Designing on a public stage

November 2013 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

Sometimes (often?) in the past, designing a road or bridge or even residential or commercial site development was a somewhat hidden process involving civil engineers and the public agency or project owner that had direct responsibility or oversight, such as a state or local transportation department, zoning or planning commission, or a land developer. The general public, if included in the process at all, was provided minimal information at the beginning of a project and then expected to trust the professionals and their appointed or elected officials to handle the rest, regardless of any inconvenience the project could cause.

How times have changed. For civil engineers, the movement toward greater public communication and involvement in infrastructure projects is an opportunity to shine – to demonstrate on a public stage the expertise, value, and service you provide and the importance of the profession in creating the infrastructure that – whether recognized or not – impacts everyone's life for good every day. Your work provides reliable access to water, food, sanitation, health care, energy, transportation, security, environmental protection, recreation, entertainment, and communication – even the Internet. It's almost impossible to name a basic need or service in our society that isn't dependent at some level on infrastructure designed by civil engineers.

However, successfully building public support for and involvement in infrastructure projects does not happen without some effort in communication. In "Creative project communications," Eliza Partington, Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Bridge Technical/Program coordinator, summarizes some of the methods the agency has used to build public trust and yes, even acclaim, during the 93 Fast 14 program that replaced 14 bridges on busy I-93 in Boston. Communication was accomplished on a small budget with some ingenious outreach methods that garnered not only public acceptance but also genuine public interest in the projects. Among the public's response, was this tweet: "Unusual to be impressed by public works."

Some of the "Communications strategy tips" that Partington presents are worth emphasizing by repeating here:

  • Keep in mind who the project ultimately serves and focus communications on how the project accomplishes service-oriented goals.
  • Use the community's project-related values and interests as a guide. Anticipate concerns and needs in project design and communications.
  • During public meetings, don't get lost in technical details. Instead, present how the project design solves problems.
  • Keep in mind the wise words of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Communications Director Lloyd Brown: "The key to a successful outreach program is to always remember the fears and concerns of your audience. It really doesn't matter what you say so much as what they hear. So, it's absolutely critical that you use the language your audience uses and that you make the effort to listen to what they have to say about your project."

Designing on a public stage – shining a spotlight on your work – carries some risks. But allowing the public to participate at some level in what you do, to share project goals, design alternatives, and possibilities with those who are served by your creations, can help increase trust and respect for the civil engineering profession – and maybe inspire some future engineers in the process.

Bob Drake
bdrake@zweigwhite.com


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