Evolving ethics: where civil engineering meets civil rights.

When we consider the contributions that civil engineering has made to the modern world, we usually think in terms of great cities and iconic structures that become symbols for those cities. Engineering marvels like the Empire State Building, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, and Toronto’s CN Tower come to mind.

But while civil engineers play a critical role in creating these iconic structures and symbols of human achievement, they do a great deal more than this to ensure that cities work for their residents.  Among other things, they are challenged with creating infrastructure to deliver essential resources, like water and electricity, to large numbers of people. They are tasked with creating transportation networks that move members of the population from one place to another efficiently and safely, without causing undue harm to our environment. These services are depended upon to make cities function smoothly and grow sustainably.

The quality of life of citizens depends very much on the work done by these engineers.

In recent years, however, the engineering profession – and political decision-makers – are considering new questions that go beyond broad concerns about quality of life and environmental sustainability. Increasingly, civil engineers are being called on to consider whether the quality of life provided to a city’s residents is being made available equitably to all, or is it just the more affluent segments of the population that get the majority of the benefits.

While it is not new to say that civil engineers must think in terms of social responsibility as they plan and execute projects, it is increasingly the case that they are being called upon to think in terms of social justice and civil rights when they consider the effects of their work. The objective is to ensure that no individual communities are forced to bear an undue burden when infrastructure is built or upgraded, and particular communities are not denied the benefits that come with these advancements.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) now acknowledges the importance of social justice for the engineering profession, having incorporated its tenets into its Code of Ethics (https://www.asce.org/career-growth/ethics/code-of-ethics). Item B of the “Society” section of the code, broadly calls on engineers to “enhance the quality of life for humanity.” It also (in item F) urges them “to treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment.”

But most relevant to the subject of this article is item G, which calls on engineers to “acknowledge the diverse historical, social, and cultural needs of the community, and incorporate these considerations in their work.”

In fact, the ASCE has created a series of articles on the subject under the heading, “How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity.” The first article in the series, titled “Equity, environmental justice emerge as key goals of Biden infrastructure plan,” (https://www.asce.org/publications-and-news/civil-engineering-source/civil-engineering-magazine/article/2021/07/equity-environmental-justice-emerge-as-key-goals-of-biden-infrastructure-plan) looks at how the current administration’s “American Job Plan” takes significant steps to correct some of the mistakes of the past, particularly with respect to the Interstate Highway System.

A White House summary of the plan, released in March 2021, states: “Too often, past transportation investments divided communities … or it left out the people most in need of affordable transportation option.”

Included in the Biden administration’s job plan was a $20-billion program to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access,” according to the summary. The White House also stated its intention to target “40% of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.”

In an article on the ASCE website – titled “What does infrastructure have to do with social justice and equity?” (https://www.asce.org/publications-and-news/civil-engineering-source/civil-engineering-magazine/issues/magazine-issue/article/2021/11/what-does-infrastructure-have-to-do-with-social-justice-and-equity) – author Laurie A. Shuster provides the example of a six-lane sunken highway known as the Inner Loop in Rochester, New York.

This highway, like many built in the 1950s and 1960s, literally divided the community in the interests of growth. Recognizing this after several decades, government decided to fill in the highway in 2010, creating an accessible boulevard with green spaces and on-street parking. This has had the effect of reconnecting communities that had been ripped apart in the name of “progress.”

The critical link between civil rights and civil engineering is now also being acknowledged in academia. For example, the University of Connecticut has created the Engineering for Human Rights Initiative (EHRI). (https://engineeringforhumanrights.initiative.uconn.edu/#:~:text=The%20Engineering%20for%20Human%20Rights%20Initiative%20%28EHRI%29%20is,Sustainability%3B%20and%206%29%20Cybersecurity%2C%20Privacy%20and%20Human%20Vulnerability.)

As described on its website, the EHRI “is a collaborative venture between UConn’s School of Engineering (SoE) and Human Rights Institute (HRI) that addresses human rights implications of the most significant challenges in engineering and technology in six key research areas: 1) Water, Health & Food Security; 2) Product Design, Manufacturing, and Supply Chain Management; 3) Community Planning, Resilience and Justice for a Changing Environment; 4) Engineering Education and Accessibility Rights; 5) Engineering Substances and Process Sustainability; and 6) Cybersecurity, Privacy and Human Vulnerability.” It brings together departments within the university’s School of Medicine; School Social Work; Law School; School of Business; College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; and College of Agriculture, Health & Natural Resources.

One area that the initiative considers is called “Community Planning, Resilience, and Justice for a Changing Environment.” It lists as a primary goal the preventing of harm “to all populations in the planning and design process. This requires: (i) having a right level of awareness of the problems that exist within each of these communities and their subgroups and (ii) ensuring that everyone has the right to access opportunities.”

As quoted in the Shuster article, Martin Reyes, P.E., the transportation deputy for Los Angeles County, says that assuring civil rights in engineering has to start with engineering education.

“From my personal experience, during my undergraduate and my graduate degrees, I had never even thought about the idea of equity and infrastructure. I think if you don’t understand the sort of structural disinvestment that we’ve seen throughout the country, (like) when it comes to freeway construction going through low-income communities and communities of color, then it’s going to be really difficult to start advocating in a different direction.”

It all comes down to the need for civil engineers to be open to thinking differently about their role in shaping communities. In addition to their traditional responsibilities, they must also consider how different segments of the population and different neighborhoods will be affected by the work they do to better ensure that all will benefit and that all will have their civil rights respected.