Monday, February 11, 2013

Mea Culpa

We often make fun of attorneys.  There are a number of reasons, included a persnickety attention to details that many of us, often wrongly, find superfluous.

Anecdote: I’ve been reading the letters that my father sent to his parents during World War II.  In late 1943, he was a cadet training to be a weatherman.  Much of his class was targeted for duty on bombers over Germany.  It was training that was critical to the war.

And yet one day all classes were halted for the cadets to be dismissed from the Army, to recomplete their enlistment, life insurance, and war bond forms, and then to be re-enlisted.  The reason for the training delay?  The cadets’ employer was being changed from the United States Army to the Army of the United States.   Tell me there wasn’t an attorney somewhere behind that swirl of paperwork.

But perhaps the biggest criticism of attorneys is their willingness to defend anyone.  No matter how horrific the crime or how clear the evidence trail, there will always be an attorney ready to stand up and argue against guilt.  Or at least to argue mitigating circumstances.  Attorneys will contend that the availability of counsel is essential to a properly functioning legal system.  They’re undoubtedly right, but it still feels wrong to many.

Which is ironic because many of us are guilty of the same offense.  Accountants review the books for businesses that they suspect are shady.  Building supply houses sell materials to contractors who do substandard work.  And engineers work on projects that may not be in the best long-term interests of our communities.

In my career, I was perhaps a little lucky.  I had the opportunity to spend the first decade doing small-scale hydroelectric projects.  (Except for the politics of energy, small hydro would be considered the first among renewables.)

But after those first ten years, I did a few things of which I’m less proud.  Several residential projects that were less dense and walkable than I would have preferred, a Petco, a Best Buy, a couple of Circuit Citys, and a passel of Whole Foods.

I’m not criticizing the corporate missions of Best Buy, Whole Foods, etc., but except for preliminary design on an urban Whole Foods in San Jose, all of the stores I mentioned were in drivable suburban locations and configurations.  And I’m not proud of working on them.

Sometimes, I rationalized my involvement as something I had to do to earning a living.  At other times, I perhaps didn’t notice the gap between my beliefs and my professional duties. 

I suspect that many others in land development have never asked themselves the question of whether what they’re doing is really the right thing for their communities.  As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If you’ve been reading for awhile, you already know my feelings on walkable urban versus drivable suburban.  I needn’t reiterate the arguments here.

But if you work in the land development field, or if you vote in municipal elections that will influence land use decisions, I ask that you take a few moments to ponder how your city should look in the future and to ask whether you’re doing what you should to make that happen.  Or whether you’re just going along with the status quo so you can make your mortgage payment.  It’s a question that I could have asked myself a few more times.

For another perspective on the role of engineers in land use planning, read this StrongTowns blog about a new freeway interchange in Pennsylvania.  Charles Marohn says what I said, but with a concise expression of outrage that is enlightening and entertaining.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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