In this series, we explore new urban hubs, economic corridors and metropolises that will shape the future of the 21st century. Our first installment was The Emerging Corridor, Abu-Dubai, which will potentially connect two cities of the UAE: Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This installment focuses on the cluster of cities that lie within the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta in Northern Europe.

Among the leading urban clusters around the world, many have one or more port cities at their core. Today, more and more countries are investing in expanding their existing infrastructure to play a more significant role in global trade routes and supply chains, leading to the ongoing expansion and creation of economic zones and mega projects on the rise around the globe to foster the competitiveness and attractiveness of port cities.

In Central America, Nicaragua and China are working on a mega canal to compete with the American powered Panama Canal and provide shorter routes to both coasts of the United States. In North Africa, Egypt is working on an ambitious new economic zone around the Suez Canal and the expansion of three key ports in Ain Sukhna, Port Said and Damietta. Further East, Pakistan is investing $1.6 billion in the Gwadar port region to make it the jewel of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the key point of connection between the “One Belt, One Road” and the “Maritime Silk Road” corridors. And in spite of the questions raised by critics about the feasibility of these projects, governments are investors alike are keen to see them out in an effort to create new pathways for global trade.

The Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta

But far away from the up-and-coming global players, one massive port region has already had a head start for hundreds of years, namely, the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt River Delta in Northern Europe. Named after the three rivers that surround it and connect it to other European countries – the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt – the Delta includes hundreds of smaller canals and passages spread between the three rivers and the Northern Sea. The Delta is home to European port cities, like the trio Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA), and many leading innovation hubs, including the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Utrecht and the Belgian city Ghent.

The Delta is considered a major gateway to the heart of Europe through a very complex network of rivers and canals that provide access to other major European ports such as Basel, Bonn, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Strasbourg. The Rhine is also connected to the Danube river, which flows to Eastern Europe, passing through 10 countries and ending in the Black Sea; from there, the Bosporus Strait gives access to the Aegean Sea, and then to the Mediterranean Sea.

A big part of the Netherlands is inside this delta, or surrounding it, in addition to some parts of Germany and Belgium, overlapping in the Southern and Western regions of the Delta, respectively. The mega cluster is home to an estimated 20 million people, across a large constellation of small and medium cities. The Delta is protected by man-made gigantic arrays of dams, barriers, locks and dykes called Delta Works, which is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Designed by the American Society of Civil Engineering, construction of Delta Works started in 1950 and improvement projects have been going until today.

To mitigate the effects of global warming in the 21st century, the Netherlands expects a 1.3 meter increase in the North Sea Level by 2100 and plans to invest an estimated $144 billion to strengthen Delta Works.

Inland Water Ways

Navigable rivers or inland waterways have played a major role in driving the economic activity of this cluster for hundreds of years. 20% of European trade already lands at the ports in the Delta. Rotterdam Port is the largest and busiest port in Europe by volume of freights and often one of the top 10 in the world.

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Courtesy of the Port of Rotterdam.

Although there are many competing ports that can provide access points to Europe, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, the mountainous regions that border most southern European countries and the lack of navigable rivers provide a natural barrier to the flow of goods northward, significantly increasing the cost of transportation. For example, a single 15 barge tow would require close to 1,000 trucks to be unloaded. The mountains bordering Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece significantly increase the maximum gradient slope for trains.

With almost 90% of world trade still being done by sea, northern European port cities and, in particular, the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt ports, remain the cheapest connecting points for European goods and trade.

Global Connectivity

The DHL global connectedness index ranked the Netherlands as the most connected country in the world in 2016. The connectedness index is measured by cross-border flows of trade, capital, information and people. Moreover, Belgium and Germany, which lie partially in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta, are ranked number five and seven when it comes to connectedness.

Connectivity lies at the core of the DNA of this region, which is largely below sea level and faces constant floods. The Dutch, for example, have had no choice but to become sailors since the early time of their history. Being a small, strategic region between the two big powers of Germany and France (through Belgium) helped them to develop their diplomacy and international affairs in order to maintain good relations with their combating neighbors. It is only by combining diplomacy with good sailing that they were able to transcend their limited size and ongoing floods in order to travel all over the world, conducting trade that resulted in a globalized and open mindset and a strong knowledge of international affairs and laws.

Port of Rotterdam

The Port of Rotterdam plays a very important role in handling shipments arriving to Europe and distributing them through the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt network to other cities on the constellation of smaller rivers branching out from the main network. In 1872, an artificial canal Nieuwe Waterweg, was built to improve the port’s access to the Northern Sea – especially for big ships – and to connect the Rhine and Meuse rivers. A large percentage of shipments handled through the Port of Rotterdam are related to petrochemical industry – in addition to cargo. The port is also connected to the rest of Europe via a complex network of refineries, storage facilities, fulfillment centers, railways, tunnels, bridges, and LNG pipes, providing one of the best and most connected infrastructure systems of any port in the world.

Rotterdam Port is also known for its sophisticated automation systems for loading and unloading containers. It uses a network of robots and computer-controlled chariots (also called AGV or Automated Guided Vehicles), all connected by sensors, infrared and a large magnetic grid. For this reason, the terminal is also nicknamed the “Ghost Terminal” due to the minimum interference of humans in its operation.

Acknowledging the importance of collaboration and connectivity – even with a competitor – the Port of Amsterdam (known for cargo and cruises) and Port of Rotterdam have partnered to explore different areas of collaboration, like the establishment of a shared information system called HaMIS. Both ports will also be working on joint procurement, detection of inland vessels and pushed barges.

Antwerp: Fashion, Diamonds and Power

Another prominent city in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta is Belgium’s second biggest city: Antwerp, which is home to one of the busiest ports in the world. The Port of Antwerp is the second largest in Europe after Rotterdam Port.

Antwerp is an important European energy hub (ranked second  globally after Houston in Texas), with five massive oil refineries, four nuclear plants, in addition to power plants and wind farms. But, unlike Rotterdam, Antwerp is not mainly known for its port industry. It is famous for its cosmopolitan and creative vibe and its ethnic diversity, with large concentrations of minorities from around the world. Almost 40% of its residents have an immigrant background.

Home of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp is a prominent fashion destination globally and the birthplace of the world’s first published newspaper. Antwerp is known as the global hub for the diamond trade, with almost 80% of all rough diamonds and 50% of all cut diamonds in the world traded in the City.

Amsterdam: A Global Alpha City

The capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam is one of the key cities in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta. Its metropolitan area is inhabited by around two million people and it’s part of the conglomerate metropolitan areas of Randstadt that is home to seven million people – one of the largest in Europe. While it’s not on one of the three rivers of the Delta, it’s connected to the Rhine through the human-built Amsterdam-Rhine Canal and has access to the Northern Sea through the IJ River.

Amsterdam is a global metropolis and has historically been a hub for trade, finance and art. It’s ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world (in 2012 the Economist intelligence unit ranked it second most livable city in the world). The City is inhabited by almost 800 thousand local residents and visited yearly by almost 20 million tourists, which makes the ratio of tourists to residents 20:1.

In addition to its 165 canals inside the City, it’s notable for its cycling culture and the high density of bicycles that exceeds the number of local residents.

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Amsterdam network of canals. Courtesy of Dutchamsterdam.nl

Amsterdam combines the port characteristic of Rotterdam with the cultural and cosmopolitan vibe of Antwerp. In its early history, the City was also known for its diamond trade.

For the past six decades, the City has had a very vibrant art and creative scene and has a large number of museums, like the Van Gogh, Anna Frank and The RijksMusuem, in addition to an infinite number of cultural and artistic events that span all year long.

Financially, Amsterdam is home to the oldest stock exchange in the world and a large number of multinational headquarters such as Heineken, ING, Tomtom and Booking.com. It also has a large density of international offices of global firms, due to its international status as a global alpha city.

Eindhoven: Knowledge Economy

The Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta is also famous for its vibrant level of research, innovation and knowledge economy. Key higher educational institutions in the Delta include the universities of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Erasmus, Groningen and Leiden.

A model city built around knowledge economy and collaboration is Eindhoven, where one-third of all funds invested in R&D in the Netherlands are spent in or around the City. It’s also considered a global role-model in building a collaborative knowledge economy, pioneering collaboration between the private sector and education in driving innovation and knowledge.

A large part of this culture is created thanks to the multinational Philips, one of the key players in the City. The company has been a driver of Eindhoven’s economic growth since it started as a light bulb factory at the end of the 19th century.

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The Philips GrowWise City Farming research center in Eindhoven. Courtesy of Phillips Lighting.

In collaboration with Eindhoven University of Technology, Philips has invested heavily in expanding the knowledge base in the City in fields such as biomedical, nano technology and engineering. Additionally, incubator programs, knowledge economy initiatives and research centers are scattered all over the City.

Connectivity and prosperity

Despite the challenging geographic conditions of the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta being entirely below sea level, the region has managed to build and leverage its constellation of rivers and waterways as a key driver of economic growth through connectivity. The different cities in the Delta have invested in internal and external connectivity over centuries, making it one of the most prosperous regions in the world and a hub for innovation and knowledge.

Internal connectivity is seen across the Delta via a plethora of man-made canals, bridges, ports and ships which makes it entirely navigable. But connectivity is not only physical – it’s also about fostering collaboration and the exchange of knowledge through research centers, university partnerships and a very large network of knowledge-based networks. External connectivity is driven by trade, capital markets and early adaptation of the knowledge economy and globalization, which has facilitated the smooth flow of people, goods, capital and market with the world.

In the next installment of this mega cluster series, we will explore the Valley of Mexico, home of the Greater Mexico City, one of the largest urban agglomeration in the world.

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