Today, we are surrounded by issues like climate change, energy price, and air pollution from media. we are living in an urbanized world where half of its population settled in cities and this trend is expected to rise. According to the global cities competitiveness report of Citigroup in 2012, 14 out of the 20 economically strongest cities in the world are port cities. Seaports have an essential contribution to the globalization and world economy since more than 90% of the world’s trade arrive and depart at seaports, based on the report from the World Trade Organization in 2010.

Port cities are crucial places that act as the engine for countries in terms of economic strength. Port cities are the nodal points connecting countries in a mutual competitive and cooperative process while improving the benefits of their local strategies. Indeed, ports are potential places to increase the economic wealth, because of their industrial, commercial, logistic, fishing, and touristic activities and services. Port cities link international supply chains and are critical to the global trading system. Port cities function as the gateways for countries because they are the nodes of flow of raw material, energy, and wastes. The Sustainable interaction between port-cities and shipping-activities is one of the emerging factors in the development of ports and attracted significant attention in recent years.  


Cities and their ports, a mutual changing relation

However,  the relationship between ports and their city is becoming a challenging issue in the debate on locally sustainable developments. That is due to the reason that port cities are the places of conflict between economy and ecology. Ports and cities relationships have weakened recently as the rapid growth in ship sizes and cargo volume transported over the recent decades, resulted in huge growing demands on ports’ space, not only for new berths to accommodate giant ships but also for facilities in cargo-handling, storage, and transport to meet the uprising demands. Gradually, many ports have moved out of city areas, leaving the port city with less direct economic benefits, but still posing various negative local impacts, such as air, water, and noise pollutions,  traffic congestion on local communities. Therefore, the common challenge of many port-cities is labelled as the “local-global mismatch”.

Another problem that is left for port cities is the life-cycle of port facilities and areas. Some ports have disassociated from modern urban growth and have reached the dereliction stage in their life-cycle.  The final result has been a complete change of use and the port has ceased to exist, with no redevelopment of port facilities. This is illustrated in the linear life cycle set out in Fig.1(a). In the linear life-cycle, ports usually have developed in response to customer/industry needs till they reach maturity with use of their full potential. However, they are no longer able to change under this approach, due to lack of sustainable strategies which support their growth in long term. Therefore, they reach a condition of obsolescence when they lose business to more modern and higher capacity facilities elsewhere. As a result in the drop of the economy, the number of visiting ships into these ports falls and their berths become abandoned or with a considerable reduction in activities. At this stage, ports are faced with a decision about what, if anything, they can do to continue operating, and should also take into account sustainability in any decisions about how they proceed in the future.

To avoid a linear lifecycle, many ports have taken “Redevelopment into account, regarding factors such as the cultural heritage of their cities,  conservation of historical buildings and markets, finding new uses for abandoned buildings, stores and berths, to identify how to bring economic growth and benefit the local people. Sustainability in the port redevelopment approaches can be achieved through recognition of the needs to reuse, adapt or diversify in a systematic way so that the ports continue to remain competitive in the face of economic or environmental shifts.  In this respect, the traditional linear life-cycle is replaced with the new concept which shows how facilities within a port area, rather than the whole port, progress through five stages of growth, maturity, obsolescence, dereliction, and redevelopment. Figure 1.(b) illustrates the new regenerative concept for the ports’ Life-Cycle.

Figure.1(a)   Linear concept of a  port life-cycle



Figure.1(b)  Life-cycle of a Regenerative Port

Source: Adapted and reproduced by Author from Carpenter. A , et al.


Circular economy: A solution for port-city development

Therefore, from a perspective of sustainability, the relationship between the port and the urban area around it can be reshaped. A sustainable port city means the place where the balanced social, economic, and environmental values are reached in an efficient way, over long-term. Therefore, new models, tools or methods are needed to address the resilience and sustainability of the port cities, together, from a win-win perspective. These measures should reduce the mismatch in port cities’ relations by transforming differences into a synergistic cooperation. A new regenerative tool is “circular economy” that paves the way for port city transition from linear structures to circular models. This concept has recently gained significant attention in ports, due to the reduction of negative externalities of industries and logistics in a systematic way.

In 2013,  the EllenMacArthur Foundation defined the circular economy as “An industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models”. As shown in Fig.2, one of the most important principles of the circular economy is optimising resource yields by circulating products, components and materials in use at the highest utility at all times in both technical and biological cycles.         


Figure 2. Circular economy system diagram

                Source: EllenMacArthur Foundation


Sustainable port cities contribute to closing the flows of material and energy resources through circularized processes and synergies between stakeholders. As seaports mostly put added value on all kinds of resources, therefore it can be simulated for wastes and second-hand products as well.  As stated by Kyllönen in 2017, If the seaports are looked at as the “crossing-points” for waste and materials, then it makes sense why the ports are ideal for developing the circular economy. It is even more profitable to execute these activities in aport areas because of industrial parks, clustering activities and megacities in the proximity of ports. Thus, a port city would appear to be one of the most attractive places for value-added activities.

The main driver of a shift from linear economy to the circular economy in port cities is the short supply of raw materials and energy sources with the subsequent soaring commodity prices. The shift towards a circular economy can protect port businesses and services from market fluctuations and geopolitical risks. A factor that facilitates this transition is the consumer preferences that are also shifting away from the ownership of goods and information towards models where they are willing to share information or use products instead of owning them, according to the MacArthur in 2014.  

Circular economy strategies in European Ports

Ports have always played an important role to the economy of Europe, and for many years, with 75% of extra-EU goods and 37% of the intra-EU freight traffic shipped through European ports, based on statistics published by European Commission in 2016.  European ports-cities developed hand-in-hand, as the port generating wealth for the city. It has become confirmed that for the European Ports to flourish, their cities require to prosper and improve their mutual relations. The EU urban policies can facilitate the further joint development of ports and cities while addressing the current challenges, essential for achieving the goals of smart, sustainable and inclusive society in Europe.

The principles set by the European strategy for the adopted EU Circular Economy Package can be a driver for EU port cities to shift toward a sustainable era. Furthermore, drivers such as rising public environmental awareness and competitiveness caused the circular economy concept to gain significant attention in Europe. A circular economy strongly supports economic growth and produces job opportunities through new business and services.

In recent years, a few European Port Cities have taken serious steps to apply the circular economy approach. The circular strategies of the ports like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Antwerp have similarities, but also some differences due to the differences in ports’ profiles. The core of their circular development strategies is in moving toward less dependence on fossil fuels by renewables, systematic improvement of energy efficiency energies, and finally, waste management optimization. Another similarity is stakeholders’ involvement in development planning, with a bottom-up approach. There are also similar challenges like insufficient budget, allocation of sources to transit the linear structure of ports towards circular models, and integration of the port development plans into the city municipality plans. All of these ports also to some extent suffer from lack of experts, professional role, and validated businesses for new circular models. Furthermore, there is no clear balance between responsibilities and gains between the cities’ urban areas and their ports.

Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Hamburg defined city contact points for circular ideas, activities and customer support. Antwerp has set up a” Virtual Knowledge Centre” for innovative ideas and start-ups. Every port has a different solution to approach waste management due to the different types of produced waste from the industries. In policy aspect, Antwerp is leading by a clear “zero-ton residual waste” strategy. The similarly waste-exchange platforms have been used by both Antwerp and Amsterdam ports. Initiatives are applied by the port of Rotterdam to reserve spots for waste companies while the port of Hamburg uses some of the recovered materials in road and buildings constructions. Port city of Rotterdam has developed the Roadmap Circular Economy Rotterdam that distinguishes long-term goals and short-term opportunities
within Rotterdam to create momentum for circular businesses.  The goal of this Roadmap is to inspire and accelerate the circular economy to transform Rotterdam into a resource resilient city, new businesses and more local jobs in the circular economy.


Source: Rotterdam climate initiative


Challenges in the application of circular economy in European ports are due to wide differences across their profiles. Diversity in range of ports’ size, function, market economic position, and geographical specifications, put a mix of challenges in front of European ports. However, they aimed to increase the net positive impact of their ports and, also to support the local economy of cities. This policy reinforces a coherent response to the challenges in European urban areas in proximity of ports, and help to achieve the smart, sustainable and inclusive society.

Some practice on mitigating environmental impacts already implemented in European port cities. shore electricity to ships, reduction on the port fee for cleaner ships, use of electric trucks, modal shift to train, creating buffer zones between city and port areas which mitigate the impacts.

However, wider opportunities are introduced by the circular economy in European port cities, like in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, to increase the economic benefits from ports while mitigating the negative impacts on urban surrounding areas. The circular economy can take hold of opportunities for ecological synergies offered by the proximity of different industrial firms such as for heating or waste treatment. In this way, circular economy development will create linkages between the ports and the city local economy.


Authors: Reza Karimpour, Fabio Ballini