Discussing Waterfronts – Rotterdam

Waterfront Rotterdam: The right mix of social and water resilience

What does it really take to build a booming public waterfront? According to Project for Public Spaces a successful waterfront needs 10 qualities to flourish. Does this mean that if these former ports do indeed lack certain assets, they will not develop into booming public spaces? Or are some qualities maybe more important than others for long term sustainable waterfront development?

In a series of three blogs we are discussing the waterfronts in Barcelona, the harbour front in Rotterdam and the Waterfront in Toronto.  From Barcelona Harbourfront and coastal area we learned that a strong community vision advocating local character, promoting historic identity and safeguarding accessibility are important for long term succes. This vision however can be lost easily or be encouraged through good management.

What can we say about these qualities when looking at Rotterdam Harbour?

The first thing we have to understand about the Rotterdam waterfront, is that economic reasons always have been the prime concern of the city council. Even now when city planners decided to bring back the water in the minds and hearts of the citizens of Rotterdam and turning the city harbours into urban living & leisure neighborhoods.

This of course is not without reason, for Rotterdam did not turn into the biggest harbour of Europe overnight.

From fishing to petrol

The first harbour of Rotterdam, now called the Old Port, used to be situated in the centre of the city. In the fourteenth century, Rotterdam was a small town on the river Rotte, and was home to river fishing, ship building and a little bit of trade. Over time, the city developed into a true trading port. The opening of the Nieuwe Waterweg canal in 1872 signalled the start of Rotterdam’s huge growth. Subsequent investments in deep waterways, like the Caland canal and the Hartel canal fuelled this growth.

The main competitive advantage of the port of Rotterdam was the direct connection to the sea without locks and without bridges, from which it still benefits today. These free and deep waterways have established the preconditions for an efficient and very accessible port. The port of Rotterdam is accessed from the North Sea, and is part of the so-called Hamburg-Le Havre (HLH) range with Rotterdam being the largest port within the HLH region.

The port of Rotterdam is – both in terms of cargo volumes and petrochemical industries – one of the most important locations in the world. As largest port of Europe and until 2004 the largest port in the world (now in 11th place – with Shanghai in China on nr.1 ranked by cargo tonnage and by volume of container shipment ), Rotterdam harbour is still growing and in need of more space. Rotterdam has a cargo throughput of 445 million tonnes in 2015 and estimated throughput of 650 million tonnes in 2030.

The geographical migration of the port away from the city has slowly changed the character of the relationship between Rotterdam’s port and city.

The separation of port and city

The evolution of the port of Rotterdam is like many other ports when you look at the different stages in the evolution of a port-city (Model of port researcher Brian Stewart Hoyle). Starting from the initial port site in the city centre in the nineteenth century, Rotterdam’s port expansion downstream towards the sea is primarily the product of evolving maritime technologies and improvements in cargo handling. Throughout the twentieth century, the docks and terminals have moved tens of kilometers away to land reclaimed from the sea.

In the occupation years of World War II – after the German destruction of Rotterdam’s historic city centre – the port was the target of heavy allied air attacks because of the many German naval ships were moored there. But after the war Rotterdam rapidly recovered. Next to the city centre, reconstruction works focused particularly on the port area. New complexes were built to house the growing petrochemical industry and the upcoming container market. From the 1950s onwards, various port areas were developed. Port development came at the expense of other functions, but that was widely accepted during those redevelopment years.

Finally, from 2008 onwards Maasvlakte II has been under construction. With this final expansion into the North Sea, a total of 2,000 hectares of port land is created.

A new relationship between port and city

With the relocation of activities to the west, there was a geographical separation between the city and the port. Not only did this mean that the port disappeared out of sight, it also left the minds of Rotterdam citizens. In the city, the port left behind large areas of obsolete port land.

On the one hand, the city had to engage in new strategies to continue to take advantage of the presence of a large port. On the other hand, the port authorities had to make sure that their desired developments are politically supported by the city, although these developments mainly take place outside the perimeter of the city.

The waterfront redevelopment can be divided into two different waves. The first wave emerged during the early 1980s, when an impressive large-scale waterfront redevelopment program called Kop van Zuid was planned and carried out. The second wave concerns the area of Rotterdam CityPorts.

Waterfront redevelopment program – an excellent opportunity

The waterfront redevelopment strategies are focused on making Rotterdam a more attractive location for ‘knowledge industries’ and ‘knowledge workers’. But also by attracting high-income residents, as policy makers believed that the city has a shortage of middle-class households. After decades of focusing on economics, industrialization and growth, more and more citizens perceive further port development in terms of negative effects for the local community – i.e. road congestion, intrusion of the landscape, noise and air pollution and the use of scarce land.

The city of Rotterdam started to feel the consequences of the outward movement of the port on a larger level of scale. However, at that time, city planners and policy makers had already come to understand the potential of the abandoned port areas near the city centre. It actually was an excellent opportunity to rethink the identity of the city.

Up until the 80’s the port areas served as a geographical barrier between the city centre and the Maas river. The river that runs so prominently through the heart of the city was not really part of it. It actually split the city into a rich north bank and a poor south bank, also splitting up the city in social terms. Even though the people lived in one and the same city, the river Maas – though fundamental to the success of the port –prevented the creation of a shared urban identity for urban dwellers.

When the old port areas were abandoned, this would slowly start to change. The city adopted a pro-active waterfront redevelopment strategy, in which the crucial importance the river Maas for ‘the DNA of the city’ was explicitly recognized. Throughout the 1980s, the municipality was engaged in revitalizing the older port areas that lie between the city centre and the river. The so-called Rotterdam Waterfront Program was established, and the main ambition was to bring back the river into the heart of the city.The River was now perceived to be the unique selling point of the cultural identity of Rotterdam.

This development strategy, to bring back the Maas river back into the core of the identity of the city, revolved around two main developments:

  • restore the link between the inner city and the river (thus extending the inner city towards the river) and
  • bridge the physical and psychological barrier between the north and south bank of the river. The latter would be possible when the inner city and the river were not divided by the port areas any longer.

The old port areas adjacent both sides of the river all held some unique and authentic characteristics. Each area was redeveloped separately, building upon their unique qualities.

The Old Port – From abandonment to revitalization

One of the port areas that had to be revitalized was the Old Port. Prior to the 1980s, it was thought that these abandoned ports could best be removed. However, during the 1980s, city planners reasoned that it was exactly the presence of these ports (open waters, quays, bridges), that gave the areas their unique character. Therefore, the open water remained in place, as well as several of the historic port buildings.


Architect Piet Blom was chosen to redesign this whole area. It was one of the attempts to enliven the old town and shift the emphasis from the office buildings and traffic flow to housing and recreation. The development plan asked for urban living combined with other functions in a high density area.

A few years later, Blom also was asked to design the buildings directly at the old port. These 250 socialhousingcondo’s (cube houses) have been combined with cafés and restaurants along the quay, realized in Mediterranean atmosphere.

The area around the old port soon became popular. The neighbourhood attracts people 24/7 due to the bars with patios with a view on the old harbour.

At the same time with the reconstruction of the ‘Old Port’, two other old ports (Leuvehaven, Wijnhaven & Zalmhaven) that were immediately adjoining the old port area were also revitalized.

The Scheepvaartkwartier or ‘Shipping Quarter’ had already been one of the more prestigious residential parts of the city. The old port “barons” that ran the port until the second half of the twentieth century resided here. Their grand monumental residences have been restored and the fin de siècle atmosphere has remained in place. The adjoining Parkhaven harbors the central city park.

Kop van Zuid – The South flanks

Next to the old port areas on the north flank of the river Maas, the redevelopment of some of the abandoned port areas on the south flank was also part of the large scale waterfront redevelopment plan of the city of Rotterdam.

The large scale project was called ‘Kop van Zuid’. And this entailed a mixed-use development of housing, offices, leisure and infrastructure. The Kop van Zuid created new housing in Rotterdam of types which were generally lacking: large luxury flats and single-family houses.

The development progressed rapidly after the completion of the 790 meter long Erasmus bridge in 1996, which linked the city centre (North) with the South side of the river. At this point the river Maas has actually become integrated into the city centre.

The Wilhelminakade (South) has been transformed into a little Manhatten, with a residential building The New Orleans Tower and several other skyscrapers coinciding with Hotel New York and refurbished warehouses.

Rotterdam greatly suffered from the bombings in WWII, most of the historic city was destroyed. The buildings that did survive were used in the waterfront redevelopment plan to showcase its local identity. But besides these iconic buildings that serve a variety of functions, these neighbourhoods in Rotterdam also showcased its local identity by using modern and differentiating architecture.

The Erasmus bridge – nowadays one of the most characteristic construction works of Rotterdam – build to link the city centre with the south side of the river, can be seen as one of the creative amenities in that neighbourhood. Besides having a logistic function – taking traffic from one side to another side of the city – it also has another function.

People can reach The Wilhelminakade by bike or on foot, by car or public transport, especially the first two as a way of leisure. By using the right mix of architecture – skyscrapers next to the old warehouses – the waterfront seems to be stressed even more. So it’s a combination of the water and the buildings that draw attention and not only the waterfront by itself.

The waterfront as Rotterdam’s common identity

Development plans were tailor-made and based on an understanding of the sense of place of the specific port areas. This implied to build upon the local heritage and the other unique characteristics of the respective ports.

This large scale redevelopment strategy seems to be a success. On the one hand, the river is now fully integrated into the urban fabric of the inner city, while on the other hand, the barriers between the north and south flanks of the city are breaking away.

After the waterfront redevelopment there was a second wave, which concerns the area of Rotterdam CityPorts. These plans are not so much about reconstruction but more about flexibility, efficiency, renewal and sustainability.

The CityPort Project – becoming the smartest and most sustainable port

The CityPort project is about strengtening the profile of the area by looking for new economic sectors and remaining the largest port in Europe, but, in particular, is also about becoming the smartest and most sustainable port in the world.

Rijnhaven-Maashaven is one of the four areas within CityPorts. These two ports are the closest to the centre of Rotterdam and will serve as a showcase for the other CityPorts: the benefits from energy efficient and water resistant building are shown here by creating a metropolitan home-work-leisure environment on and around the water.

This long term plan (part of the VIP residential area Kop van Zuid Rotterdam City Vision 2030) started in 2010 when The floating Pavillion was moored into the Rijnhaven. This project was an example to showcase ways to entrepreneur in a sustainable, new and smart way.

The success of the Kop van Zuid and Katendrecht gets a sequel with new high-quality urban areas along the quays and on the water. Around the Rijnhaven will rise compact residential and industrial buildings that will look like a large water basin arena. The water itself is a stage for great Rotterdam events.

In the maashaven the Floating City is being constructed step by step. A floating residential area with special homes with self generating electricity from the tidal movement. Company buildings are constructed in a special way so they will not have an impact on the living environment in the direct vicinity.

This last waterfront redevelopmentplan is going to be a perfect example in which flexible design fosters adaptability. Every building will be designed in such a way that it will be resillient against eventual floods and can be used for more than one purpose. The floating pavillion gives us a peak of what will be ahead of us in future building plans.

Rotterdam’s secret to its succes

When we look at the list for a flourishing waterfront by which states that limits are placed on residential development, this is not applicable at all to the Rotterdam waterfront. In Rotterdam especially the older port areas were purposely chosen to be developed into neighbourhoods were housing and working are combined. We can boldly state that it is in large part the secret to its success as a a flourishing waterfront. Urban housing on the waterfront was what these areas needed for the residents to connect to and enjoy the water again.

So why did the cityplanners choose these areas to redevelop into residential neighborhoods? When these old ports were of no economic and logistic use anymore and were abandoned, something had to be done with these neighborhoods to stop them from turning into obsolete land. As Rotterdam was especially lacking houses for middle and higher incomes, housing was to become the main function of these old port areas.

From the early 80’s on the city council and harbour officials combined their plans and way of thinking about the city to give back the Maas to the inhabitants of Rotterdam. And although an economic reason was behind this idea, the cityplanners understood that these redevelopment plans of the Rotterdam waterfront had to be more than just about bringing in more money. To keep a solid income from the booming Rotterdam harbour, one had to engage and attract a new group of inhabitants from the middle and higher incomes and at the same time or maybe due to this Rotterdam could develop into an knowledgeworker society.

What is our Rotterdam lesson?

Rotterdam understood that every neighbourhood had its own atmospere and they looked and listened well in order to make things work in future projects, upgrading this atmosphere and making people feel home in both their living environment as well as their working environment.

De Stedenfabriek | City Works Amsterdam: cocreating places with impact and (re)creating our cities together by giving you the tools and the knowledge to shape your own city.
Blog by: Melanie Vrauwdeunt - City Works' staff writer, writes about city lifestyle and urban issues. Her daily life she devides her time between her work at the University of Amsterdam, writing, catching up on her reading, delivering content for numerous lifestyle websites and her frequent travels.

photo credits: 
De Erasmusbrug (license) / Oude Haven - Rotterdam (license) / Timeline (license) / 
Erasmus Bridge by Night,Rotterdam (license) / Rotterdam, The Netherlands (license) /