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Neighborhoods of Glass: Living in an Export-Oriented Economy

Even the most well-intentioned public policy can have unintended consequences. President Obama’s promise of doubling exports offers one thread of a broader strategy for getting our economy back on track.

Increasing our output of goods to ship and sell abroad implies that if all goes well, a growing number of goods will be transported to one of our 400 ports. Yet, as Rob Puentes has determined, our top 15 ports already move over 73 percent of the value of international freight. Increasing our exported goods means one of two possibilities: additional goods will be funneled to just a handful of ports or other ports will need to move international cargo.

And here is where the pain starts. Increasing port activities has real and often severe consequences for the cities, towns, and neighborhoods located nearby. The most immediate ramification is the increased volume in truck traffic on local roads and arterials. Back in 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation surveyed 23 ports and found that 58 percent found local access to be below average conditions or, in other words, choked with congestion.

With more trucks carrying additional loads, some ports will likely find they have little choice but to push for port expansion to handle the supply. The process of local authorities approving port expansions is wrenching and emotional for the entire community--a controversy perhaps only superseded by the siting of jails.

If these costs seem reasonable to get our country back on track, try to argue this point to neighborhoods already burdened with these impacts. Accomplishing this national goal at the local level will not be so easy.

Yet, an easy answer for the feds is that they don’t have authority over local land use. This is also the case in Germany, where local land use decisions are determined by state and local governments. Yet on the issue of ports, Germany’s federal government has taken a keen interest in how local municipalities are supporting port activity. Their interest grew out of a desire to increase the volume of exports. In German cities and regions that contain “ports of national importance”, local municipalities will now be encouraged by the feds to change the hierarchy of land uses and activities within their zoning processes.

Specifically, local governments will be asked to consider how new uses, such as housing, will not hurt the competitiveness of the port. So instead of port noise needing to be mitigated by the port, homebuilders, and ultimately homeowners, could be responsible for mitigating the noise. One noise mitigation strategy is that homebuilders install heavy, noise-proof glass.

If the Germans should be lauded for at least trying to reconcile national economic objectives with local priorities, I wonder if more can be done than create neighborhoods of glass.