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The Civil Engineer’s responsibility moving forward

Highways By Tom Blanden, Engineer – 31 January 2023

Road going through a forest aerial view


Tom in a white open collared shirt in front of a living wall

Tom Blanden

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The world is moving through its first urban century, with more people living in urban areas than in rural areas globally. The world’s future population growth is predicted to take place in urban landscapes in the developing world - 90% of the predicted 2.5 billion additional population will be in Asia and Africa. Already we live beyond our means on this planet, and the increased strain this will put on our limited resources is undeniable, with an expected 25% increase on our global planetary dependence.

Land is one such limited resource that’s intrinsically tied to urban environments. Our food comes from it, our homes are built on it, and our waste returns to it. Effects associated with climate change such as rising temperatures and sea levels are reducing our land’s productivity and even taking precious land away from us. Urban environments are linked to these problems by the emissions they produce, yet the policies and planning procedures which we follow do not always suggest so.

Often it is the case that poor urban planning and the policy which influences it, leads to inefficient land use around city edges with sprawling neighbourhoods or low-density housing. Urban planning occurs within a political ideology that informs the present decision-making process. Thus, to a large extent, many of the urban patterns we see today reflect decisions made in the past.

As the prevailing ideology changes, so does the planning of our cities. Global issues such as climate change, development and globalisation, alongside a more integrated style of thinking and design which is best suited to combat them are all receiving increasing recognition. Engineers are well adapted to these challenges. Their contribution to urban environments is extensive: our transport networks, services, homes, and healthcare all have engineering connotations. Engineers can influence and educate society through innovative designs and the application of sustainable practices.

Traditionally engineers have focused on local, analytical solutions. The complexity and scale of challenges which face us, and which engineers play an important role in solving, mean that is no longer possible. As applicators, engineers need to remain dynamic with their solutions because urban landscapes and the associated challenges are constantly changing. Policy and procedure cannot be followed blindly. Engineers must remain informed to stay on top of their field; globalisation as a trend brings opportunities for engineers to promote change through sharing experience and good practice. Intelligent planning is required which considers all constituents. This means that engineers cannot just be educated in one field; rather, engineers must understand how their designs affect the whole system in which they are applied. Similarly, in an increasingly global world, designs cannot simply be retrofitted from developed to developing urban environments. Though the problems of development and sustainability are the same, each environment is unique. Innovative, well-rounded solutions have a role to play at any stage of development.

The engineering profession is implicated strongly in the battles against climate change and the transition towards more sustainable environments through the construction and operation of products they develop and design. Poorly designed infrastructure plays into urban sprawl. It is therefore important they are proactive in this issue and continually critique their own practice, morals and impact. The ability of an engineer’s solutions to inform and educate the masses should not be considered negligible. Innovative ideas have the potential to showcase ideas to a worldwide audience. In this sense, engineers can be seen as sustainability ambassadors. Similarly, by including stakeholders in the design process, engineers possess the ability to educate and empower the masses against development and sustainability issues.

Cundall has committed to only working on zero carbon projects by 2030, whilst also increasing our involvement on zero projects up until this date.

To achieve this, our pathway within civil engineering will include actions such as the use of low or zero carbon materials and recycled materials, rationalising the extent of impermeable areas and promoting the use of and designing the infrastructure of sustainable transport modes such as cycling and public transport. Embodied carbon assessments can inform these engineering decisions continually through the design process.

The role of urban environments in major global challenges, and their current and future scale, make them an ideal focal point for sustainable solutions. Sustainable, lasting change isn’t something that will happen overnight. The decisions we make today will shape the cities of tomorrow and transform our past legacies. In that sense, our future begins today.