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Europe's Port Cities and Their Role

Europe's port cities handle most of the trade between EU nations and other continental markets, with constantly growing volumes due to new trading habits. Globalisation is forcing the transformation of member nations' old national ports into post-industrial European ports cities.

Le Havre

© Photo Alain Baudry

Rising behind the dockside gantries of Le Havre, the Bridge of Normandy frames the port city activities of the estuary.

Markets are freeing themselves from nation-State frameworks to become transnational, European, phenomena. No longer do ports handle captive national traffic. Port cities now compete with each other across Europe to attract global trade flows, behaving more like businesses than transportation structure. In addition, it is no longer a simple question of facilitating trade in material goods since the greater part of value added in globalisation at present consists in services to merchandise. Trade therefore includes a number of non-material givens associated with goods to make their movement itself a key part of added value.

As a result, port cities must furnish a variety of complex skills and services on their way to becoming once again the commercial centers they were before the industrial era (as analysed by French historian Fernand Braudel). Conceived as "local production systems", the most active ports are managed as a part of the urban economic fabric characterized by a strong coordination among various entrepreneurial sectors and a development of local strategies concerning specific trade flows and relations generating added value and jobs.

French ports by contrast regularly lose market share by sticking to a centralised national and industrial type of organisation. Few reforms movements have arisen to challenge the “autonomous” ports of France, unconnected to their corresponding cities and run by State engineers specialising in transportation.

The need for change is even greater as port cities in the same region are banding together to form port metropolises (of both continental and world scale). Port cities are central elements in a great deal of current urban and regional re-planning, as must be the case for any nation interested in participating in globalisation.



à lire

Thierry Baudouin, Michèle Collin & Claude Prelorenzo (eds), Urbanité des cités portuaires, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1997.


Thierry Baudouin
Researcher at the CNRS
Laboratoire “Théorie des mutations urbaines”

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