Examining social equity in infrastructure

This article is part of the series “Equity and Infrastructure: How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity,” which is being published by Civil Engineering magazine and Civil Engineering Source over the next several months.

Civil engineers play a critical role in our society. The structures they create shape our world, influencing significant issues such as social equity.

America’s interstate highway system connects communities but has also segregated them in some cases. Neighborhoods established in more industrial or vulnerable areas have often faced substantial challenges in developing. And during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students living in rural areas or disadvantaged communities struggled to keep up with school because of limited access to broadband.

Success and good quality of life for all rely on a built environment that is equitable and inclusive.

In this episode of ASCE Interchange, Maya Trotz, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida, examines social equity in infrastructure.

“If we’re all given that opportunity to really flourish, I think that is what equitable infrastructure means for communities, the types of innovations, and the types of livelihoods that people might have,” said Trotz.

She believes that the key to equitable infrastructure is the word “access” – access to education, energy, clean drinking water, and everything that communities need to thrive. Engineers can then consider “the happiness factor,” using it as the metric to determine if an infrastructure system promotes good quality of life for the public.

To view all Interchange episodes, visit ASCE’s YouTube channel.

Discover more from the “Equity and Infrastructure: How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity” series.

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  1. The “social equity” platform distacts from the purpose of infrastructure improvements which improve the quality of life for the users.

    I completely agree to equal access but engineers should be focusing on technical excellence and code compliance.

    Let the municiple planners address the “happiness” issues.

  2. The Civil Engineering profession has officially adopted the same insanity that has afflicted the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences for the last 30 years.

  3. Engineering is distinguished from other professions because our code of ethics require us to put the health, safety, and welfare of the public above all (including our clients). However, the “public” and “clients” are not mutually exclusive groups. Therefore, I suggest that efforts to apply social equity concepts should be viewed as another tool in the engineer’s toolbox to be used to meet our primary ethical charge.

    ASCE’s justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) committee, MOSAIC, will be releasing a best practices guide in the near future. That guide, which has been written by engineers for engineers, will address equity in design and many other topics. I encourage individuals who want to provide constructive input regarding social equity and infrastructure design and/or other topics related to JEDI and civil engineering to contact me or other MOSAIC members and corresponding members.

  4. I agree it’s also important to look at social equity in infrastructure on a global scale using the UN Sustainable Goals as a guide. The UN states “The Sustainable Development Goals are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection. More important than ever, the goals provide a critical framework for COVID-19 recovery.”

  5. I think there are several important points to note about this discussion:

    First, providing equity and access to infrastructure improvements is not a matter of “happiness,” or whatever that may mean. But it a matter of fairness and seeing that all people get the benefit of the infrastructure that we build. It is neither fair nor equitable when we build a highway through a community so people outside the community can travel faster to wherever they are going and people left in the community have difficulty crossing their street. It is not fair or equitable when we build water systems that delivers clean, pure water to a neighborhood on one side of a community, and lead and chemical infused water to the people on the “other side of the tracks”. It is neither fair nor equitable to build plants that spew polluted air on a community because the people who live there have no way to move away to protect themselves. As engineers we know that engaging in projects that create such dilemmas are neither morally or ethically proper and that often we as engineers and technical advisers are the only ones that understand the consequences of such projects. We must engage fully, at all levels when the subject of infrastructure development comes up. To fail in this regarding means we are nothing more than technocrats, rather than Engineers.

    Second, as applied scientists, we should be extremely cautious about relegating any responsibility or authority on the infrastructure we design, build, and care for, to planners, public administrators, or politicians, because they do not know or understand the technical aspects of infrastructure to the depth and way that we do. While doing so may mean that we can escape “blame” when something goes wrong, it also means that we are abrogating our duty as the highly trained technical experts of our society.

    Third, as engineers we certainly need to focus on the technical aspects of our work. But as engineers we also have an overriding responsibility to see that our engineering serves people and protects people. The way we best do this is by listening to people and using their input to shape our work. Professional engineers are more than simply people who oversee the application of codes and standards. They develop codes and standards and guidelines, and the key to developing these engineering tools is that they respond to problems that might result in harm to people and our communities. Professional engineers do not simply sit at their desk all-day, looking up and applying standard or doing calculations, we decide which calculations and standard are most approriate for a given problem we need to solve, and those problems must all go back to how are we helping people have a better, safer life.

    Finally, our profession, and we as professionals, must purge ourselves of the idea that listening to people and solving the problems they bring to us, without causing harm to other people who cannot protect themselves, is somehow wrong or even strange. Just where did the idea come from that the liberal arts and social sciences are somehow “anti-engineering” or wrong for engineers to know about. Again, we must get away from the simple idea that the “civil” in civil engineering means that we don’t do military engineering, but rather that civil means that we build things to help and serve people, and that ”people” means humans of all skin tone, language, gender, nationality, or whatever way we try to differentiate ourselves from each other. If we ever begin to consider or accept, as a group that it is “insane” to be well-read, to understand the history of the World, to know and appreciate the arts, or to understand how people think or interact with one another, then we will have come to the point where we no longer a profession, and we have no right to call ourselves Engineers.


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