studies on Hamburg under the Nazi-regime do not offer any evidence that these ascribed attitudes made any discernible difference to the fate of the city's Jewish population.[5]

Bremerhaven: A window on the future?

City typologies are abstractions, cognitive cumulations of empirical phenomena. A short portrait of an unusual port city may offer a window on the future, as we try to come to terms with the story of Europe's harbour cities.

Bremerhaven, located at the mouth of the river Weser, comprises – together with the Hanseatic city of Bremen – the smallest state in the Federal Republic of Germany.[6] The two are 60 kilometres apart, surrounded and divided by the territories of Lower Saxony. Although the port of Bremerhaven is the fourth largest in Europe and the second biggest in Germany, public interest in the city remains low. (Bremerhaven? Not much comes to mind.) This blind spot within European urban geography is astonishing because, until the mid-twentieth century, Bremerhaven was known throughout Europe as a major port of emigration, the gateway to the New World. Between 1830 and 1974 more than seven million migrants used the port to embark on their voyage to the promised land. The liner trade to and from New York established a distinctive cultural space for the circulation of people, goods, ideas and lifestyles. Bremerhaven became the easternmost outpost of the US within Europe. After World War II, the US army used the port to supply troops to southern occupation zones. Jazz and jeeps, beers and burgers were traded daily. A highly competitive shipbuilding industry and the largest fishing fleet in Europe completed the picture of a well-to-do, modern industrial port city.

The end of this longstanding cycle of growth and modest prosperity came quickly. The last passenger liner left Bremerhaven in 1971. The city, however, lost more than its liner trade. Previously, thousands of travellers had strolled weekly across the city. The incoming and outgoing liners marked a high-point in urban life. The passenger liner represented luxury and opulence, a moving city that functioned as the urban centre of a port that was the town itself. Today, the world does not arrive and depart from Bremerhaven. Some years on, a second supporting pillar collapsed. International regulations on maritime and fishing rights forced the fleet to be grounded. The crisis in the shipbuilding industry was the final nail in the city's coffin.

Bremerhaven's unusual history helps explain this structural breakdown. The port was founded 1827 by the citizens of Bremen when the river Weser sanded up and ships could no longer proceed upstream. To secure access to the sea, Bremen bought a piece of land and built an outer port. The layout of the expanding port created a centre around which the city grew. Bremerhaven, the outpost of Bremen, was treated as a colony of Bremen. Everything that happened there was planned and implemented by Bremen's local ruling class. Everyone doing business in the new port was obliged to take up residence in the Hansestadt. Profit flowed in one direction only. Even migrants had to stay in Bremen to start with, and were only shipped to Bremerhaven for embarkation – a journey which took up to two days. This profitable strategy imposed by merchant capital resulted in a split class structure in Bremerhaven, where a local bourgeoisie never developed. The port city of Bremerhaven never became a merchant city. Even today, the political, economic and cultural elites that run the city live elsewhere. Those who lived their lives in the port city did hard and dangerous work.

The main, and most profitable, business here was the migration trade. All other economic and technological innovations arose from this, building up a single robust industrial structure comprised of the migration business, shipbuilding and fishing. In its heyday, Bremerhaven was known as the city of the Norddeutsche Lloyd, the most successful shipping company of its time. As early as 1869, it ran 17 of the world's fastest and most luxurious ocean liners.

By 2000 all that remained was a city of 114,000 inhabitants with an empty centre. Dominated by an urban culture historically derived from the maritime working class, unemployment rates were rocketing while its huge and highly profitable industrial port – focussed on container shipping and cars – was owned by Bremen and governed by people who didn't live there. At this time, Bremerhaven only ever came to public attention as the German capital of unemployment, with the highest proportion of welfare recipients in the country.

What was to be done? Bremerhaven began early with a recovery programme which focussed wholly on its maritime past. A technology centre was founded, along with a centre for oceanography and a university of applied sciences. Museums were opened and the port's maritime heritage became its chief cultural attraction. The German Shipping Museum, designed by Hans Scharoun and shaped like a hull, was founded. The Columbus Centre was constructed in the form of funnels from a passenger liner. The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar Research was designed as a liner set in stone. Today, Bremerhaven keeps its ocean liners in port as new, dominant, custom-built architectural designs.

The most important development project was launched in 2000. Hafenwelten (Harbour Worlds) became the new city centre, designed as a port with shipping vessels set in stone. But now it is no longer the ocean liner but the sail that dominates. This symbolic innovation began with the German Emigration Centre, shaped as a sailing vessel. Fifteen years after the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990, the German public celebrated the inauguration of its transatlantic counterpart, marketed as the biggest migration museum on European soil. Other projects followed: the Climate House 8 Degrees East, the Atlantic Hotel "Sail City", and of course a shopping centre. The underlying idea was to make full use of the local maritime tradition and to combine it with state of the art science. Both the Migration Museum and Climate House are scientific research centres.

A once empty centre has been revived in the form of Hafenwelten, and the port city without a port has taken shape as a developed urban environment, as well as a symbolic universe dedicated to local tradition and an imagined maritime cityscape. This way of reinventing the port city is linked to ways in which the heritage and tourist industry transform locations into destinations. Bremerhaven already has 1.7 million visitors per year. But what of those who live their lives in Bremerhaven and once made their living in the real harbour? Will they enjoy, or profit from, exhibiting what they once created?

Is this the future of the European port city: a folkloristic experience for landlubbers, a destination for the bored middle classes? Real ports are sealed off. They remain inaccessible to migrants. They are cages for sailors. But at least the ocean liner is back – albeit only as a cruise ship.


  • [1] H. Berking, J. Schwenk, Hafenstädte: Bremerhaven und Rostock im Wandel, Frankfurt am Main, 2011.
  • [2] A. F. Burghardt, A Hypothesis about Gateway Cities, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 61/2, 1971, 270.
  • [3] G. Held, Territorium und Grosstadt [Territory and the City], Wiesbaden, 2005.
  • [4] B.S., Hoyle and D.A. Pinder, European Port Cities in Transition, London, 1992, 8.
  • [5] R. Liedtke, "An Island of Humanity in a Sea of Barbarism? " in David Cesarani and Gemma Romain (eds.), Jews and Port Cities 1590-1990: Commerce , Community and Cosmopolitanism, London, 2006.
  • [6] See Berking and Schwenk, Hafenstädte, 2011.

Published 2012-10-17

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

© Helmuth Berking
© Eurozine

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