The Port of the Future Is Arriving in Los Angeles

October 27, 2014
Is Fighting Climate Change the Next Maritime Industry?

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the first and second busiest ports in the U.S., are a jigsawed infrascape of water channels and shipping terminals, a skyline built of cranes and steel containers. Together the neighboring ports cover more than 7,500 acres of land – about 12 square miles – and at least that much water. The metropolis of L.A. and Orange County and greater Southern California fans out around the ports, the grand industrial gash in the coastline, endlessly swallowing up and spitting out the commercial goods of the global economy. Superships carrying thousands of containers come in and out every day, an exponential trend line out from the harbor’s roots in the early 1800s when ships sailed in and longshoremen unloaded them by hand.

Those days have long since disappeared amid the glaring progression of containerization, port automation and globalization, but some vestiges of the port’s less sophisticated past remain. City Dock 1, a hundred-year-old dock on the far edge of the complex in L.A.’s San Pedro neighborhood, is lined with long warehouses where those longshoremen once loaded and unloaded goods like cotton from Southern California farms and sardines from the canneries nearby. Train tracks still run through the street alongside the now-empty warehouses. Standing on these loading docks, they feel almost ancient. The scene feels even more anachronistic when you look across the water at the nearly 200-foot-tall cranes stacking metal shipping containers like massive toy blocks.

This juxtaposition of steam engine old and robot new makes it hard to imagine that this ancient dock will soon house a research and development center that intends to redefine the importance of the waterfront from global commerce to becoming a laboratory of sustainability.

The project, known as AltaSea, plans to fill the 35-acre dock with major facilities for marine research, education and waterfront business incubation. The vision is of a sprawling new campus that would harbor a symbiosis between these interrelated fields — researchers would have better access to the water, businesses would be better connected to research breakthroughs and students would benefit from increased connectivity to all sectors of the field. (Think about Silicon Valley — the area never would have developed as the tech powerhouse it is today if it wasn’t for the combination of players from Stanford University, private companies like Bell and Xerox, and the tech-hungry Cold-War era U.S. Navy concentrated in the same few square miles.)

AltaSea CEO Rachel Etherington imagines a future in which researchers investigating sea level rise will work alongside technologists developing new tools for undersea exploring, and entrepreneurs testing new ways to use the oceans to feed the world. The goal is to be a world-class research and development campus focused on the environmental issues at the coastal front lines of climate change.

Bringing scientists, researchers and businesses together, Etherington believes, will help move the needle on these critical problems that no one sector can solve alone — issues like air and water pollution, sea level rise and the depletion of fisheries.