(Jared Erondu/Unsplash)

San Francisco’s shoreline—once cut off from downtown by an elevated highway and a series of inaccessible piers—now offers a lovely series of transit-accessible open spaces that link surrounding communities to the shore. What used to be a major jobs center is now a site for recreation. The waterfront has been transformed, bringing parks and promenades to areas that once prohibited any activity other than shipping.

The circumstances could not be more different in places with active commercial ports, such as the massive one just across the San Francisco Bay. Because of growing maritime trade that attracts dozens of giant container ships daily, the Port of Oakland has more traffic than ever. This, the nation’s fifth-largest port, is situated on prime land, occupying 19 miles (30.5 km) of waterfront and hundreds of acres in the heart of one of the nation’s fastest-growing and most expensive regional economies.

But try walking from the nearest Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail station in West Oakland and you will be disappointed by a car-dominated, one-mile-plus (1.6 km) journey; there is no possibility to live within a reasonable walking distance of work here, nor is there local bus service available to major port facilities. And, with the area’s poor air quality, you may also find it difficult to breathe.

Oakland’s maritime port is the source of tens of thousands of local jobs, but it is not contributing much to the urban neighborhoods around it, nor is it much integrated within them. In fact, for the most part, it is separated from the rest of the city by an elevated interstate highway. Contrast this disconnected situation with, for example, Uber’s new Oakland offices, where 3,000 workers will be employed in the heart of downtown, right on top of a BART stop.

Ports, of course, are special; it takes a lot of space to move freight on and off boats. And security concerns related to international trade may limit the degree to which the surrounding city can flow into and out of the port area. Indeed, the urban conditions in Oakland are little different from those in many other major port cities, from Long Beach to Newark.

Replacing the port with a San Francisco–style shoreline would certainly improve access to the water, but it would produce unacceptable outcomes, since it would destroy a major center for trade and jobs. But the unique physical constraints required by shipping activities do not mean that ports must be designed with contempt for the neighborhoods around them.

What opportunities, then, do we have to make ports more integrated into the rest of the cities surrounding them? How can we activate sections of their waterfronts without destroying the valuable economic generation they produce? Examples from around the world suggest that more can be done to help make ports like Oakland’s not just big job generators, but also genuine contributors to the surrounding urban environments.

In Hamburg, Germany, viewing towers offer the public the ability to peer into the shipping activity, allowing people a vicarious experience of what it’s like to move goods between ships, trains, and trucks. On Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, public streets connect the grid of the city through the port and to the sea.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, a recently completed residential building just adjacent to the port incorporates industrial space in its ground floor. In Taiwan, architects have designed ways to transform the port “from an urban barrier into an urban connector,” altering the port experience by reenvisioning the degree to which it needs to be cut off from the city.

Similarly, ports in some foreign cities are well connected to the local transit network. In Singapore, two stations on the Circle Line, which opened in 2011, are located just adjacent to a major cargo terminal. Barcelona is planning a new subway route that will head directly into that city’s port zone. Port workers, like anyone else, should be able to choose from multiple ways to get to work.

These ideas should become increasingly relevant for trading cities like Oakland because ports are likely to grow significantly, and their need for a larger footprint could place them in direct opposition to the needs of adjacent residents. Marine shipping lies at the heart of rapidly expanding global trade, which, spurred by rising population, incomes, and better connectivity, could expand by 430 percent by 2050, according to the International Transport Forum.

The Port of Oakland, having already ballooned in size over the past few decades, handles almost 2,000 cargo ships a year and 2.4 million freight containers—20- or 40-foot metal boxes filled with goods that can be moved between boats, trains, and trucks. Business has more than doubled since 1991.

This increase in trade—while good for job growth—has threatened the quality of life of surrounding neighborhoods and raised questions about environmental justice. West Oakland, one of the city’s poorest areas, is surrounded on three sides by highways and its large number of carless inhabitants has no reasonable access to the shore park nestled in the middle of the port.

A deft and well-designed change to the street grid, an improved streetscape, and better transit could help make the port more accessible for both employees and residents.

Moreover, despite having rail access to both the Union Pacific and BNSF networks, 80 percent of goods moving to and from cargo ships is carried by trucks. Congestion at the port and on adjacent roads is increasing, and air pollution from particulates, NOx, and SOx is a major threat. A study of the communities surrounding the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, relevant to the Oakland example, showed that people living there suffer from higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and depression than people who live farther away from ports.

California has made progress in encouraging reduced emissions both from ships and trucks, but more remains to be done. Moving more freight to railroads and relying on electric power, rather than diesel, could play a big role in improving air quality. These changes could save lives, reduce congestion, and encourage a more environmentally friendly region.

Turning Oakland’s port into a replication of San Francisco’s waterfront could be aesthetically appealing, but it would eliminate thousands of well-paying jobs and ultimately reduce the ability to import and export goods into the United States. But other options are possible, and more creativity in developing port zones that both enmesh themselves into the surrounding cities and preserve jobs should be a priority for cities like Oakland.