Please excuse me for utilizing the Irish version of a well-known four-letter profanity. It was picked up while visiting that lovely island last month. The milder term “feck” seemed to be the most appropriate word for titling this post with a needed touch of angst.
As most every urban planner knows, our friends in the civil engineering profession live and operate in a world of straight lines. It doesn’t matter whether they are designing and installing anything from streets, to water mains, to sanitary sewers, to storm sewers, to sidewalks, to trails, or to detention ponds. Their adherence to clean geometrics is all well and good from a construction efficiency standpoint, but far too often it fails to take into consideration the adverse side effects of such a fixed mindset.
First, Mother Nature rarely, if ever, operates in a straight line frame of mind. I challenge anyone to find a “natural” pond, lake, river, stream, bay, harbor, sea, or ocean with perfectly straight and geometric boundaries on this lovely planet of ours. Obviously, Mother Nature has an innate sense of style that isn’t taught (or taught well) or respected in some civil engineering circles. This leads to unfortunate and often avoidable conflicts, as Mother Nature’s offspring are bound to get in the way of implementing modern engineering. Sadly, it is the trees, the vegetation, the wetlands, the unique terrain, and other natural features tend to get the short end of the stick in the battle with mighty bulldozers.
Second, where is the fun, whimsy, or joy in designing structures or objects that are nearly void of imagination? Who wants to follow a bland old straight line or to travel by foot and by bike along a trail that fails to meander? Where is the grand adventure in that? Granted, many a fine rail-to-trail corridor are largely straight, but that does not mean every single trail, path, or sidewalk must do the same thing. A little panache now and then is good for the soul and the imagination, let along the trees and other nature features they may actually avoid by thinking outside their silo’ed cyclinder.
Obviously, there are certain instances where building in straight lines are appropriate, logical, and practical. But, that doesn’t mean they should be the de facto norm in every place and situation. A railroad following the terrain or utilizing tunnels is far more interesting (and less destructive) than the so-called “air-line railroads” that streaked absolutely straight across the landscape in a no holds barred blitzkrieg of boredom. Similarly, a hiking trail that respects its surrounding environment is infinitely more aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable than a sidewalk that drones aside the street without ever wavering in its never-ending quest to conquer the concept of curvature. Likewise, perhaps a slight curve or adjustment in the proposed street could preserve a marsh, a tree, a meadow, a sand dune, a moraine, and esker, or some other natural feature that would otherwise be toast.
Perhaps by speaking up early and often, we planners can actually help alter the shape of engineered things to come so they are not quite so mindlessly linear. Wouldn’t that be a nice and refreshing change for all? So…don’t be a lone voice in the wilderness – communicate your concerns with fellow planners each and every chance you get. As a group we can better effect change (improvement) upon not only our discipline, but also those outside planning where we may have legitimate concerns.