11 civil engineering projects changing the world

From man-made islands to cliffside elevators, these are some of the most incredible feats of civil engineering on Earth.

There are plans to build a China-Nepal railway link through the Himalayas. Image credit: Shutterstock
There are plans to build a China-Nepal railway link through the Himalayas. Image credit: Shutterstock
  • Updated: 25 August, 2021
  • Author: Jessica Beasley , ICE Communications Executive
Since the days of Ancient Egypt, engineers have been pioneering projects that have transformed the world. As part of our #EngineeringSummer series, ICE looks at 11 engineering feats – from HS2 to the Palm Islands in Dubai – that continue to change the world.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal. Image credit: Shutterstock 

The Panama Canal recently celebrated its 107th anniversary. The 50-mile waterway connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Before the canal’s construction, vessels sailing between the east and west coast of the US had to voyage around Cape Horn. This journey was arduous and often dangerous. By cutting across the Isthmus of Panama, the Panama Canal has shortened crossings by 15,000 km.

Since its inauguration, the Panama Canal has played a significant role in helping increase international trade. Today it handles an estimated 5% of the world’s trade, with 14,000 ships transiting it each year.

The National Stadium

The National Stadium in China is the world’s largest steel structure. It's often called the Bird’s Nest due to its intricate circular design. The stadium was jointly created by architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, with its design incorporating Chinese symbols and mythology.

The National Stadium, Beijing. Image credit: Shutterstock

The structure was built for the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games and will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

With a capacity of 91,000, it comprises 26 miles of unwrapped steel and is an engineering marvel to behold. As well as being visually stunning, it incorporates several sustainability features, including solar photovoltaic power generation technology.

Central Park Tower

Designed by architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, and with WSP Global as the engineering masterminds behind it, Central Park Tower in New York was created with the philosophy of ‘global environmental contextualism’ in mind.

Central Park Tower, New York. Image credit: Shutterstock

This philosophy emphasises the interconnection of nature and the built environment, with the physical infrastructure harvesting power from the sun, wind and geothermal energy surrounding it.

HS2 (High Speed 2)

Fancy travelling from Birmingham to London in just 45 minutes? The massive HS2 rail project will ultimately connect eight of Britain’s largest cities and up to 30 million people. It’s hoped it will encourage a modal shift from road to rail travel.

Railway. Image credit: Pixabay

HS2 has been controversial from the start, with its cost and potential impact on green space drawing criticism from some environmental groups. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, with speeds of up to 224 miles per hour, HS2 will undoubtedly change rail travel in the UK forever.

Itaipu Dam

Itaipu Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams, currently provides 10.8% of Brazil’s energy and almost 90% of Paraguay’s. The energy generated from Itaipu Dam is also 55% cheaper than that from local power plants. Its operator, Itaipú Binacional, always considered sustainability as vital to the project’s success.

Itaipu Dam. Image credit: Shutterstock

Realising the importance of water quality to Itaipu Dam, Itaipú Binacional invested in several watershed restoration programmes. They have also been responsible for planting over 44 million trees and reforesting and restoring land.

Shanghai Tower

At a staggering 632 metres tall, the 128-storey Shanghai Tower in China is the second tallest building in the world (the first being the Burj Khalifa). It’s also one of the greenest. When it opened in 2015, it was one of the only super-tall buildings to be awarded LEED Platinum, the top green rating.

Shanghai Tower. Image credit: Shutterstock. 

Its 270 wind turbines, situated at the top of the structure, generate 10% of its electricity, including its exterior lighting.  

Developers claim that its sustainability features reduce its carbon footprint by a meteoric 34,000 metric tons annually.

Palm Islands

The largest man-made islands in the world, Palm Islands in Dubai is home to over 5,000 apartments, 4,000 residential villas, and various attractions, including hotels, cinemas, and restaurants.

Palm Islands, Dubai. Image credit: Shutterstock

Built out of seven million tons of rock from the nearby Al Hajar mountains, Palm Islands was created to increase tourism in Dubai. Today it attracts millions of tourists each year, providing a critical boost to Dubai’s economy in the wake of oil shortages.

The Shard

The Shard is one of the most impressive and recognisable buildings in London’s skyline. Its glass panels comprise 56,000 square metres – that’s the equivalent of eight football pitches!

The Shard. Image credit: Unsplash

Like Shanghai Tower, The Shard was a structure designed with sustainability in mind. Its 11,000 glass panels reduce heat from the sun by up to 95%, which reduces the need for air-conditioning.

Even its materials are environmentally friendly, with 95% of the construction materials and 20% of its steelwork coming from recycled sources.

The Akashi Kaikyo bridge

There are few bridges that we can legitimately claim have saved lives, but the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan is one of them. Before its construction, boats and ferries carried passengers and vehicles across the Akashi Strait.

The Akashi Kaikyo bridge, Japan. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Akashi Strait is no ordinary waterway, and during inclement weather, it could be perilous. It was so dangerous that in 1955, two crossing ferries sank, resulting in the deaths of 168 people.

When constructing the bridge, which connects the city of Kobe in Japan to Awaji Island, engineers used counterweights, pendulums, and steel-truss girders, which helps it withstand hurricanes.

Bailong Elevator

In 2002, the Bailong Elevator, which is built off the side of a massive cliff in Zhangjiajie, China, opened to the public. At 326 metres high, it’s the tallest and heaviest elevator in the world.

The Bailong Elevator, China. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Bailong Elevator also has a practical purpose. It allows tourists to enjoy mountain hikes and sightseeing by day, before using the elevator to return to the bottom of the mountains come nightfall.

China-Nepal railway

Plans to create a railway linking China and Nepal have courted controversy due to suggestions that the Nepali section will have to be built in the Himalayas. If the railway goes ahead, Nepal could see its trade boosted by up to 45%, increasing its independence and reducing its reliance on India for food, fuel, and medical supplies.

The Himalayas. Image credit: Shutterstock

The irregular topography of the Himalayas makes this an incredibly challenging engineering project, but if it comes to pass, its inauguration will undoubtedly change the world.

Submit your story

Do you have a blog post you want to share with the ICE community?

Email us