Durable Growth

Are engineers allowed to be urbanists?

Urban setting in Tacoma, Washington

Urban setting in Tacoma, Washington

Regular readers will recognize the name StrongTowns.  It’s an urbanist advocacy group out of Minnesota which focuses on the financial non-sustainability of many infrastructure concepts, particularly transportation projects.  When I make similar arguments, especially when directed toward the American Society of Civil Engineers, I’m following in the footprints of StrongTowns.

The founder and continuing leader of StrongTowns is Chuck Marohn.  Like me, Marohn is a Registered Civil Engineer.  Thus, it was with unease that I received a group email from Marohn a few days ago that included this paragraph, “Last week I found out that I had a complaint filed against me with the state board of licensing.  This is the first step towards getting my license revoked.  It was filed by a former ASCE fellow and current member of the Move MN transportation lobby.  It alleged that my advocacy through Strong Towns amounts to professional misconduct, that my actions damage the integrity of the engineering profession.”

Marohn promised more information would be forthcoming.  The information came the following day in a post on the StrongTowns site.  I don’t recommend reading every article that that I link, recognizing that readers have many demands on their time.  But I strongly recommend this link, both for the Marohn’s update on the complaint and for his response to the basis for the complaint.  I applaud his commitment.  And, because of our shared profession, I relate to his umbrage.

For those who don’t follow the link, the complaint was found to be generally groundless, but the licensing board warned that the file would be retained in case additional information was uncovered.

With the complaint largely rejected, some might dismiss the situation as one malcontent individually pursuing an ill-conceived and inappropriate course of action and therefore not of general concern.

However, over the course of my engineering career, I’ve been involved in enough situations to know that the complaint against Marohn isn’t a unique circumstance.  It may be a more disturbing manifestation than other situations, but it’s part of a pattern.

Let me share a few stories from my career.  However, I should first hasten to say that I worked for several fine organizations and with numerous fine individuals, many of whom remain friends.  The anecdotes below reflect that outliers, not the typical engineers.  But there are enough outliers that they can’t be ignored.

For instance, I was once asked by a principal of the firm where I worked to become the firm’s representative with a particular civic organization.  I demurred, noting that the organization held a number of views on land use and economic development that I didn’t share.  In response, I was told that, as long as I received a paycheck from that firm, I wasn’t allowed to have those opinions.  I disagreed.  We parted uneasily, but I never became involved in the civic group.

Another time, in a meeting of senior managers, the eldest member of a firm and a well-respected presence, announced that a shared value of the firm was a particular set of core political beliefs.   Although they were beliefs that I didn’t share, I chose not to challenge that statement.  And when I glanced around, I saw mostly nods of agreement.

A few weeks later, I mentioned to the firm president that I’d found the comment inappropriate.  He assured me that it has been intended as a joke, although I’d noted an absence of levity in either the speaker or the audience.

But perhaps the worst incident occurred on a day when I was in another state, awaiting the kickoff of a football game between my alma mater and a conference foe.  My phone rang.  It was my wife, quite unhappy with me, wondering why I’d given approval for a mayoral candidate to post a campaign sign in our yard.  Although she always votes and holds well-reasoned political opinion, she prefers not to broadcast her beliefs with yard signs.  When she called, she was on our front porch, holding a local developer and the candidate at bay.  They had come armed with a sign, hammer, and nails.

While looking for a quiet place beneath the stands where I could talk, I was able to discern that the developer had approached the office manager where I worked, suggesting support for the candidate.  The office manager has agreed that everyone who worked for the firm should support the candidate, so gave direction to put campaign signs in all of the employees’ frontyards.  He saw no need to check with the employees for their concurrence.

We eventually resolved that the developer wouldn’t mount the sign, but would leave it on the front porch for me to sort out upon my return.  And everyone then departed, all somewhat disgruntled.

(As it turned out, future conversation wasn’t required.  A family dog had quietly watched the contretemps.  After all had left, and despite being house-trained, one Christmas tree incident notwithstanding, he lifted his leg on the campaign sign.  Rufus is no longer with us, so we’re unable to ask whether his act was a lack of support for the candidate, a disdain for the political process, or a show of solidarity with my wife.  But it effectively defused the situation.)

And even to this day, I’m regularly confronted with prejudices what beliefs I must hold as a result of my engineering license.  Despite having written this blog for more than three years, folks regularly assume that, as an engineer, I must support the new freeway interchange, the new big box store, or a proposed subdivision sprawling up a nearby hill.  All three assumptions are usually wrong and shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

These comments aren’t intended to put myself on some kind of Je Suis Chuck martyrdom pedestal with Marohn.  For one, however unsettling, my stories don’t strike at the core of my professional identity the way that a challenge to Marohn’s professional license did at his.  For another, both Marohn and I, even if our licenses were wrongfully revoked, could still put food on the table and roof over the heads of our families.

Instead, the stories are intended to illuminate pervasive and limiting stereotypes about engineers.  Marohn, I, and thousands more have survived rigorous academic training and government licensing to become professional engineers.  Those licenses give us the authority to decide how to bridge canyons or how to deliver potable water to millions of people.  Those are worthy goals and I’m proud to have professional brethren solving those problems.

But some of us have taken the skill set gained through academia, licensing, and practice to tackle a different problem, how to create a world in which our fellow citizens can live safely, affordably, and with joy and how to bequeath that world to the next generation.  It’s also a worthwhile goal and one that should be supported.  But challenges to licenses and pigeonholing assumptions aren’t supportive.  They’re the reverse.

And that’s messed up.

In my next post, with the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds nearing a climax, I’ll offer some thoughts on how land-use changes are effected, often incrementally but equally often cumulatively.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

9 comments to Are engineers allowed to be urbanists?

  • […] Alden at Network blog Vibrant Bay Area is also an engineer and a smart growth advocate. While he’s never had his license […]

  • jwb

    My college professor who taught ethics for engineers would be hopping mad if he read this. What a travesty of the complain process.

    • JWB, I agree. I’m not sure if my college engineering ethics professor would have been quite as offended, but the world has changed for the good in forty years.

  • One upside to the Marohn incident is that I discovered your website, and while that won’t change the world, it does tickle me. “Je Suis Chuck,” indeed.

    I look forward to perusing your site in more depth, soon.

  • I totally agree with your vision of engineering. I’m a civil engineer, and I don’t like how people just resume it in the phrase:

    “So you build bridges?”

    Civil engineering is way more than that. And yes, it has an important role in urban planning as we want it for the future.

    • Ruben. thanks for writing. I agree with you. Some of the accomplishments of my career of which I’m most proud were creative solutions to challenging problems posed by existing urban settings. Civil engineers help make urbanism work, whether through innovative concepts or through advocacy.

  • Bryan Jones

    I consider myself a new urbanist transportation professional (both engineer and planner). Here is an article I wrote recently with Zaki Mustafa from Los Angeles DOT highlighting the paradigm shift in who and how we should be serving our communities in a more relevant way.


    Last week I was on a design charrette. We showed picture after picture at a community meeting and asked people to rate them from “Live, to neutral, to hate”…without any connection between the pictures. Some pictures showed buildings, some showed roadways, some showed sidewalks. And then we connected the pictures. Walkable and bikeable streets people loved…4-6 lane high speed arterials with large intersections people hated. And it was often an 80-90% in support or against. And these results are not different than other communities we have done charrettes in…yet we continue to build and design communities for which people that we are suppose to serve don’t like.

    Bryan Jones, PE, PTP, AICP
    Alta Planning + Design Creating active communities

    • Bryan, thanks for the link. And I’ve always loved the paired photo approach. I remember watching Andres Duany make a similar presentation with photos of buildings and places back in the early 90s. Many folks know they like the older styles, but assume that those kinds of places just aren’t available in the modern world, so sadly accept high-speed arterials and buildings fronted by acres of parking. Much of urbanism is about convincing them that they still have choices in how their communities look.