By Wendy Zatylny, President, Association of Canadian Port Authorities

What makes a city great? What makes people from around the world – from the tech-savvy hipster to the comfortably retired to the excitement-seeking traveler – come to a particular city to make their money or spend it? The answer may surprise some people – including the inhabitants of those sleek, shiny condo towers that are popping up along the waterfront in some of Canada’s cities.

There’s a correlation between the cities where people want to live, and cities that are lucky enough to have ports. David Florida is an urban studies theorist who examines what attracts people to different places, and he ranks cities according to their desirability. By putting together global surveys that examine cities from different perspectives, he looks at both economic factors such as wealth, economic power and innovation with social factors such as cultural dynamism and openness.

Of the top eleven cities in the world (Toronto ties with Stockholm for tenth place), the majority are ports. Something is happening here that is worth paying attention to. London and New York. Hong Kong and Singapore. When we think of these cities, the ports may not come first to mind, but there is no doubt that the economic activity of the ports – gritty and noisy as they might sometimes be – helps build the foundation for the city’s greatness.

In the transportation business, we’ve grown accustomed to making the case for ports as essential to the quality of life we enjoy. Each year, some $400 billion worth of cargo passes through Canada’s ports. Nearly all the products we consume in our globalized economy moves by marine mode – from bananas to medicines, computers to bluejeans. The title of Rose George’s book about shipping as “the invisible industry” says it all: Ninety Percent of Everything.

On the other hand, the cargo that Canada exports to countries around the world competes with cargos from other regions – whether the product is coal, electronics, or frozen meats. The efficiency of the port is a key component in the logistics supply chains that provide export-oriented jobs across Canada.

Ports also generate wealth in the hinterland they serve: about $30 billion in economic spinoffs, including $2.1 billion to the coffers of federal, provincial and municipal governments.

If your port is lucky enough to serve cruise ships, each visitor that steps ashore will spend on between $130 and $190 in your community’s shops and restaurants before sailing on to the next destination. Anyone who has been in a smaller cruise-ship city in Canada knows the excitement in town when the cruise ships come in.

Ports mean jobs too: hundreds of thousands of Canadians owe their employment directly or indirectly to them. Think of the range of economic activity that goes into moving cargo: customs brokering and inspecting, warehousing and freight forwarding, legal and accounting services, ship chandlering and repairs – blue collar and white collar jobs in the support services.

And then there are the jobs at the harbour itself. The average port salary is $70,700 – that’s more than $20,000 above the average full time employee across all industries in Canada. Add the salaries up and you get $10.2 billion pumped into the economy through wages.

The relatively high salaries indicate that working in a port is a very different kind of job than it was in the days of wheelbarrows and rope hoists. The jobs are knowledge-intensive and technologically sophisticated. They will become increasingly so as ports apply new solutions to improve capacity and velocity. In their search to become more innovative, port investments in new ideas spill over into the local research community. Port cities like Houston, Oakland and Rotterdam are associated with large numbers of patent applications in areas involving shipping.

Finally, a city is lucky to have a port because today’s port authorities work hard to be good neighbours. They want to encourage their communities to help pull together to create gateways that bring more cargo and create more wealth, in a manner that is sustainable, environmentally-friendly and respectful of their communities.

This is done in a myriad of ways. Many Canadian port authorities sponsor charities and community organizations each year. Many provide internships and scholarships for universities. For some, the contributions are more location-specific. Sept-Îles, for example, acquired the ocean-going vessel that Mylène Paquette rowed across the Atlantic.

Others rehabilitate the ecological integrity of the shoreline, or create walkways and cycle paths along the harbour, or build wharves from where people can fish. Some invite film and television shoots to use the harbour as a unique backdrop. Some set up the harbour for viewers as well as producers of screen entertainment. Check out Toronto Port Authority’s annual sail-in cinema festival.

It makes no difference whether the port is large or small, whether the hinterland vies as one of the best places in the world in which to live, or whether it’s just making a difference to the local region, port authorities go the extra distance to try to be a good neighbour – and the community benefits as a result.

When the ports and the communities work together, everyone wins. More cargo through the harbour means more jobs and economic spin-offs. More economic activity means a higher quality of life for those who live in the vicinity.

Take care of the health of your port, and you are helping improve the health of your community.

There are many ways in which the ports and their stakeholders and neighbours need to work together to improve their mutual prospects. In the coming years, for example, billions of dollars will be invested in Canada’s infrastructure. By working together, the port authorities and their communities can help bring some of that investment to help with important upgrades that will mean local jobs and keep Canada competitive globally.

Other investments will go to reducing the environmental footprint of the marine industry that is already the greenest transportation mode. Many of these investments will help further reduce noise and emissions.

Some ports need to expand their physical space to improve their capacity; they’ll need the backing of politicians and community leaders. Other ports are encountering new neighbours, as new residences continue to proliferate along the shoreline of some of the world’s best places in which to live. The ports will need the understanding of those new neighbours that these industrial sites have their own exigencies and timetables. There needs to be communication and mutual understanding and respect for a port to thrive and make a community a better place in which to live.

If you invest in your port, the return on investment comes in the form of local opportunities as well as a stronger national economy. If your city is lucky enough to have a port, take special care of that relationship.