Following the consecutive industrial revolutions port cities changed dramatically. During the last sixty years, the socio-economic, cultural and institutional port city interfaces grew apart. In meantime, the Eurodelta ports of especially Rotterdam, Antwerp and Zeebrugge recorded an exponential growth, which led to a strong spatial port expansion. However, today these economic developments are under pressure, which led the OECD to call port cities to renew their relations and find new economic synergies. The reason for this call is the knowledge intensification of the economy and the inherent potential for port cities to facilitate this.
This article, however, suggest that before these new synergies can be found, spatial policy needs to first determine the port city. The prevailing port city concept derives from the positivist transport geography during the 1960s, illustrated by the ideal typical concepts. During the last decades, ports specialised themselves on different aspects for large scale transhipment processes, which today creates a significant challenge towards the knowledge intensification of the economy. This hypothesis is supported by the historical analyses of the Belgian port cities of (Zee)Brugge, Ghent and Antwerp. These will show that the ideal typical models are too abstract and cannot take into account the local socio-economic aspects. In the discussion it will be argued that the current institutional setting of port cities is ratified by these ideal typical concepts and hereby create a lock-in. This article concludes that a more actor-relational analysis has the potential to understand the dynamic port city relations, this in order to find new port city synergies.