We've been picking on the engineering profession recently, on the blog with Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and Conversation with an Engineer (video) as well as on the podcast that was released yesterday. The critiques are well deserved for a profession that has, with nearly unchecked authority, dictated the form and function of most public spaces in America for six decades, to society's detriment.

I'm in the middle of deep reading Steve Mouzon's Original Green. I had read it quickly a few months back, but wanted to return and take my time with it. We recommend it so highly we made it one of our essential books for Strong Towns thinking. One of the concepts that Mouzon comes back to repeatedly is that, for a place to endure, it needs to be loved.

Before our readers from the engineering profession -- yes, I know you're out there secretly reading the Strong Towns blog -- before they roll their eyes at me for concepts like "endure" and "love", let me interpret Mouzon for you. What he is saying is this: If you want people to pay to financially support something through tough times, it has to have a deeper meaning than just its immediate, short-term use. It has to provide them with real value, regardless of the era.

Most engineers are all over the concept of "real value", but get it wrong. When you define "real value" as having thick enough pavement or good enough drainage to withstand multiple freeze/thaw cycles, you miss what it takes to have a place that truly endures. It is not about quantity, it is about quality.

In this economic environment, engineers are finding it increasingly difficult to get their standard projects approved or funded. Instead of lamenting the stinginess or nearsightedness of the politicians and the taxpayers they represent, the profession should instead consider that their model has constructed few places that people can't simply live without.

Now again the engineers are shouting -- try living without your sewer next time you use your bathroom! -- and I hear you, but that misses the point. If they don't have the money, people will forgo fixing their sewer until their is sewage running on the ground (and even then, some will balk...).

The environment we've built has transformed places into commodities, with functional value but little else. And as with all commodities, the incentive is to push costs as low as possible. Here's the catch though: there is no way to maintain our lifestyle cheaply. Even if we go "cheap", we're so spread out and inefficient that our systems can't possibly be rebuilt or maintained in an affordable way.

Sans federal government subsidies, we are entering a bleak era for the engineering profession, which will be increasingly marginalized as a mentality that favors faster, better and cheaper spawns new ways to do things without their "value" added. (That process is already well underway, actually, with many communities opting to not use an engineer for routine maintenance projects.)

As if on cue, to make my point that, broadly put, engineers simply do not understand the world we are entering, this week I received a calendar from a local engineering firm -- part of their end-of-the-year marketing effort. Each month of their calendar has a photo highlighting one of their successful projects. This is a common marketing approach -- firms compete to have their calendar on display at each city hall, where their contact information is easily visible for anyone needing their services.

You have to believe that I am not joking -- this is the first photo they chose to share in their 2011 calendar.

Here is the caption that accompanied this photo:

After more than a century of industrial use, [this site] had been underused for many years. Reclaiming the 145 acre site entailed managing contamination, designing infrastructure to encourage development, restoring wetlands, and establishing green space and trails. What was once a nearly unusable site is now poised to be a vibrant example of environmental stewardship and economic development.

Again, and I swear to this, I have made none of this up.

We could rip on the true level of "environmental stewardship" inherent with a sea of asphalt. We could joke about the odd value system that spends money on "decorative lighting" on a street section designed for speeding automobiles. We could point out the waste of capacity inherent in placing a water tower next to an enormous parking lot. There is so much in just this photo and caption that we could discuss...

Instead, I'll just pose two questions that get at the heart of Steve Mouzon's Original Green thinking and explain why the engineering profession is rightfully in decline.

  • In ten years, when the paint has faded, the weeds are grown up through the rocks, the stormwater areas are full of garbage and the bituminous has started to crack and wear, will anyone be back to take a photo of this site for any reason resembling pride?
  • In twenty years, when the bituminous is full of potholes and cracks, when the sidewalks are broken and when the decorative lights are starting to rust, will this community be willing to spend their own money to restore it to the image we see today?

I think we all know the answer to these questions as well as what that answer implies. It should make us feel ashamed.

 

The company that sent this calendar has some of my closest friends and is full of people I respect and admire. They are good, decent people that care about their communities, they just have a hard time expressing that in a constructive way. Let's all try and help them and their colleagues in the engineering profession.

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