Second Life – A Resource for Engineers

Streetscape in Second Life

(After spending my first month of blogging on real life issues, I am going to start exploring the unique capabilities of Second Life and how this software application can be used to assist engineers during the design and construction process.)

Engineering curriculum over the last few decades rarely focused on the esthetics of an engineering design—appearances and looks were left for the architects to worry about. However, over the last decade, there has been a rising public demand for engineering designs that enhance our community’s appearance and presentation. People want to feel good about the way their environment looks.

As an engineer educated in the 1980s, I have been designing infrastructure within the design guidelines established by agencies and organizations such as the DOT, AASHTO, FHWA, EPA, etc. In the past there was little guidance in the manuals for establishing a streetscape that would appeal to users of particular environment such as shoppers, walkers, bicyclists, people-watchers. Although today these agencies establish some accepted practices to follow in a streetscape design, they still cannot convey the secret to achieving “what looks good.” Traveling to other cities to see what was accomplished elsewhere is helpful but time consuming and costly.

 This is where Second Life comes in. First, I want to let those who have not yet been to Second Life know that at first a new user needs to spend the time learning some of the basics of the environment before reaching the skill level necessary to achieve a positive experience. Sometimes I think that this may lead people to believe that “it just isn’t worth the hassle.” After going through the initial orientation, I admit that I did not go back to Second Life for a month—the first few places I was sent as a new person or avatar in this world had not adequately hinted at what was lying beyond. Fortunately I pressed on.

As an engineer, in particular an esthetically challenged engineer, I could not help but be drawn to the streetscapes created by people—most of whom I suspect are not engineers. Right away I realized the resource that was created here for me. Second Life is like having a public hearing where everyone gets to create the type of streetscape they would like to have in their community. An engineer can travel through Second Life taking photos (yes, you can take photos in Second Life), apply the necessary design guidelines, and develop a working design! What is the hardest part for me—placing and choosing the elements in a pleasing configuration – has already been done. I can even print out several, present them at a council meeting or public meeting, and have our community choose the one they would like to see built.

I encourage you to come to Second Life at least once, if for nothing else but to admire the great streetscapes—I will be the woman checking out the tree grate.dell_009.bmp



Our city crews only work in our city…

Like many other public works departments, we received our share of complaints over this winter season. Every year there are a few that stick in your mind and are hard to forget. Usually for me, these are the complaints involving an angry tirade from an irate citizen. This year the two that remained with me came from two different people and involved no yelling at all.

 The first was from a citizen in a neighboring city. In a statement to the local paper, he expressed his disagreement with our council's decision to spend a large sum of money on a particular project in our city. He felt that instead the money should be spent fixing his road.

The second complaint came from another citizen in the neighboring city. It was during a snowstorm, and he insisted that we immediately plow his road in front of his home.

Now, the key point in both of these complaints is that the person complaining did not live in our city, and addressing the complaint would have required our city to perform some service for them in their city. Initially, the first reaction to these types of complaints might be to either ignore them or just shake our head. In our case, we obviously could not address each person's complaint because our city is not responsible for performing work or services in another city unless there was a pre-existing agreement, which in this case there was not. However, I could not stop thinking about these requests.

 From the calm, confident tone and manner in which each person expressed his concern, I think that each truly believed that he was making a valid request. If so, this is proof of a significant lack of understanding by the average citizen of how local government operates. (Actually, I have always suspected this, but now I have a specific instance to which I can refer.) I just cannot comprehend that somewhere in our upbringing, there is such a lack of education about how our governmental system works. Such a lack that someone living in one city would actually believe that another city has any type of responsibility to provide them services.

Everyone has become so much more dependent on government as families move apart and support systems break down. This imposes an even greater need for citizens to understand, trust, and get involved in their local government.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Instead, this lack of understanding creates frustration for the citizen whose needs are not met and creates more issues and challenges for those of us working in public works as we try to take the time to explain the parameters in which we operate.

What is the answer? Whose responsibility is it to educate the public? Some public works departments across the country, as understaffed and unfunded as many of us are, do try to make an effort to do our part in spreading information about our operations. The American Public Works Association, APWA, promotes Public Works Week and offers advice and tools to implement an informational event in your community on their website at


Totally Missing the Point


On a trip to an establishment in a neighboring city, I noticed the ramp shown above. Something did not look right, and upon further inspection, I realized the curb was not depressed. With the implementation of the final decision concerning ramp design, I have been trying to go out of my way to check out the ramps in other communities. I realized there has been some confusion and lack of knowledge concerning the regulations and requirements governing ramp construction, but I never thought I would see someone put in the detectable warnings but not depress the curb. What were they thinking while they were pouring the detectable warning pads? 

I suppose someone could have thought that putting in detectable warnings prior to all roadway crossings, accessible or not, is a great idea. The problem is that due to the ADA regulation, people with reduced eyesight will reach this and expect a ramp with a depressed curb. This will confuse the pedestrian and could perhaps cause injury.

Clearly there is still a significant lack of training and education surrounding curb ramp construction. On publicly funded jobs, the engineer can be more involved and ensure that the requirements are being met. On privately funded projects where there may be no oversight by an engineer or architect, the owner is relying on the contractor to meet the requirements.

Last year, I was called to a new subdivision under construction because the developer was forming the public sidewalk and trying to conform to the ADA requirements that I had given him related to cross slope. A driveway had been poured from the private garage to the curb, through the area of the sidewalk, and the contractor for the homeowner had not met the ADA-mandated cross slope of 2% through the sidewalk area. The developer was having to match the nonconforming cross slope with his new sidewalk. I suggested he contact the driveway contractor to work this out. That driveway contractor called me and was extremely agitated. He felt it was the city’s responsibility to keep him informed about every federal, state, and local regulation that governed his work. Of course, it was all the city’s fault in his mind.   

I do think that public works professionals can educate to some degree but with reduced staff and funding at all levels of government, there is only so much we can do. There have been a few good articles published over the last year or so that are related to this subject:

Public Works Magazine, “Ramping up for Compliance”

APWA Reporter, “Is there a compliant curb ramp out there?”