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Prospects for developing the port-city interface in Odesa

Vladimir Khalin, Chairman of the Association of Odessa Architects
21 August 2019

Deindustrialization is a critical orientation in projects to transform a coastal city’s waterfront. Key cities adopt a similar method of urban evolution: the industrial port moves from the centre to territory claimed from the sea, thus freeing spaces for cultural, commercial and tourist sites in the old port zone.

Seeking an optimum sustainable development strategy is a core objective of municipalities and innovative urban planners around the world. Various viewpoints and interests regarding the interface between ports and cities and the resulting extensive waterfront regeneration in principal seaports render spatial planning projects of this type complex to complete and obtain agreement on.

The port of Odesa is located in the centre of this large city, which has a population of over one million. The cargo capacities of the Odesa port agglomeration were designed to serve the Soviet Union, with a population of 250 million, whereas the population of modern Ukraine is less than 42 million. The seaport area and the length of the pier have remained the same, but the seaport equipment has become obsolete.

Ultimate failure to develop an effective strategy in the maritime industry and harmonize it with city planning resulted in the large-scale construction of grain terminals in the historical city centre, which has caused transportation and environmental pressures on the centre of Odesa. Such intervention in the planning structure of the city will have irreversible consequences and will lead to the degradation of the historical centre. The accumulation of large cargo projects in the port of Odesa is at odds with global trends in moving cargo terminals out of the city centre, and this therefore does not make it possible to alter their functional purpose for the city and, consequently, does not allow the port to serve the public interest. Because of the enormity of the port infrastructure in its current structure, its modernization and reconstruction demand considerable means. However, the ports of Ukraine have no such means, and state support for all ports is insufficient. The troublesome property relations in seaports, and intra-port and inter-port competition between various actors leads to confusion and the loss of freight traffic.

Currently, deindustrialization is a critical orientation in projects to transform a coastal city’s waterfront. Key cities adopt a similar method of urban evolution: the industrial port moves from the centre to territory claimed from the sea, thus freeing spaces for cultural, commercial and tourist sites in the old port zone. In line with the city’s sustainable development strategy, the process of business diversification and its profound impact on the social environment is inevitable. The terms regeneration, renovation, revitalization, and redevelopment have many values connected with various processes and planning solutions. However, in the context of port territories, they are united by a uniform “evolutionary” process involving the new use and function of deindustrialized territory.

In the nineteenth century, Odesa’s position on the Black Sea turned it into a commercial and cultural frontier between the Russian Empire and the rest of the world. The city was founded on a rocky plateau that rises over fifty metres above the smooth sea. The seaport became a centre of transportation and social life, which sharply contrasted with the steep open spaces of the northern Black Sea coast. As a young city, Odesa quickly gained a solid reputation as a modern city thanks to the architectural complex of Primorsky Boulevard, which holds a prominent place in world heritage. At the beginning of the twentieth century, due to industrialization, the port gradually lost its connection with the city. Access to the port was restricted by a railway and a wooden ramp overpass. In 1927 the port limited public access, and in 1947 it was completely closed to the public. Thus, the port lost communication with the city, and residents were unable to access the 10 km long waterfront.

Old engraving of Primorsky Boulevard

In 1956, Aleksey Yevgeniyevich Danchenko, the head of the Black Sea Shipping Company, introduced the idea of moving bulk cargo from Odesa to Sukhyi Lyman (literally, ‘dry estuary’), which adjoins the city borders and is located 30 km from the port of Odesa. The authorities of the Ukrainian SSR supported the proposition. Thus, the port of Illichivsk (today Chornomorsk) was established as an alternative gateway. In the 1960s dredging work was carried out to deepen the bottoms of the estuaries, which made it possible to partially remove the cargo terminals and to build two larger ports: Yuzhne and Chornomorsk. Removing cargo capacities from Odesa’s city centre began with the first port, at the same time as projects to regenerate industrial areas in North America. Regrettably, this was not accomplished because the Soviet planned economy was inflexible; no initiative from a private business could result in changes in city planning.

In recent years, Ukraine has been actively attracting public funding for infrastructure projects. Undeniably, one often-used argument is that infrastructure development alters regional progress and economic growth. Projects implemented on the terms of a public-private partnership do not correspond to the concept of sustainable development of a city with a population of one million. Instead of removing bulk cargo from the historical centre, grain terminals are being built along the entire port waterfront. Projects for building grain terminals in the port (at present there are nine of them) will cover the entire waterfront in the city centre.

Construction of grain terminals in the centre of Odesa (photo: Stanislav Gref)

The 45-metre-high grain silos block the historical centre from the sea. Not only are environmental threats recorded in Odesa’s centre in the form of protein dust carried by prevailing north-easterly winds, but architectural concepts such as the “marine facade of the city” and the “sea view” are also no longer applicable to the city.

A study of the port of Odesa operation conducted by experts of the World Bank led by Peter Bingham showed that the most active loading of ships coincides with adverse winds. At the same time, when justifying the need for these projects, the fact that the capacity utilization of all grain terminals in Ukraine was only 86% is not taken into account. Such figures indicate that there is no capacity shortage in the grain transhipment market. However, the grain market has high margins of return, which means that projects will continue to be implemented by participants in the raw materials business. It is expected that by the end of 2018 the growth rates of the capacities will be much faster than the growth rates of grain exports. Accordingly, loading of terminals will decrease, and by 2020 the existing surplus of capacities will grow in the grain export market. This means that projects implemented in the city’s most valuable areas will not be economically feasible.

The review of development projects in the port of Odesa makes it possible to identify the following opportunities and threats.

Existing concepts for the further development of the port are based on bulk area expansion and do not answer a main town-planning question: how, under conditions of dense urban development, does one provide transport communications with the mainland and deep-water terminals?

In reality, the abandoned and unusable areas of Ukraine’s current state ports are enormous. As an indicator of the efficiency of modern port technologies, one can compare the annual turnover of goods and the length of the Rotterdam port’s berth, at 477 million tonnes / 57 km. The same total indicator for all Ukrainian ports is just over one-third of that: 131 million tonnes / 40 km. Establishing sites attractive to investment for a diversified business not directly related to port activities will inject life into these valuable territories, which will lead to exponential growth of jobs and, overall, increase Ukraine’s welfare. The experience of Barcelona shows that when the Vell Port was renovated, the number of jobs increased by a factor of ten. Moreover, investment in port facilities and businesses’ profits have increased.

The most significant advantage of the ports of the Odesa agglomeration is their geographical position, which makes it possible to transfer all cargo capacities to satellite cities on estuaries such as Yuzhne and Chornomorsk, which are suitable for building hydraulic structures without damage or loss to freight traffic.

In May 2018, the association of architects of Odesa held a panel discussion with students and teachers from Germany, and they held a roundtable forum called The Sea Cities in June. At the department of town planning of the Odesa State Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture, every year three to four students select topics for their master’s theses related to renovating port territories. An international architectural competition on the renovation of port territories, similar to a high-profile competition held in Tallinn, is necessary for meaningful feedback. Holding such a competition would position Odesa as a sustainable and democratic city.

Port development or renovation projects should be integrated into regional and urban planning. It is necessary to conduct interdisciplinary studies of the interrelation between the city and the port and to find the optimal solutions. Regeneration of port areas should be carried out step by step, taking into account the interests of all participants and maximum public benefit. Some reasonable proposals with regard to opportunities and potential risks are summarized in Figure.

In many cities that contain a port in their historical core, regenerating port areas begins with pressure from society, which develops into a discussion between civic organizations, the municipality, and the port administration. Such a discussion develops gradually, over ten to twenty years, and it has no significant impact on port business. It discusses the most suitable places for new terminals outside the city. Many abandoned shops and warehouses at the Odesa seaport can survive and flourish with functional changes. It is necessary to involve the city’s representatives in the administration of the port, allowing it to make vital decisions in collaboration with all parties, including the local community. It is necessary to start cross-disciplinary studies. A democratic society plays the principal role in launching institutional mechanisms for regenerating cities’ waterfronts. This path has been taken by the most successful cities in the world, resulting in a high-quality landscape, diversified business, and public spaces emerging on the seafront. This appeals to the principal resource in the competitive struggle among the most prosperous twenty-first-century cities: creative people.

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