Let me preface this post by saying that I know a number of well-meaning civil and transportation engineers. Unfortunately, they tend to be in the minority of their profession and many still do not grasp the essence of what good urban and regional planning is all about. Not every perceived infrastructure, environmental, or transportation issue/problem can be resolved with a mathematical equation or with an “engineered” solution.
A massive concrete pipe, a dozen extra lanes of traffic, and a sterile-looking stormwater management pond do not exude the warm and fuzzies in my mind. Far too often civil and transportation engineers focus on larger, stronger, deeper, thicker, wider, and higher while overlooking the most obvious and simple solutions.
For example, preserving the natural wetlands and estuaries surrounding New Orleans would have been a far more economical, practical, efficient, and effective way of protecting the city from hurricane storm surges than constructing dikes, dams, seawalls, and whatnot or later having to go back to square one and recreate mother nature’s original masterpiece. In fairness, the loss of natural wetlands protecting New Orleans is not solely the fault of civil engineers, though their reshaping the landscape of southeast Louisiana was by far the largest factor. Sprawl, overdevelopment, drilling, and a plethora of other factors also contributed. The following statement by John Tibbetts in the January 2006 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives pretty well sums up the problem:
“Today, South Louisiana is one of most intensively engineered places in the nation. Vast quantities of water are diverted or rerouted through a lace work of navigation corridors held in place by 2,000 miles of earthen, rock, and concrete levees. Walled off from the floodplains, the river can no longer provide enough silt to the delta to keep up with natural subsidence and sea level rise. About two-dozen dams also hold sediment back from the river and its tributaries. “
The map provided below shows the extent of coastal wetlands that have been lost and are projected to be lost around New Orleans.
In the 21st century, “meaning well” will only get you so far in solving problems. Eventually, you need both the public and politicians to buy into the effort. The days of simply imposing a gargantuan project onto people and/or communities are thankfully over in many (but not all) places in the United States. That is where we planners come into the equation.
If civil and transportation engineers would like to limit the backlash to their proposed projects, please sit down with planners before ever (EVER) putting a pencil to paper or logging into a CAD design program. Those who do will find their professional life less stressful. Those who don’t will have higher medical bills.
Do planners have all the answers? Of course we do! Just kidding. We have made our share of mistakes too, including some real whoppers – can you say urban renewal? But, at the very least we can try to help civil and transportation engineers avoid obvious pitfalls and dodge potential public-relations disasters. In the end, working cooperatively should produce better results, better projects, and better communities for all of us.