From Lisbon to Genoa and from Rotterdam to Marseille, coastal cities around Europe struggle to dismantle the industrial age barriers that have historically segregated the port from the rest of the city. For many of these places with deep maritime roots, the present challenge lies in repairing the urban fabric, which ties together a historic waterfront to a growing inner city. There is a misperception that harbors have become simply urban islands with underutilized common space, crowded cranes, and abandoned warehouses. While reviving the port-city synergy is no easy task, there are many examples of good practice that counter these misconceptions and provide important insights. In this piece we will focus on a recent success story, from the Spanish port city of Valencia.
Marked by the controversial legacy of a few white elephant projects like the 2007 America’s Cup and the 2008–2012 Formula 1 Grand Prix, until recently La Marina de Valencia (not to be confused with the current industrial port of the city) was considered to be too distant, unattractive, and segregated from adjacent neighborhoods. But in 2016, Consorcio Valencia 2007 (CV07), the primary institution responsible for managing La Marina, launched a new strategic plan, which decisively steered away from the business-as-usual model. Instead of seeking grand-scheme investments at all cost, the new approach engages the power of smaller-scale interventions and “soft” tactics—focusing on uses and programming—to revive the area. So far, the idea of well-planned “lighter, quicker, cheaper” actions has yielded promising results.
Take for example the renovation of La Pérgola—a small concert venue in the northern part of La Marina, which was built in the 1990s. At first sight, La Pérgola looks like a miniscule speck in the grand landscape of the Valencian waterfront, but in reality it occupies a very special place in the collective memory of the local community. For many years it was the stage of traditional music societies of the Poblats Marítims district. Preparations for America’s Cup put the venue “on standby,” and subsequent institutional neglect caused the site to lose its original function and meaning.
In 2017, CV07 made a modest investment to refurbish La Pérgola by repairing the rooftop, applying a fresh layer of paint, restoring the lighting system, and removing the concrete blocks, metal fences, and other barriers that surrounded the stage. The next step was to invite back the original performers, local brass bands from the Poblats Marítims district, for a new cycle of public concerts. As the site drew bigger and bigger crowds, CV07 began drafting a more comprehensive music program, featuring aspiring and established musicians from all styles and genres. In order to keep the concerts free to the public, CV07 created a successful public-private partnership with Cervezas Alhambra, a Spanish beer company, which agreed to finance the cultural program and provide light beverages for the visitors on site. With a small, well-targeted investment and an effective partnership, La Pérgola was transformed from an idle and obsolete piece of infrastructure into an active, living and breathing space, which knits together tradition, heritage, and a revived sense of community.
Another notable example of the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach is the preliminary low-cost restoration of Tinglado 2—a historic open-air shed with authentic modernist architecture. Following the two blockbuster events in 2007 and 2008, Tinglado 2 was, like many other buildings, left in disrepair, leading to the closure of the entire space due to safety reasons. At the end of 2016, however, CV07 ordered the installation of a protective net underneath the roof and on the sides of the building, which made it once again suitable for public use.
Since this simple intervention, Tinglado 2 has gradually become an impromptu public square. Its smooth floor attracted skaters, cyclists, athletes, and even dancers who quickly appropriated the space using it to practice and exercise. Furthermore, local musicians started showing up spontaneously for open-air rehearsals. Since Tinglado 2 is situated right by the water and far enough from residential areas, they can play without fear of disturbing the neighbors. In fact, their rehearsals often draw an audience and provide casual entertainment for visitors passing by.
Of course, this organic evolution of the space of Tinglado 2 did not pass unnoticed. CV07 commissioned a study on the uses of the shed since its reopening, including number of daily visitors, modes of transportation, group size, and so on, and collected additional qualitative data through more than 300 on-site surveys. All of the information gathered in the process, from both visitors and permanent residents, was used to draft a specific plan for the complete rehabilitation of Tinglado 2 as a public square together with the area around it, which includes some 120 parking spots. The proposal was recently approved and CV07 was granted the necessary funding to carry out the transformation project by the second half of 2019. The revitalization of Tinglado 2 as an open pedestrian-friendly public square is yet another vivid example of the power of modest, well-calculated interventions and the need to pay close attention to the interests of citizens and the spontaneous ways in which they appropriate public spaces.
In line with the soft tactics approach, La Marina de Valencia has also put a strong emphasis on bolstering the connection between innovation, community engagement, and public space. Take for instance the 2016 Civic Factory Festival: organized by CV07 in collaboration with CivicWise, the event lasted for a month and featured a variety of workshops, open discussions, networking activities, and urban planning exercises, all designed to strengthen the dialogue between citizens, public administration, academia, and the private sector. Equally important was the decision to host the Festival in Alinghi—a symbolic building constructed during the 2007 America’s Cup but one that has remained mostly vacant since the end of the race. The organizers’ idea to use a modest investment to refurbish and reopen Alinghi for the Civic Factory Festival symbolized a clear commitment to reenergizing the harbor’s underused common spaces in the interest of creating an open and inclusive innovation ecosystem. Alinghi is strategically located right next to a set of buildings, which are also dedicated to entrepreneurship—EDEM business school and Lanzadera start-up accelerator. Some short distance down the waterfront is Bankia Fintech by Insomnia, the first business incubator that specializes in financial tech in Spain, which occupies another one of the old buildings left empty after the America’s Cup.
Altogether these innovation hubs form a network, which fosters an entrepreneurship-friendly environment in La Marina de Valencia. Yet, unlike most innovation districts that we’ve seen across many cities, this one is embracing its surroundings as a valuable asset by reusing the existing infrastructure, connecting to the public spaces around it, and opening up to the local community through events like the Civic Factory Festival. In other words, innovation at La Marina is integrated in the local landscape, rather than isolated. The idea is to avoid the ghettoization of the district as an urban island that is accessible solely by car, and exclusively dedicated to selected technological companies. Instead, innovation at La Marina de Valencia is visible, accessible, and open to the public.
Despite all these transformation processes, one might still wonder, can small, cheap fixes and an increased focus on innovation truly achieve the reintegration of the waterfront into the dynamic city environment?
The answer from Valencians has been a resounding “yes.” In 2017, La Marina de Valencia experienced an 80% increase in visitors and a 30% increase in revenue. A study into the satisfaction of visitors, commissioned by CV07 and executed by the Dutch Consultancy Company AtAdlerAdvisory, found that about 72% of residents and 86% of visitors rate their experience in La Marina de Valencia as either good or excellent. But what speaks most to the success of the new strategy is the pride and ownership that local residents express toward their iconic harbor. The sight of parents bringing their children to skate in Tinglado 2, an elderly couple enjoying a Sunday concert, or a group of friends coming along for one of the many open innovation events is enough to convince most skeptics that Valencia’s harbor is experiencing its own kind of transformation.
The Valencian example makes it worth considering whether big investments and redevelopments are always the right way to reintegrate European waterfronts into their surrounding cities. Of course there is no single formula for success, but perhaps in some cases the key to restoring the broken urban tissue lies in the opposite—building up soft infrastructure, and making small, catalytic investments in place.