The port-city symbiosis

Making insights actionable

Urban symbiosis

At an ‘urban’ scale, a port-city relationship can emerge, attracting vast volumes of resources that the city considers to be waste.  This scale of port activity is referred to as ‘urban symbiosis’. A large portion of urban related material flows by weight and volume comes from the construction sector but can also be related to large urban waste streams such as metals, plastics, organic matter, clothing and electronics. Ports can provide vital distribution services in and out, while also being the first point for treating, processing or transforming the material.  Likewise, due to the large surface areas covered by the port, they can provide some forms of energy production.

The Port of Brussels, for example, processes a large amount of its construction materials in and out of the city through the inner-city port. Within an inner-city dock, there are numerous activities clustered around the canal that depend on water-based logistics. Stevens, a metal processing company, stores and conducts preliminary sorting of materials that are sourced from the construction sector and are exploring the treatment of IT waste. M-Pro is a supplier of construction material. There are also three cement factories which are vital for the inner-city construction sector.

The strength of symbiosis operating at this scale is when production, treatment and distribution of goods and resources can be connected with other kinds of ‘service’ activities such as researching, prototyping and selling goods and resources. The urban scale is also one where a sufficiently large pool of circular activities can converge with governance, policy and finance. This helps to address complex multi-actor challenges.

Urban symbiosis has its limits

Urban Symbiosis comes with numerous challenges associated with urban areas. This includes limited space, expensive land, conflict with other activities (such as with residents) and the real estate can face gentrification. The Port of Amsterdam is a prime example, where the city’s large demand for housing is looking at appropriating land currently used by the port.

Urban symbiosis may also be heavily limited due to the need for large and centralised infrastructure to treat, recycle or repurpose the bulk of resources transported in and out of cities. For example, metal, which is a common waste stream for cities, may only be treated in large and centralised facilities far beyond where the waste is generated.

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