The port and city of Naples are very much connected. It seems like a given that the corresponding authorities would work together to further develop both the port and the city. This isn’t the case, found PhD researcher Paolo De Martino. The historic patterns of decision making prevent the necessary fundamental changes for improvement of both port and city.

Naples is one of the oldest cities in Europe and borders along the Tyrrhenian Sea. Throughout history, the port and city of Naples have always been in each other’s vicinity. Both the port and the city now deal with finding a balance between development and a more sustainable relation with nature. On top of finding that balance, challenges like the energy transition, the introduction of a circular economy and the effects of climate change also need to be addressed. These big challenges ask for big solutions in different dimensions and on different scales. “The economy and infrastructure are affected, but also social, cultural and ecologic aspects, both on a local and a global scale,” explains De Martino. “The port authority and the municipality, among others, are currently not able to find compromises. This comes from the historic legacy of looking at the port and the city as two separate entities. Bringing them together is necessary to address the local and global challenges.”

Traditionally, the port is primarily framed as infrastructure by the port authority, with the main goal to improve its economic efficiency. Simultaneously, the municipality still sees the port as the main barrier between the city and the sea. De Martino: “They’re not aware of each other’s changes. The port is not just infrastructure, but also brings new cultural meanings for and into the city. Everything is connected. You cannot separate what is happening on the water from the impact on land, or the other way around. You can’t see where one stops and where the other starts. With so many sectors and people involved, we need new tools to identify the problems before finding solutions.”

View of the port of Naples in 2021. The lighthouse can also be seen on the painting 'Tavola Strozzi', which depicts Naples in 1472 (see image at top of this article). Note how the city of Naples currently stretches out over the hills, and how the gigantic cruise ships stand out in the harbour. Image by Paolo De Martino.

With his PhD thesis ‘Land in Limbo: Understanding path dependencies at the intersection of the port and city of Naples’, De Martino set out to do exactly that. “As architects and planners, we are often forced to find solutions, even if we don’t know what the problem is. This research project created the opportunity to provide a better understanding of the problem before finding the solutions. I looked at Naples and compared the findings with other port – city territories in Europe, zooming in on path dependencies. Path dependencies are the patterns in our culture, legacy, and interactions between people, our ‘business as usual’. We feel safe when we follow the same routes. But when you realise these ways of doing things are creating problems, you have to be able to detach yourself from those patterns. This is were looking at history becomes an opportunity to talk about the future. You have to first be aware of your patterns, before you can change them for the better.”

The first talks about possible new futures of the port of Naples already took place. De Martino conducted his PhD research within a joint programme between the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of TU Delft, the Department of Architecture of the University of Naples Federico II, and the LDE Centre for Port City Futures. These collaborations gave De Martino the opportunity to connect with all relevant parties. Multiple port authorities and universities participated in the 2018 Port City Futures Conference, including the Port Network Authority of the Central Tyrrhenian Sea. “We co-designed things together, exchanged publications and new insights. The port authority of Naples even agreed to finance part of the research, recognising the need for these new insights,” elaborates De Martino. “This was the first step in addressing the biggest challenge: changing the way we look at port – city territories. Ports and cities, and their authorities, are interconnected in an expanding and developing territory. If we want to develop them in the future, we have to be aware of this interconnection.”

Header image: Tavola Strozzi, view of the city of Naples in Italy from the sea, 1472