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Municipal Engineers Turn-around America's Cities

The planning of American cities has been evolving since the 17th Century. The New World presented a "blank check" for this revolutionary society to begin anew and do it right this time. One would think that newly founded towns could indeed be well planned and constructed.

However, few of even the best-planned environments were prepared for the period between 1820 and 1860 when the most rapid urban growth in the nation's history occurred. Pressures such as land speculation, rapid population growth, and the deterioration of the mental, moral and physical health in the cities led many reformers to seek even newer ways to reverse the trends and create more livable environments.

In the 1870's the emerging profession of "municipal engineer" began to confront urban problems with new public works technologies. Most all problems successfully attacked by city leaders in that day were the result of engineering expertise. Engineers dominated the new governmental structure with much admired businesslike efficiency and skill in management of urban affairs. The introduction of water supplies, sewage disposal and street paving in the late 19th century led to American urbanites enjoying the highest standards of public service in the world. By 1900 the population of the nation's largest city, New York, had grown to almost 3.5 million (from being only 0.5 million 50 years earlier).

In comparison to some the high-tech gadgets produced in today's so-called information society, the American public seems to take little notice of the very basic but major advances pioneered in that era. However, civil engineers understand that, without today's continuing water supplies, sewage disposal, and street paving, the environment in our cities would not support the creative and commercial opportunities the public routinely expects to function each new day.

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, March 2001

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