Port authorities and urban redevelopment: Politics, organizations, and institutions on a changing waterfront

Peter Hendee Brown, University of Pennsylvania


Public authorities have provided an enormous share of the infrastructure in the United States over the past century, shaping the urban environment in powerful ways. Growth in numbers of local general-purpose governments and school districts has been in decline for a half-century but politicians and local leaders have continued to create new public authorities. Academicians have studied authority origins, character, growth, uses, and administration but current knowledge does not adequately explain how existing authorities change as they expand to engage in new functional areas. By considering the experiences of four port authorities that have diversified beyond cargo and into waterfront redevelopment this study poses and seeks to answer three questions. First, how do external and internal forces encourage and impede port authorities as they engage in new functions? Next, how do port authorities transform themselves as organizations in order to implement waterfront redevelopment? And finally, do abstract models of public authorities adequately capture the nature of the institutional transformation occurring on the waterfront? Drawing on a wide range of sources including enabling legislation, annual reports, financial statements, business plans, audits, media accounts, and interviews, this investigation offers important new insights into the advantages and disadvantages of assigning new functions to existing authorities. The study demonstrates that port authorities possess the ability to change as organizations, becoming more innovative and entrepreneurial as they engage in waterfront redevelopment. Competition and conflict from other public and private interests, however, hamper their efforts. Finally, port authorities that engage in waterfront redevelopment change as institutions, devolving and becoming more representative of a broader set of interests as waterfront land controlled by well-defined interest groups is opened to a broader constituency. This finding calls into question previous characterizations of authorities as being politically insulated, financially independent, autonomous, and stable over time. Together, these findings contribute to planning literature and practice by providing empirical research into how public authorities change as they engage in new functions and more specifically how port authorities change as they implement waterfront redevelopment.

Subject Area

Urban planning|Area planning & development|Public administration|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Brown, Peter Hendee, "Port authorities and urban redevelopment: Politics, organizations, and institutions on a changing waterfront" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125792.