It was a Thursday in June of 1995. Early in the morning, I took my last final exam (wastewater engineering) and by late afternoon I was up in the City of Nevis at a pre-construction conference. My first posting as a civil engineer was as an inspector for a wastewater collection and treatment system. As the contractor on the project joked with me, "Four years ago I couldn't spell 'engineer'...and now I is one."
The reality is, today I am still in awe of the engineering profession and the amazing things that engineers do to make our lives better. After working in the profession for five years, returning to graduate school for a planning degree and working for eight years now as a planner, I also understand the limits of what can be expected of an engineer.
Engineers are amazing at solving the problem at hand. They are not so great at realizing the long-term consequences of their "solutions". That doesn't mean they are short-sighted. They are absolutely not. But engineering is a technical field. Much of what happens in the life and growth of a small town is not.
For better or for worse (I tend to vote for the latter), most of the planning being done in small towns today in done by engineers. This means infrastructure - roads, streets, sidewalks and sewers - first, last and in between. While many towns have seen "gains" from this mode of operation in the past, today we see lots of aging infrastructure that was "planned" and now needs to be maintained or replaced on a tax base that just isn't big enough to support it.
The current economic crisis is likely to hit local governments hard in the coming years. It will be important to watch and see how communities react. I suspect there will be those who "double down" on their current development pattern, investing even more in infrastructure to entice new development. The state and federal governments may even fund some of that spending. This is a road to ruin, but one that will likely be advocated for by those in the engineering profession. It's not that they are self-serving. I think the opposite - they genuinely want to make things better. The problem is just that they have a very limited toolbox.
There will be other communities - hopefully the great majority - that will look at ways to use their existing investments better. Loosening restrictions on density, reducing regulations that stifle growth and eliminating the indirect subsidies that spur development on the perifery of small towns would be an easy start.
These are not engineering solutions and so, in our small towns, they have no natural champion and no earmark to see them through. So what's wrong with engineers? Well, they have been so good for so long at "fixing" what's wrong, they are in the strongest position to control the fate of much of small-town American.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. - Abraham Maslow