Communities Need More Generalists

I’m technically not a planner or urban designer. I’m also not a real estate guru, developer, lawyer, banker or environmental expert. My undergraduate degree is in Civil Engineering from Texas A&M. I chose to go into the field of civil engineering because I was good at math and science, loved to solve problems, and to some extent, wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps, who started his career as a civil engineer. In the 20 years since I walked across the stage to get my diploma in Aggieland, my career has evolved from me being a die-hard "pave it and they will come" engineer to more of a planner and educator who works to bring multiple disciplines together to find solutions that are fiscally and environmentally sustainable (yes, I said the "s word" - it's still the right word). It’s not uncommon for clients or colleagues I work with today to ask me how I ended up shifting my beliefs so drastically and doing the planning and outreach work I'm focused on now. So, I thought it would be appropriate for my first post on our new VERDUNITY Community blog to tell my story and tie it to why I believe that generalists are becoming increasingly valuable to communities in today's environment.

Shortly after I graduated in 1994, I accepted a position as an Engineer-in-Training (EIT) with Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam in their Dallas, TX office. Just like most EITs, I was involved in CAD drafting, design, preparation of plans and specs, and construction activities. I worked on all sorts of projects ranging from site design for a DART bus transfer center in downtown Dallas to hydraulic modeling for a wastewater treatment plant in Bangkok, Thailand. The majority of my work, however, was on paving, drainage and utility infrastructure projects for local communities. I loved these projects, because they included a little bit of everything technically and provided me with the opportunity to engage with clients and citizens much earlier than most young engineers got to. In 1996, the man who hired me was offered an awesome opportunity to work for DART, which he accepted. Gary Thomas (now President/Executive Director for DART) was the kind of boss everybody loved, so when he left, many of the staff, including me, moved on to other firms.

Hoover Dam Bypass and Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. Photo courtesy of HDR.

Hoover Dam Bypass and Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. Photo courtesy of HDR.

A friend recruited me to HDR, and I began work there in the Transportation group. Highway and transit projects for TxDOT and DART were the hot jobs at that time, so I learned Microstation and Geopak and did my best to be a “highway guy”. I was still young and single at the time, so when the opportunity to go to Las Vegas on a temporary basis to work on the Hoover Dam Bypass and Signature Bridge project, I was one of the first in line. To this day, that is far and away the most challenging and coolest project I’ve ever worked on. But as time went on, I realized that designing highways and rail lines wasn’t my thing. There were standards and guidelines out the wazoo (which meant little to no opportunity for innovation and creativity), and projects often lasted multiple years before anything got built. Public meetings were held to appease people and pretend like their input mattered, but in the end, alignments were picked based on which ones had fewer environmental hurdles to clear, or less properties to condemn or acquire. I missed the challenges of actually designing improvements to fit within the context of what was already there, and talking with people every day to find out what they wanted so I could do my best to make it a reality. I ended up going to my boss and asking if I could help rebuild the local municipal program, which had been the bread and butter for the firm prior to the highway market exploding in the 80s and 90s. He graciously agreed, and together we began marketing cities in the DFW metroplex. I got my Professional Engineering license shortly after that, started managing projects and clients, and eventually took over the program as a group within our larger Transportation section.

Church Street in McKinney, Texas.

Church Street in McKinney, Texas.

I continued managing the firm’s municipal/civil program for several years, working on projects for many of the cities in north Texas, as well as private developers, academic institutions and other clients. Our group designed building sites, streets, alleys, water and sewer lines, thoroughfares, detention ponds, storm sewer systems, etc. - lots of great projects with lots of great clients. My development wasn't just technically though - I learned about marketing, contracts, negotiations, people styles, sexual harassment, public speaking, leadership, and more. Many jobs went well. Some did not. I had great employees working for me, and some not-so-great. I always tried to do the best I could, learn from my mistakes, and mentor others. Whether it was inside the office walls or with my clients, what I loved doing more than anything was bringing people with different perspectives and expertise together to identify and achieve common goals, think outside the box, and challenge traditional approaches. Engineers aren't exactly the creative type though, so there were limits to our ideas.

In 2009, I got a call from one of the firm’s Executive Vice Presidents and was invited to interview for the position to become National Director of the Community Planning and Urban Design Program. When I hung up the phone, my first thought was “Why are they asking a civil engineer to lead a group of planners and urban designers?” I’d always been a bit of a generalist, people person, and strategic thinker, but never considered myself as a planner. I made a couple of trips to corporate headquarters in Omaha, and ultimately accepted the position. Several months into the job, I was told I got the position because I had, in the course of our discussions, described how I felt being a generalist and understanding a little bit about a lot of perspectives was critical to bringing planners, engineers, agency staff and elected officials together to “create community”. I also talked about the pending fiscal impacts of different development patterns that I was researching at the time. I jumped in with both feet and started learning the lingo of community planning, urban design, landscape architecture, economics, and sustainability. I organized and facilitated meetings to get engineers and planners to explain their projects, goals and approaches (fascinating conversations, by the way). I met with staff and clients across the US and in parts of Canada and South America, helping them to develop comprehensive plans, energy conservation strategies, downtown plans, economic assessments and other types of planning and urban design projects. I learned about, and worked with organizations like Omaha By Design that I hold up today as models for communities to follow. I also participated in workshops and lobbying discussions on the Hill, gaining valuable experience with how federal funding programs work (or don't). I had transformed from an engineer who didn't think much about planning or maintaining projects I designed into a planner who now saw the big picture, but still appreciated what it took to get projects implemented.

As I traveled around, I began to see three things emerging. First, there were a lot of great things being done in other parts of the country related to placemaking, pedestrian-friendly design and green infrastructure that communities in Texas weren’t doing, or for the most part, even thinking about. Every time I would return home from a trip, I would see things our communities in North Texas could be doing better. Second, no matter where I went, the gap between the planners and urban designers and the engineers was clear, both in how teams were structured internally in organizations, and how projects were marketed and designed. There were specialists everywhere selling clients that their way was the best way. Very few were taking time to consider that what their client really needed in most cases was something in the middle. Cities were getting extremely creative and optimistic visions and plans, but they weren’t able to implement them due to engineering design standards or fiscal constraints. At the same time, engineers were pushing elaborate, over the top designs to cities with little concern about how they would impact the municipality’s fiscal situation or the long-term sustainability of the community. Overblown traffic projections and standards that emphasized car safety over pedestrian safety were being force fed to communities for nearly every scenario, even residential streets and downtowns where common sense says pedestrian safety should come first. This brings me to the third, and most important realization I had, which was that many of the agencies were so obsessed with economic development and growth that they were willing to gamble their entire community's long-term future to make these excessive projects happen. Design professionals and elected officials had reached a place where none or very few of them were considering how communities would be able to afford to maintain everything they were building. All they wanted were the awards, ribbon cuttings, and political platforms. 

In January 2011, I read an editorial comment piece in CE News magazine written by Shanon Fauerbach called Master Builder Teams. The concept she wrote about resonated with me at the time, and has become part of the core fabric of who I am today and what our firm VERDUNITY is all about. I’ve felt for some time that our communities and country would benefit greatly if we could get more planners and engineers into elected positions, which she also touched on. The gist of her editorial was that solving today’s infrastructure and development challenges requires collaboration and integration of perspectives, much like the master builders of older times. Here’s a portion of the article:

"Planning a neighborhood, a city, or a region, or deciding how to spend limited funding for infrastructure can be even more complex, since significant social, economic, and environmental issues are at play along with the basics of what to build and how to build it. The master builder approach is needed here as well, but as with modern buildings, no type of professional has the education or experience to make the best decisions alone.There often is collaboration between politicians, planners, and city councils, but most often non-engineers are the ones most involved. Civil engineers are tasked or hired to conduct studies, evaluate options, and make recommendations, but aren’t truly making decisions. How can we secure our seat at the table?

As a profession, we need to build avenues for cross-discipline learning with related professionals such as landscape architects, planners, public policy experts, public works professionals, and city administrators. I believe that with a shared understanding of the various professions’ perspectives and skill sets, a more collaborative approach will organically develop. Once you understand what someone can “bring to the table,” you’ll invite them more often."

The master builder analogy was an easy one to remember and for people to associate with. I shared this article with members of my leadership team and others, and began to advocate for integrated design teams, not just for projects, but also for client development and pursuits. We won and completed several projects using this approach, including an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan for Corpus Christi, Texas, where we pulled together a team of multi-disciplinary experts from across the country to help the city review and consolidate all of its different plans into a single planning document that addressed everything from mobility to economic development to water quality. Unfortunately, it was still difficult to get some people to embrace this type of innovative, cross-discipline approach. The silos, bureaucracy and focus on "winning the big project" that are typical of larger organizations were just too much to overcome.

Eventually, my passion for this approach and a belief that Texas needs to drastically change how we approach development drove me to leave my position with HDR to start VERDUNITY. We're approaching our 3-year anniversary, and it's been a great ride. When people ask us what we do, we respond by saying we are community consultants who are passionate about helping communities become more environmentally and fiscally resilient. Do we do engineering work? Absolutely, but we've put together a team of six like-minded collaborators who also do planning, urban design, landscape architecture, economic analysis and public outreach. We’re partnering with groups like Strong Towns to help citizens, businesses and elected officials understand the fiscal consequences of the post-WW II development pattern, and we’re leveraging our collective expertise with green infrastructure to develop best practices and processes that will help our region address water quality, flooding and irrigation issues. We seek to understand where a community is and where they want to go first, and then help them identify and implement projects that will get them there. Sometimes we do the work ourselves, sometimes we team up with like-minded partners from other firms, and sometimes we just offer recommendations or advice, but we know communities we’re working with will be better off because of the cross-discipline perspective and collaborative approach we live by. Shanon's editorial closed with this:

"To ensure the security, economic prosperity, and health of our nation’s citizens, infrastructure and well-planned communities are essential. Civil engineers need to be central to leading our nation to repair its problems and create a vision for the future. Maybe by championing the need for collaborative decision-making, we’ll not only improve our infrastructure and cities, but also raise our profession’s stature."

There are plenty of specialists out there. I’m very thankful and proud that I’m not one of them, because today, right now, what our communities need are more generalists, and more master builder teams. Our team at VERDUNITY has embraced the challenge of exposing flaws in our current system, and advocating for more projects that are more transparent, collaborative and incremental (ie smaller and more affordable) in nature. Change starts with education, so we speak regularly at conferences, local Chamber events, and even look for ways to talk about these issues in everyday conversations like school events, youth sports, or Sunday School classes. I look forward to sharing more information, ideas and project case studies in future posts. If you haven't already, please sign up for our VERDUNITY Community mailing list so you can follow along, give us feedback and share your own ideas with others like us who want to put the silos away and work together to build stronger, more sustainable communities.

~ Kevin