Tonight, Christine Loh – founder and CEO of Hong Kong based Policy Research Group Civic Exchange – gave the annual Peter Thompson lecture at the University of Hull Logistics Institute. The theme was Port cities and, the sustainability challenge. 

Takes your breath away

Using a Global League Table of the top ten container ports since 1998, Christine Loh highlighted the rise of Shanghai from 3 million to over 28 million teus (containers) by 2008. Other ports came from nowhere to join the elite. Then, showing photographs of the port proximity to living space, Public Health figures were introduced to beg the question – is this growth sustainable?

Pointing to a global map of Port cities, Loh highlighted the impact of pollution on life expectancy. For example, it has been estimated that the heavily congested core of Europe centred on Rotterdam could reduce life expectancy by up to three years. Imagine the impact on the Pearl River Delta which accounts for 12% of global cargoes.

Then, using the example of Long Beach and Los Angeles, Loh highlighted potential threats to Port operations from public opinion that rouses to challenge such unfettered growth. Air quality had deteriorated to such an extent that the two ports started to collaborate spending $40 million to generate ideas to make a difference. For example, an electric haulage truck capable of handling 60k lbs at up to 40 mph. Everything pointed to the need to challenge operational assumptions to reduce a Port’s carbon footprint. The shopping list is clear: Naval architecture needs to take on board slower speeds and variable fuel utilisation; Ports must harness shoreline power (tidal; wind and solar energy) and, Cargo options must be explored. Companies like China Navigation were used to illustrate how to measure impacts with greater transparency. This was a challenging exposition and it begs serious questions.

The world is full of legacy ports that emerge organically in the centre of cities – like Hong Kong. And yet, let’s consider those ports that are emerging in the developing or fast growth world. There are places like Mumbai – with its slums and huge congestion. More to the point – others are being built from scratch. What is being done to champion green supply chains and, sustainable living criteria?  This reminds me of something I read a while back …

Back in the early 1800s, a Prussian landowner Von Thunen sought to determine the most profitable land use for his estate. Starting from an ideal or “isolated state”, von Thunen built a model of land use based on a marketplace or a town surrounded by a series of ever widening rings. The closest would be the area allocated for profitable perishable products such as dairy. As the distance from the marketplace increases, the land use shifts to producing products that are less profitable but can be transported more cheaply from locations with low land values.

Von Thunen’s ideas may be dated but, building from Christine Koh’s ideas, there should be scope to develop clearer guidelines on how to integrate Port Master Plans with sustainable criteria on green field sites or, where legacy ports are upgraded, to make them compatible with Urban Regeneration strategies and efforts to reduce the carbon footprint.

This becomes more pressing when we consider the fact that many port city strategies are all about building capacity to generate demand. Take Dubai. Jebel Ali starts at the quayside with a landscape of cranes and then this boxopolis extends into a purpose built logistics zone and on into the airport – a multi modal facility criss crossed by highways, metro and soon, rail.  Neva Sheva stands off Mumbai and could become the same.  Is this the way to go? Where is the evidence? Where are the measures?

Many Reports on Logistics in different countries focus on costs. For example, India runs at 13% versus 8% in the developed world. Let’s be careful. Appealing to an Economics based on Ethics (See: On Ethics and Economics (1987), Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen rejected the notion of ranking countries purely on GDP per capita. His analysis stressed other indicators such as literacy and health. Any assessment of Logistics efficacy must use a wider lense and the Loh lecture points the way.

Easier said than done. As global population rises from 6 billion to an estimated 9 billion by 2050 the fact is that many will be living in the slums, favelhas or shanty towns of the informal economy. These are the places that de Soto highlights as lacking all legal title and, yet capable of generating all manner of enterprise. Dharavi in Mumbai – home to slum dog millionaire – generates an estimated $1 billion a year in assorted leather, recycled or other such goods. All this amongst insanitary conditions that few from the developed world could survive.

Clearly, as Christine Loh makes clear, we need to deal with the challenge from port and logistics activities. However, let’s not forget to challenge notions of urban planning that ignore the living space of the Majority World. 

Back in the 19th century, Europe was swept by frequent outbreaks of disease as crowded ghettoes proved ideal breeding grounds for all manner of disease. Here in Hull there is a monument to thousands who died in a cholera outbreak in 1849. Evans brilliant book Death in Hamburg (1987) covers the same topic between 1830 to 1910. Mayhews portrayal of 19th century London – the same. Crowded spaces triggered deadly diseases and a revolution in Public Health. As we consider the impact of pollution from ports and logistics we should be careful to factor in the nature of the living conditions of the majority world. High rise pictures from Kowloon and Pudong can only give us part of the story and evidence from these places alone will lead to half baked solutions.

How can this be achieved? Using Long Beach  as an example, Christine Loh stressed the need to build broad coalitions of stakeholders. This is exactly what B Sridhar and others have done with the Last Mile in Chennai – see video on this Blog. The video traces the drive of a container from the Port through ramshackle villages and peoples lives and, it highlights what needs to be done. The coalition extends from major Corporates such as DPW and Bengal Tiger Line to the villagers themselves. And the solution will enable cargo to move better, cheaper and faster to and from the port whilst freeing up living space for local communities. Loh’s point is that these coalitions need hard evidence to factor in environmental impacts to the solution.

Years back, I met an Architect who had worked on the team that transformed Portland, Oregan in the USA. Industrial growth in the 19th century had resulted in a City cut off from its waterfront. Before the regeneration game, many other places looked the same – the city waterfront is packed with quays and warehouses; bad girl bars and seedy hotels. Railway tracks and highways do the rest. In Portland, a Bond was raised and the whole downtown area sold off for Real Estate development. The money raised funded the construction of a modern port facility away from the city centre. This initiative was in line with the work of Jane Jacobs and her notion of unslumming the slums.

If the conditions for generating city diversity can be introduced into a neighborhood while it is a slum, and if any indications of unslumming are encouraged rather than thwarted, I believe there is no reason that any slum need be perpetual. “Unslumming and slumming, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (p273)

However, for every measured response there are others who pursue progress blindly. I recall listening to a presentation about the development of the Port of Muscat, Oman. The idea was to level the mountain that you can see from the souk and use the aggregate to build a modern container port. Just think of the environmental (and cultural) impact! Lewis Mumford, the historian of science and technology, was so right: “the blind forces of urbanisation, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining and, self-renewing.”

There is something else at work here. Poet Paul Farley recorded a Radio programme a couple of years ago in which he contrasted the lives of three Port Cities: Ancient Carthage; Liverpool and, the boxopolis of Rotterdam. This describes a cycle in which the Ports emerge and die as anything or anywhere else. Let’s not forget that cities can die. Just look at Detroit or, New Orleans – a city relegated to a town because of an inabaility to fund the necesssary clean up operation. As we consider the environmental agenda in Port cities, this cannot be overlooked.  

Christine Loh’s superb lecture inspired; the work of Civic Exchange breaks new ground and, T L and the informal economy can provide an added perspective. The need for greater understanding of the environmental impact of Port and Logistics is needed as a means to deliver more sustainable futures and hit the triple bottom line – economic, social AND environmental. However, using a TL perspective, logistics will only make a contribution to transform the quality of life if formal AND informal living space are factored in to the equation. After all, we work to live. Or, do we?