The Significance of Seaports in Shaping Cities

The installation of commercial ports in various locations around the world, especially at the beginning of what we now call globalization, was a preponderant and structuring factor for the foundation of numerous cities. Thus, discussing the relationship between certain cities and their ports is also discussing their history, formation, and development over time, as these areas played a fundamental role in the growth of trade, the economy, and inevitably urban life, making these cities vital and strategic centers of cultural, commercial, and social exchange.

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The period known as the Age of Discovery, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was a time of intense maritime exploration that fundamentally transformed humanity. As European powers explored the oceans, invaded lands, and established colonies, there was a need for new ports in strategic locations. These ports had an adequate geographical location, preferably close to important commercial routes, and favorable natural conditions such as minimally adequate depth for anchoring ships. These ports served as departure and arrival points for vessels transporting goods such as spices, agricultural and manufactured products, precious metals, and even humans who were cruelly and intensively transported by sea in inhumane conditions.

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Hong Kong. Created by @overview. Image source: @maxartechnologies

Over time, many of these port regions originated in several cities around the world. These regions were strongly linked to maritime activities that were part of their daily lives and urban dynamics. These coastal cities acted as significant and strategic warehouses for commercial logistics, not only restricted to maritime exchanges themselves but also functioning as important connectors and supply points for inland continental regions.

Ports were linked to other urban activities, especially in their surroundings. This often resulted in active and bustling commercial neighborhoods in their vicinity. In these areas, markets, warehouses, and industries related to maritime trade developed, as well as banks, hotels, restaurants, and other establishments. In addition, the installation and development of ports themselves also involved the construction of specific infrastructures such as docks, piers, elevators, and internal transportation systems. These infrastructures in addition to their port functions, also marked the physiognomy of these urban landscapes.

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Monaco. Created by @dailyoverview. Image source: @yvangrubski

From a broader perspective, by providing connections between cities and other regions of the world, beyond goods and merchandise, ports also stimulated many other exchanges and interactions of ideas, customs, and knowledge. Port cities became meeting points for people of different origins, cultures, and traditions, promoting diversity and interaction between them. These exchanges often contributed to the intellectual, artistic, and scientific growth of several cities, enriching their urban cultures.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka. Created by @dailyoverview. Image source: @maxartechnologies

At different times, it is possible to highlight a series of prominent port cities that have experienced their moments of zenith and decline, playing a fundamental role in global economic, cultural, and political development. Cities like Alexandria, in modern-day Egypt, Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, and Istanbul, in modern-day Turkey, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, were critical for trade in the ancient world. Venice and Genoa, in modern-day Italy, were significant commercial, cultural, and maritime centers during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Lisbon, in Portugal, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, played a crucial role in the Age of Exploration and European maritime expansion. In the United States, New York's dynamic port was one of the reasons for its growth as a major global power, given its importance to trade in North America since European colonization.

In Brazil, a continental country, cities' history was deeply influenced by their port areas. Brazilian state capitals are located on its coast. During the colonization period, the country was a Portuguese exploration colony, and its ports were the main entry and exit routes for goods, connecting it with the Portuguese metropolis and its other colonies around the world, constituting fundamental elements of its formation. Salvador, its first capital, had a port as one of its main structuring axes, around which many other urban dynamics developed. Other cities such as Rio de Janeiro, the second capital of the country, and Santos, which today has the largest port complex in Latin America, also deserve recognition for their port areas' development.

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Rio de janeiro Brazil. Created by @dailyoverview. Image source: @planetlabs

Throughout the 20th century, with the rise of road transport, many ports declined in economic and logistical importance. The extensive development of road networks allowed greater land access to markets and production centers, reducing commercial dependence on maritime transportation. In recent decades, especially in the face of the disuse or even degradation of many of these areas, some have undergone significant transformational changes and reform processes. These changes have given them new uses and purposes. Puerto Madero, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Olympic Village of Barcelona, Spain, and The Rocks neighborhood in Sydney, Australia, are examples of rehabilitation projects of old port areas that have been converted into active public spaces, enjoyed by the population (or part of it), showing that these areas, even in the face of new uses, have maintained their importance and are still a fundamental part of the urban dynamics of their cities.

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Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Francisco Ghisletti, via Unsplash

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Water in Architecture, proudly presented by Hansgrohe.

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Cite: Belitardo, Adele. "The Significance of Seaports in Shaping Cities" [Portos marítimos: a importância das zonas portuárias para a formação das cidades] 29 Jun 2023. ArchDaily. (Trans. Simões, Diogo) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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