How to succeed in land development engineering

Rare is the book so relevant and popular that it warrants a second edition.

So a book publishing its fourth edition? Special indeed.

ASCE published the fourth edition of Residential Land Development Practices: A Textbook on Developing Land Into Finished Lots earlier this year.

“I was talking with my wife, Karen, last night about it, and she said, ‘Well, are you going to do another one?’ And I said, ‘No! I have nothing left in my brain,’” said author David E. Johnson, P.E., F.ASCE.

Johnson worked on the original textbook after working in the land development industry for 25 years, and the updates have followed neatly across the trajectory of his career to his current role as a city engineer in Mount Holly, North Carolina.

He talked recently with Civil Engineering Source about the book’s new edition, the future of the land development engineering profession, and the most important skill he thinks is necessary to succeed in the business.

Civil Engineering Source: What makes for successful real estate development, and how has your answer to that question maybe changed over the years?

David Johnson: Actually, my opinion has not changed over the years. In fact, I think it’s been reinforced that a civil engineer who specializes in land development engineering is really the cornerstone of a successful real estate project.

They are the thread of all the disciplines that are involved in a real estate project. They become the leader. They become the representative for the applicant or owner with public agencies, with other private entities and the end users – whether it’s a retail store owner or a homeowner.

The land development engineer, as a civil engineer, is really in my way of thinking the thread through the entire process. 

Source: Can you pinpoint one skill that a student or younger engineer should learn about or acquire so that they can succeed in this field?

Johnson: Well, I also have a definite philosophy on that. I believe that I can always hire a technical engineer – someone who is good on AutoCAD, someone who can do some design work.

But I can’t always find someone with the interpersonal skills that transcend technical to lay environments. We as civil engineers or land development engineers, we have to do the technical part, but we then also have to take that technical part and convey it to people who perhaps do not understand it – people who have the wherewithal to approve or disapprove the plan.

In other words, if I had to design a project and do a public hearing where there are citizens who pack the room, I have to be able to convey a message to them that they can understand but is still technical enough to explain how things will work. I think that it’s really the soft skills that matter – the ability to communicate, the ability to talk with people from a variety of backgrounds, to understand how important it is to think about the end user, the citizens, the people who actually use that project.

Source: You said there will not be another edition of this book coming, but I still want to ask you to look into the future. As you look at the industry, where do you see things going in the next 10 years or so?

Johnson: Wow, that’s a loaded question!

The real estate industry is pretty resilient. It goes from 18% interest rates back in the 1980s to no inventory today. Everything that people use on a daily basis – whether it’s getting out of their subdivision or their apartment complex or going to school, going shopping, whatever it may be – infrastructure is designed by land development engineers. And I think over the next 10 years this profession will actually gain a stronger foothold in ASCE as well as within the engineering profession and be recognized as a very important component of the civil engineering profession.

I don’t think what we do will change. The technology is still a very good tool for land development engineers to use, and the ability to use technology will only get stronger or necessary. But we run the risk of that technology taking away the soft interpersonal skills of people.

It’s important that we’re not stuck to a computer screen, but we continue to have the ability, even if it’s a Zoom call, to be able to convey a message. In fact, I think those skills are going to get even stronger for us. I feel good about it, but we have to be cautious.

Learn more about the book.

- Advertisement -


  1. Very wonderful article and enlightening. I live on Guam where the military is building up their bases to the tune of millions of dollars but the private real estate is lacking money and desire to install proper new water and sewer pipes. The lots are cruelly subdivided to small investors by previous land owners. We have received millions to upgrade our existing systems.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisement -