3 Ways Strong Towns Helped this Engineering Student See the World Differently

This week, we are asking those who read, believe in and benefit from Strong Towns to support us by becoming members of the Strong Towns movement. Our small nonprofit is supported primarily through donations from members like you and we need your help to keep doing this important work.

Jesse Morrow is an engineering student from Boston, MA. Today, he's sharing a guest article about how Strong Towns helped him understand environmental issues through a financial lens and shaped his path forward as a conscientious engineer.

Jesse Morrow

Jesse Morrow

I'm part of the Strong Towns movement because the fundamental tenets of this organization have challenged my assumptions about the design and construction of infrastructure more than any lecture or syllabus.  I’m serious when I say that reading about the initiatives, listening to different perspectives, and following the ongoing discussions facilitated by Strong Towns has provided me with a pragmatic education, one that I have yet to find in a classroom.  It's not always easy to wrap my head around the dilemmas that Strong Towns confronts, but thanks to this organization, I have grown as a student, engineer, and citizen.

I am now 3 years into my bachelor’s degree as a civil engineer at Northeastern University (Boston, MA) and I have found my passion in implementing solutions to make our buildings and infrastructure more sustainable for the environment and for people.  During my first semester in college, I had the opportunity to take an engineering course focused on Sustainable Design which culminated in the proposed plans and budget for a zero net energy home.  Ever since I have been fascinated by the built environment, how we interact with it, and how it can be improved to better serve the public. 

I discovered Strong Towns last September while meandering through various blogs about urbanism and sustainable cities, looking for confirmation that we could build our way out of global warming with more compact communities, different transportation options, and renewable energy.  Shockingly, the discussion at Strong Towns was mostly devoid of sustainability goals and environmental protections, but the ideas conveyed here have an equal (if not greater) sense of urgency.  I continued reading.  Over time, I have come to grasp that environmental sustainability cannot be realized without economic sustainability; we must first address the flaws in our approach to development and neighborhood investment. 

As a Strong Towns member, I have found some provocative questions to chew on, particularly surrounding the procedures and norms of the engineering industry that are handed down to college students and young engineers uncontested.  I think engineers at my age should be aware of circumstances outside of an individual project’s scope and think like a person first and an engineer second.  I've learned three key lessons from Strong Towns that have equipped me to be a better engineer:

  1. Recognize what it is we are subsidizing:  We need to better scrutinize where funding goes to improve transportation, housing, and businesses, and predict the behavior that it encourages.  Funds spent on expanding roads will encourage driving at the expense of walking and biking.
  2. Do not substitute engineering codes and standards for morals:  Improvements in the name of increased “safety” or “efficiency” must receive further review than a feasibility report, with real consideration given to how quality of life may be affected.
  3. Bottom up, not top down:  I used to give much more weight to finding a catch-all solution to the root of all problems—the biggest impact with the fewest steps, dismissing small improvements that can be made as unworthy.  Now I can recognize that it is the collection of many individuals working on incremental improvements that creates lasting and resilient change.  After all, isn’t Strong Towns just a local campaign writ large?
Our generation has a lot to shoulder in the coming years, and I would wager that we are up to the challenge, so consider a donation to Strong Towns as an investment in our future.

The reason I contribute to the Strong Towns movement is to spread this message further, with the hope that it will engage more students who are eager to tackle the issues of the day.  It’s easy for students like me to recognize the symptoms of America’s automobile obsession and Ponzi-scheme development pattern; it’s much harder for us to place our finger on what causes these societal problems and where we can direct our efforts to create positive change. 

My hope is that people my age will start to think about what is not working in our current system of policy and investment because we have the biggest stake in fixing these problems.  Given a seat at the table, I know that students can provide renewed vigor to challenge the status quo, creativity and adaptability in our solutions to experiment with, and ultimately a vision for our communities when they are inherited again.  Our generation has a lot to shoulder in the coming years, and I would wager that we are up to the challenge, so consider a donation to Strong Towns as an investment in our future.

If you care about shaping a better future for young people and encouraging engineers to think differently about the way they build cities, become a member of Strong Towns. Your support will help us challenge and educate people of all professions in building stronger towns and a more financially sound future.

(Top photo of Strong Towns' 2017 Transportation Summit, by Rachel Quednau)

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