A new approach for port cities

Alternatives to the integral master plan
to improve the resilience and flexibility for waterfront regenerations.


Port cities have always been dynamic urban systems, subjected to constant change by the pressure of expansion. However, since the technical development of industrialization, and later on the economic progress after WW2, waterfronts have to deal with shifting harbor activities in the urban fabric (Breen, 1994). They are left with vacant spaces that have traces of the former harbor activities. Regenerating runs into scale problems, because these areas mostly have vast dimensions and a form language that does not fit well to the existing urban fabric (Daamen, 2016). Besides that, transforming the former port with one integral master plan could possibly not catch up with the ongoing state of change the city is in. This paper examines flexible alternatives for waterfront regenerating by a case study of two European cities with new designs ideas for their former ports. Comparing them according to an iconic model for the design process by Bruce Archer (Rowe, 1991) that is being modified for this specific case study, will give an insight of alternative design approaches that could improve the resilience and flexibility of harbor sites.


Type · Position paper 

Date · 2018
Keywords · waterfront regeneration, harbor transformations, Lisbon, Brussels, master plan

I Introduction

Since the last century, port cities all over Europe are characterized by harbors shifting from the city’s middle point to more spacious area’s in the surroundings. The preceding industrial revolution demanded its place in the city, but through growth it locked in the urban fabric that also expanded. Since then, coastal cities have been searching for the right place for their port. The economic progress of the past 60 years has made the ports move faster now than ever and that is reflected in a big migration of water related businesses. This varies from almost one-off port replacements out of town to ongoing shifting harbors and quays both within and outside the city borders. Desolated areas with empty hangars and an infrastructure based on water transportation are waiting for their new purpose, the so-called waterfront regeneration. (Hein, 2016)


Merging a former port area into the urban fabric has its obstacles. Often, they are large compared to the city itself. Not only the total surface does not relate to its environment, also the infrastructure and building masses have a different scale (Daamen, 2016). Besides that, a port has its own visual language, both in plan and constructions. Finger-shaped quays and jetties are unique for water-related businesses, but do not always lend themselves to a residential area or new city center (Hein, 2016). However, there is another reason why the process of regenerating might stagnate. The 21stcentury evolved a world full of change and traditional long-term master plans won’t survive long in an ongoing developing environment. Especially port cities with their dynamic character need to be adaptive to climate change, creative with constant function circulation and resilient to economical shifts (Tanis 2016). An integral master plan, in which a large area is changed to a particular final image, might not be suitable for the constant state of change of coastal metropolitan areas. The regeneration of waterfronts could benefit from a flexible alternative to the master plan.


Despite the fact that there are two types of obstacles in waterfront regenerations, the focus of this paper will be on the appliance of the master plan and the search for an alternative. This obstacle, which may be the solution, can overlap the other problem of size and scale. Therefore, it gives the master plan more priority to examine. The next chapter further elaborates on the term master plan and shows alternative ways of thinking of urban designers from the 20th and 21st centuries.


Based on two case studies, some methods will be presented that have been used in practice as an alternative to the integral master plan. The two cases are waterfront regeneration projects in Europe, one implemented and one that is ongoing. They are analyzed on the completed design process, categorized on three elements: research, concept forming and design. This theory is introduced prior to the case studies and is used to unravel the origin of the design. Eventually the two cases with corresponding analysis will be compared and conclusions drawn.

II Analysis

The master plan

The name master plan could be defined as the projection of the master’s ideas, this theory is as old as the classical engineer Vitruvius (Turner, 2014). The master is in this case the (landscape)architect/urbanist or a group of designers and the projection is a state of time in which the plan is in its ultimatum. However, since the 20th century the master plan has been subjected to criticism due to its limiting features. For instance, Karl Popper was an early objector of the ‘blueprint’ planning and stated the ‘planning process’ as an approach with an undefined end image (Turner, 2014). In his book, Turner focuses among other things on the city plan as a master plan. He says that the parts of a city get an undesirable rigidity in the projection of a master plan and recommends a multi-layered approach in which each place is viewed individually (2014). Another controversial thinker is Alexandre Chemetoff, which is famous for its Ile de Nantes project in France, where he used an alternative design approach for a former port island next to the city’s historical center. His successful idea is an experimental plan guide that provide individual projects that are based on interim site analyses (Braae, 2012). One of the reviewed case studies is a project from Chemetoff.

fig. 1 Schematized design process model of Bruce Archer


For the comparison of the two waterfront regeneration cases, a concise version of the design process has been drawn up. This is done by simplifying the design process model of Bruce Archer. He schematizes the process of the designer in six main phases that can be recurring (Fig. 1). It is a sequence with a fixed order, but due to the reciprocity, variations are possible (Rowe, 1991) This model describes the design process in a general way, which is needed for comparing the case studies. Fig. 2 shows the simplified model for this paper, that limited the six phases into three, by merging stages together that have same characteristics. Recurring phases are divided into two groups: research and concept forming. Research combines ‘programming’, ‘data collection’ and ‘analysis’. Concept forming arises from ‘synthesis’ and ‘development’. The boundary between these two concepts lies between analysis and synthesis because decision making starts there. ‘Communication’ is the phase where the design is drawn up, for example as a masterplan or a final design. Since the communication phase is no longer seen as recurring, it is argued that the design is definitive, but further detailing is possible.

fig. 2 Simplified model of the design process for case studies

The integral master plan is addressed as a resolution of the traditional design approach, arising from the sequence of phases shown in fig. 3. All cases will we compared to this standard model and are being assigned with their specific variation on it. The three design phases are seen as parameters with their own scope. Firstly, research could be divided into two types, analysis as desk study or on site as field research, or a combination of the two. Secondly, the concept is organized on a form-oriented, context-oriented or program-oriented basis. Thirdly, the design phase is measured in the gradient between a leading plan or a guiding advise.

fig. 3 Design process of traditional approach

II Case studies

Tagus Cycle Track, LisbonThe Tagus Cycle Track (fig. 4) in the city of Lisbon in Portugal is a design based on minimal interventions. Due to ongoing disagreement between various authorities about the regulation and destination of port area to the west of the city, no integral plan has been made so far. In 2009, at the initiative of the city council, a temporary plan for a bicycle track was approved. It was intended as an addition to an existing bicycle route structure, but with extra attention for the complex location and the interests of the port administration (Diedrich, 2013).  

Two aspects forced the designers of this project to deviate from standard master plan. Firstly, the temporality as a strict condition: all interventions had to be reversible. Secondly, that only minimalistic changes would be approved. This resulted in a collaboration between landscape architects and a graphic designer, Global Arquitectura Paisagista and P06. They designed a reversible itinerary, based on existing materials and harbor activities along the route.

Global Arquitectura Paisagista describes the location as a complex site where river and port meet. The variety of materials, both pavement and buildings, is seen as conflicting because they come from many different contexts. They can refer to functions, but also the memory of the site, as the image of Lisbon and the Tagus river (n.d.). They did a careful layer study about the site, with the focus on material and memory. The outcome of similarities has been used to emphasize places and to form a powerful image that manifests itself in a route. The route is marked by means of signposting and certain focal points. Global Arquitectura Paisagista names it “a system of signs, impressions and incisions on the vast mosaic of preexisted surfaces” (n.d.).

fig. 4 Tagus cycle track, Lisbon

In this mosaic of the existing harbor structure, the linear series of minimalistic interventions could be seen as a design on its own. On the other hand, the timid adaptations that manifest themselves in enormous graphical interventions on the road surface, resemble a literal projection of a context-oriented concept. It lacks an overall map that illustrates the plan. It could be said that there is no question of a master plan. This can also be noticed in the simplified representation of the design process. Figure 5 shows an assumption about the process that has been completed by the designers. They clearly stated a careful study on materials and memory, from which materials evolves from a desk study and memory arises from a site research. This forms a strong concept that seems to be the design as well.

To complete the scheme, it must be noticed that, after the construction of the cycle path, many new independent initiatives appeared along the route, from sports clubs to night bars (Diedrich, 2013). The designers managed to recreate connectivity that once was the main characteristic of the place, when it served as a harbor. These new functions fulfill the purpose of the plan and complete it by making a new memory of this place. Still, the port supervision is strict and all new interventions are temporary like the cycle path initially was, which make it a flexible whole.

fig. 5 Design process of the Tagus Cycle Track

Canal Plan Brussels



Brussels is not a coastal city, but it has a lot of port activity that penetrates the urban fabric along different waterways. In the north, the Scheldt Maritime Canal that connects the city with the Flemish port metropolis Antwerp and in the south with the Charleroi Canal to the Walloon city of Charleroi. On the edge of the city center, both canals end with a major dock, which are connected with a smaller canal through the old town. All those waters along the city have different characteristics and need a custom approach when it comes to regeneration of the place. Over the last two decades, the Brussels Capital Region stimulated all kinds of initiatives to improve the quality around the canals with both private and municipal projects. However, a clear strategy is needed to connect all those interventions with each other and the surroundings. With the success story of Ile de Nantes in mind, in 2011 Alexandre Chemetoff was hired to make a strategy for the canal area of Brussels (Meeting Alexandre Chemetoff, 2013).


In this case, both the client and the designer choose consciously for an alternative transformation approach. Based on the successful strategy that Chemetoff developed for Nantes, that is mentioned in the master plan chapter of this paper, a similar approach for Brussels evolved: The Canal Plan. Chemetoff emphasizes the important difference from a master plan in an interview with the Brussels Capital Region and mentions it as “an experimental project approach” (Meeting Alexandre Chemetoff, 2013).


This approach is based on setting a regional domain around the canals of the city, to define the areas of interest. The domain consists six categories of public areas, varying from industrial heritage to exceptional locations. In figure 6, a vast part of the domain is illustrated. The highlighted parts are the contours of the domain, but will be addressed in different projects. Those projects are a mixture of both private and municipal actors and built up from a sequence of feedback loops. The role of the domain is to link these projects and to guide the feedback (Chemetoff, 2014a).

fig. 6 Domain of Canal Plan Brussels

Chemetoffs vision is based on the term guiding, like the guiding plan he designed for Ile de Nantes. Firstly, he sets a framework for the Brussels Capital Region to work within. It doesn’t restrict places, but marks areas that need attention to improve spatial quality, social cohesion or ecological value (Chemetoff, 2014a). Secondly, he offers an approach of consecutive projects with interim testing to one of the six site specific characteristics of the domain (Chemetoff, 2014b). He does not initiate all of them, only a few that will create their successors. This creates a web of projects that all evolved from Chemetoffs first initiatives, but are intermediately tested to the main concept. Figure 7 illustrates this view on the design process. It could be seen as a continuous sequence of projects that are all guided by the concept of the domain. Chemetoff describes his vision as relative and always in motion, emerging from interaction between design and research (Meeting Alexandre Chemetoff, 2013). According to the CANAL PLAN 02 report, progress will be reviewed after a beginning period with first marker projects and feasibility studies (2014b). Still, it is not clearly explained how overall feedback loops on the vision will be implemented in this project after this first period, and if feedback is based on testing to the concept or doing site research. For this reason, the design scheme is drawn like a tree shape and would expand with more branches in case instead of a linear sequence of alternating research and design. Both processes have flexible characteristics, but would have a different outcome.

fig. 7 Design process of the Canal Plan Brussels

III Results

Comparison and conclusion



The cases of Lisbon and Brussels differ from each other in many practical ways, but have one key point in common: the design processes have been followed in an alternative way. There is a deviation from the standard process sequence of research, concept forming and then design, which usually is translated into a traditional master plan. The design processes of the two cases differ from each other in terms of content, but that is not due to practical differences such as location, form and size.


Firstly, the difference in design process arises from different policies. On the one hand, the strict city and port authority of Lisbon that enforced a design with minimalistic interventions. The designers did not get all the freedom to design a large, integral plan and that resulted in a literal projection of a concept. Those who were given the freedom to complete the project with a programmatic approach, were private entrepreneurs who start different businesses along the bicycle route. In a forced, but unconscious way, an alternative design process came into being. On the other hand, Brussels Capital Region has consciously chosen for a designer who is known for his alternative to the traditional master plan. It is therefore not necessarily the freedom that a designer receives from a client which lets a design process be completed in a free manner. Even with strict policies like Lisbon, an alternative is possible. It must be mentioned here that the project in Lisbon has a strong temporary character, that gives it an uncertain existence.


Secondly, the design processes are different, because the predefined parameters deviate from each other in both projects. Prior research in Lisbon is clearly divided into a desk study for a material-orientated research into surfaces and site research for an immaterial-orientated survey into memory. In Brussels, both types of research have also been used, but divided to scale in this case. The large scale was needed to determine the domain and is based on maps from a desk study. The smaller scale, on the other hand, focuses primarily on field research in which the characteristics of several places in the domain are described with text and photographs (Chemetoff, 2014a). Besides research, the concept parameter is also different for both projects. The cycle itinerary in Lisbon is a context-oriented concept, focused on the origin of materials related to the former function and the memory of the riverbank that served as a connector between city and water. The domain in Brussels is program-oriented, with the focus on connecting various functions and facilities in the city by the guiding domain area. Eventually, the design parameter actually shows how leading or guiding the designs are. The cycle track in Lisbon is quite a fixed plan, that has leading features on paper, but the minimal impact interventions keep the design from having a compelling character. Brussels, on the other hand, is described by the designer as a guiding plan that is not binding. At the same time, he does initiate a number of start up projects, which form the basis for the further development of the entire domain. Thus, it can actually be said that the last parameter has a rather paradoxical representation. Where Lisbon seems to be leading, but turned out to be guiding, Brussels does the opposite.


Concluding, alternative design processes have varieties in order and number of the phases (research, concept and design) and thereby form a new sequence that stands for a new design approach. In addition, each phase can have different orientations, that influence the process as well. The leading or guiding features of the design are an important criterion for reading the deviation from the traditional master plan. Projects are apparently perhaps leading or guiding, but looking more carefully at the process reveals their true nature. Both leading and guiding plans could be part of a new design approach, but require feedback loops between the three design phases: design, research and the concept forming. The two cases in Lisbon and Brussels showed that repeated overall interim review is a decisive condition to create a dynamic plan that gives former port areas the flexibility to flourish once again.

IV References


Braae, E., & Diedrich, L. (2012). Site specificity in contemporary large-scale harbour transformation projects. Journal of Landscape Architecture, 7(1), 20-33.

Breen, A., & Rigby, D. (1994). Waterfronts: Cities reclaim their edge. McGraw-Hill Companies. Chicago.

Chemetoff, A., & Maillard, S. (2014a) PLAN-CANAL KANAALPLAN 01. Les éditions du bureau des paysages Gentilly.

Chemetoff, A., & Maillard, S. (2014b) PLAN-CANAL KANAALPLAN 02. Les éditions du bureau des paysages Gentilly.

Daamen, T., & Louw, E. (2016). The Challenge of the Dutch Port‐City Interface. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 107(5), 642-651.

Diedrich, L. B. (2013). Translating harbourscapes: site-specific design approaches in contemporary European harbour transformation (Doctoral dissertation, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen).

Global Arquitectura Paisagista. (n.d.). BICYCLE PATH_A TRACK PRINTED ON THE MEMORY | LISBON | PORTUGAL. Retrieved on 27 February, 2018 from http://www.gap.pt/ciclovia.html

Hein, C. (2016). Port cities and urban waterfronts: How localized planning ignores water as a connector. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 3(3), 419-438.

Meeting Alexandre Chemetoff. (2013). Retrieved on 27 February, 2018 from http://canal.brussels/nl/content/gesprek-met-alexandre-chemetoff

Rowe, P. G. (1991). Design thinking. MIT press.      

Turner, T. (2014). City as landscape: a post post-modern view of design and planning. Taylor & Francis.

Tanis, F., & Erkök, F. (2016). Learning From Waterfront Regeneration Projects and Contemporary Design Approaches of European Port Cities. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(3), 151-161.



Figure 1: Sketches by Iris van Driel

Figure 2: Sketches by Iris van Driel

Figure 3: Sketches by Iris van Driel

Figure 4: Morgan, H. (2012). Bikeway Belem by P06 Atelier [Photograph]. Retrieved on 27 February, 2018 from https://inhabitat.com/awesome-typographic-directions-tell-bikers-where-to-cycle-in-lisbon/\

Figure 5: Sketches by Iris van Driel

Figure 6: Chemetoff, A., & Maillard, S. (2014). The Domain. [Drawing] PLAN-CANAL KANAALPLAN 01. Les éditions du bureau des paysages Gentilly.

Figure 7: Sketches by Iris van Driel

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