The Port-clUster LandScapE: Developing a Spatial and Design Approach to Port Clusters - acronym PULSE - is a bi-annual research project aimed at studying the spatial, mainly urban and architectural, impacts related to the clustering phenomenon in contemporary ports. 


Globalization, port expansion projects and extensive energy transition needs have led port institutions to demand more land, to engage with hinterland logistics platforms and to restructure forms of port governance. In this competitive context, the phenomenon of Port Clusterisation, i.e. the administrative aggregation whereby two or more ports are merged to form port clusters, is heavily impacting the institutional sphere. Yet, not only does this phenomenon have no control over cities, but its spatial component is being overlooked. As a result, port and city institutions lack design tools to act together along common borders and to tackle urgent challenges, as coastal consumption, the harmful perception of the port in relation to the city, the need for resilient port-city infrastructures and the renewal of the port-city architectural heritage. 

In line with the New European Bauhaus Initiative and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and in synergy with the NextGenerationEU programs, the overarching aim of the project “PULSE – The Port-clUster LandScapE: Developing a Spatial and Design Approach to Port Clusters” (hereafter PULSE) is to study the Port-Cluster Landscape, i.e. the spatial product of Port Clusterisation, to provide a spatial framework for the phenomenon and develop a design approach to port clusters. An examination of the spatial footprint of port clusters will allow research to move beyond its state-of-the-art by targeting a phenomenon that, though pivotal and ongoing, is under-researched. Through this paradigm shift, moreover, port and city institutions will be able to access up-to-date literature and a set of new strategic tools, often derived from international cases, useful in local applications where, at least in Italy, intense planning and project activity is underway.

To activate the Port-Cluster Landscape’s spatial component, the project PULSE will develop a toolkit thanks to the study of evolving port clusters, as the 16 Italian port systems (formalised in 2016 as a result of the Port Authority Reform, Legislative Decree No. 169) which represent early stages of clustering. Using a scenario-based approach and a space-based methodology, PULSE will record the spatial impacts emerged from the Italian context and cross-reference them with those of international port clusters in which is possible to detect an advanced stage (e.g. the HAROPA port complex in France, the North Sea Port between Belgium and the Netherlands, the Valencia Port and the APBA - the Port of Algeciras Bay Authority which manages the ports of Algeciras Bay and Tarifa, both in Spain). This approach will formulate new design strategies, lexical categories and maps replicable across several European port clusters.

PULSE will address AIVP – Association Internationale Villes Portuaires’s 2030 Agenda adapted from the UN’s SDGs. To tackle the goals of “Sustainable Mobility”, “Renewed Governance” and “City Port Interface” in particular, identifies a set of parameters, introduced by the port clustering phenomenon, to anticipate the Port-Cluster Landscape’s spatial impacts. Parameters and impacts provide the basis for the construction of an Indicator System which, used in the methodology for the spatial analysis, will make the project’s results measurable, allowing specialists to assess them in research activities. Among the parameters, e.g., the one of optimisation highlights how, within the cluster’s poles, the use of spaces and resources can be pooled. The concrete optimisation impacts will then be to avoid duplication of large infrastructures along the same coast/river, to reduce land consumption and to produce benefits in land reclamation and port pollution. Other parameters can be complementarity, rationalisation, inclusiveness and proximity.

A further key objective of PULSE is the development of operational and collaborative research. Through the definition and consolidation of a network of national and international collaborations, PULSE aims to bring together academic scientific research and the sector of public territorial institutions on the topic of architectural and urban design of port cities and port clusters.

By engaging experts and civil society in outreach activities, such as Co-Design and Co-Creation events, and by sharing the toolkit through a Policy Brief, PULSE will allow transfers of knowledge and enable port and city institutions to recognize port clusters as a new, challenging field for architecture and urban design.


Linked to the early 2000s Port Regionalisation, which has shown how ports are moving beyond their maritime facilities by boosting the transport systems towards inland regions, Port Clusterisation is activating theoretical-strategic shifts due to the new notion of the cluster. Starting from the late 19th-century theorisations in the industrial sector to the more recent applications in economic geography, the notion of the cluster has become increasingly interdisciplinary. The cluster is both an empirical and conceptual construct. It is used to describe agglomerations, interconnected networks, concentrations of firms and service companies having a high degree of collaboration, typically through a supply chain. However, as geographer Vorley states, its spatiality is less clear. 

Large-scale and cross-border projects take clusters into account to talk about networks and innovative milieux, nonetheless, even in these virtuous initiatives the spatial implication is incomplete. In maritime economics and geography, Ducruet and Notteboom point out that, concerning the definition of spatial patterns in port systems, key issues related to spatiotemporal dynamics remain unexplored. Planner Pavia argues that in Italy, despite the establishment of port systems in 2016, planning tools related to a single port continue to operate and/or to be drafted. These insights confirm how politicians, planners and researchers are struggling with the responsibility to provide guidance for the spatial development of port clusters, highlighting the latent potential of the territories linking those ports and increasingly motivating a study on the Port-Cluster Landscape. 

As a new spatial and institutional entity, the Port-Cluster Landscape can expand the knowledge on port clusters planning by emphasising how the cluster’s relational strength and pervasiveness are leaving deep imprints on spaces. The use of the term “landscape” refers to Landscape Urbanism theory, with which landscaper Waldheim highlighted the process of semantic stress that, in the late 20th century, enriched the notion of “landscape(s)”. It is also strongly related to the Port Cityscape conceptual framework which Hein theorised, i.e., the network of port-related spaces in a wider port city region. To study the particular form of landscape resulting from Port Clusterisation, PULSE will develop a space-based methodology to record the logistics and morphological parameters and the spatial impacts introduced by the regime of the cluster.


PULSE’s methodology consists of a scenario-based approach articulated in three entangled phases: 01 – INVESTIGATION, 02 – CROSSING, 03 – FORMULATION. 

The 01 investigates the state of the art of the 16 Italian port systems. By means of a Questionnaire and a direct collaboration with port institutions, it records their spatial impacts to construct an indicator system; it also develops a new language to describe the cluster dimension. 

The 02 cross-references and confront the recorded impacts in the Italian port systems  with those of selected major European port clusters seen as advanced and reference cases. Performed using maps, this crossing stresses the role of mapping as a tool for deciphering spaces. 

The 03 employs the maps to develop future scenarios from which design strategies will be formulated. The results of each of the phases form the toolkit, which is the basis for the construction of the Policy Brief.

More in detail:


Aims: Studying the evolution of the 16 Italian port systems (formalised in 2016 as a result of the Port Authority Reform, Legislative Decree No. 169) and acquiring an updated glossary for the cluster dimension, through the Literature Review (LRev), the Questionnaire Dissemination (QueDiss) and the Glossary Survey (GLOSS).
Activities: To analyse the spatial-institutional evolution that led to the formation of the cluster, phase 01 will carry out archive research, literature review (LRev) deepening various subject areas: regional economics, geography, logistics, architecture and spatial planning. The QueDiss will be possible thanks to the operational support of Assoporti - Association of Italian Ports (contact person: Dott. Tiziana Murgia, Head of Communication and Environment) and will submit the completion of the PULSE Questionnaire to the 16 port system authorities (AdSP). This activity forms an Indicator System by recording the cluster’s spatial impacts (e.g. degree of sea-land connectivity, infrastructure sharing/rationalization, services pooling/optimization, amount/size of functional and operational linkages, linear/areal occupation of the coast, proximity/inclusiveness of firms/industries, co-ordinated planning and project tools between ports in the same cluster, port-to-city or land-to-sea hinge and grafts, port-city-territory-interfaces extension and heterogeneity, dual-function architectures etc.). Within GLOSS, I will organise interviews for describing the Port-Cluster Landscape with new words.
Result: The Glossarynew lexical categories describing the port cluster spatial configurations and enabling the system indicator cross-referencing in the CROSSING phase.


Aims: Cross-referencing the indicator system of the Italian case with those detected in the EU port clusters seen as reference cases and developing innovative maps to visualize the port cluster spatial dimension, through the Interviews Tour (InTour) and the Cross-referenced Maps (CROSSMaps).
Activities: The InTour will allow cross-comparison between the data obtained in phase 01 and the advanced clustering condition of selected, highly significant European cases, e.g. HAROPA Ports (FR), North Sea Port (BEL, NL), Port of Antwerp-Bruges (BEL), Port of Valencia, Sagunto, Gandìa (SP), APBA - Port of Algeciras Bay & Tarifa (SP), reached thanks to the operational support of AIVP - The Worldwide Network of Port Cities (contact person: Dott. Ing. Josè M Pagès Sànchez, Director of Agenda AIVP 2030, Projects and Content).The CROSSMaps will elaborate maps of three Italian port contexts, selected because they are emblematic following the activities of QueDiss and InTour, with the aim of visualising the spatial impacts defined in the Indicator System in concrete contexts and evaluating their application from a strategic perspective. The three Italian port contexts will be Port Network Authority of the Eastern Adriatic Sea (Ports of Trieste and Monfalcone), Port Network Authority of the North Tyrrhenian Sea (Ports of Livorno, Piombino, Capraia, Portoferraio and Rio Marina) and the Port System Authority of the Western Sicilian Sea (Ports of Palermo, Termini Imerese, Trapani, Porto Empedocle, Licata and Gela). Displaying of the impacts will be assumed to be as credible as possible.
Result: The Atlas of Mapsmulti-level maps that will refer to the Port-City Level (1: 50,000) and the Architecture-Infrastructure Level (1:500). Used as spatial analysis tools, the maps will describe the Port-Cluster Landscape configurations and evolutions, while enabling the development of designing strategies in the FORMULATION phase.


Aims: Developing future scenarios and foreseeing design strategies for the Italian case derived from the spatial analysis of the previous phase through the Scenarios Development (SCEdev) and the Strategies Setting (STRAs).
Activities: The SCEdev will elaborate at least three future scenarios of potential spatial evolutions of the three selected Italian port clusters. This activity employs the maps developed in phase 02, delineating the availability/occurrence and the intensity/frequency of the impacts in order to generate the aforementioned scenarios. With the STRAs, the scenarios will lead to the formulation of major design strategies to activate the Port-Cluster Landscape.
Result: The Catalogue of Strategiesspatial and design development actions of the Port-Cluster Landscape of the Italian case, replicable across several European port clusters.


PULSE’s two-year work plan is articulated in 6 Work Packages (WPs) as follows: 

Literature Review (LRev); Questionnaire Dissemination (QueDiss); Glossary Survey (GLOSS)

Interviews Tour (InTour); Cross-referenced Maps (CROSSMaps)

Scenarios Development (SCEdev); Strategies Setting (STRAs)

Increasing knowledge in the field of complex representation of territories (port mapping through Cognitive Spatial Maps) and the economy and logistics of maritime territories (through the collaboration with CIELI and AIVP). The transfer is implemented through teaching activities at the Department Architecture and Design - DAD.

Project Management & Budget (PMB); Open Science practices (OSp), Research Data Management (RDM), Ethics&Security (ES), Host Institution-Researcher Meetings (HRM)

Disseminating research results through organisation [TBC] and participation of scientific conferences (COr, CPa), scientific publications  (ScP) and lectures (Le) within UniGe network and abroad. 
Communication activities using PULSE’s webpage/social media and implementing dissemination-communication activities, namely co-design and co-creation events (Co-DesCr).
Exploitation activity will enable the wide circulation and reuse of the toolkit giving form to a Policy Brief (PB).
In terms of Outreach Activities (OA), the following are foreseen: activation of an official webpage (within UniGe website) and social media, participation in the Festival della Scienza – FdS and in the 2024 European Researchers’ Night [TBC]. It is planned, at the end of the project in combination with the publication of the scientific monograph, the production of the PULSE Movie, a short video/film report of the project.


PULSE main keywords are 
#port clusters
#technical landscapes
#coastal and marine environments
#port-city regions and architectures
#spatial stretching
#logistics & morphological indicators
#space-based methodology


Last update 6 February 2024