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6 ways civil engineers improve our lives

02 November 2022

A round-up of civil engineering projects from around the world that demonstrate how civil engineers make our lives better.

6 ways civil engineers improve our lives
Sydney Metro shows us how civil engineers improve lives by connecting communities. Image credit: Shutterstock

The theme for this year’s National Engineering Day is ‘improving lives through engineering’ (coincidentally, this was also the theme for our photo competition in the summer).

It sounds grand, but what does this mean in tangible terms?

On the ICE website, we’ve profiled hundreds of projects to showcase the work of civil engineers, to illustrate what a vital and wonderfully varied job civil engineering is.

After all, civil engineers love what they do, and we want to inspire the next generation to share their enthusiasm.

So if a young person asks you ‘how do civil engineers actually improve lives?’, we’ve prepared some answers to help you answer, below.

1. Civil engineers improve lives by… providing clean water.

You can’t really talk about this without mentioning Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s work on the London sewer system, which eliminated cholera (and other water-borne diseases) in the UK capital.

More recently, in Hong Kong, the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS) restored the water quality of Victoria Harbour, which had deteriorated following decades of fast development.

The harbour no longer smells of sewage, and the harbour and Hong Kong’s beaches are now safe for swimming.

Hong Kong Victoria Harbour
Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour no longer smells of sewage. Image credit: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the ICE People’s Choice Awards this year highlighted the Wolsingham Sewage Treatment Works Growth project in County Durham, England.

On this project engineers have increased the site’s capacity to ensure it meets the demand of future population growth, while enabling the local wildlife to thrive.

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2. Civil engineers improve lives by… connecting communities.

A bridge, a train line and a canal - what do they all have in common?

Yes, they help you get from A to B, but also for a lot of these structures, they solve the challenge of connecting communities.

Take the new Stockingfield Bridge in Glasgow, Scotland.

The winner of our summer photo competition and the ICE People’s Choice Award this year, the cable-stayed bridge has been praised not just for its striking sleek lines.

It has reconnected some local communities for the first time since 1790, and fills a gap in the National Cycle Network.

Stockingfield Bridge reflected in water
The multi award-winning Stockingfield Bridge, Glasgow, reconnects local communities. Image credit: George McBurnie

When it comes to connecting communities with rail, we have the Bangkok mass transit system, the Sydney metro, Australia, and most recently in London, UK, Crossrail.

Meanwhile, one of the most impressive waterways in the world is Canada’s Rideau Canal, which connects the country’s capital, Ottawa, to the St Lawrence river in Ontario.

At 202km long, the United Nations World Heritage Site has 47 locks and 52 dams.

Originally an important trade route, it’s mainly used now for tourism.

It's also a record breaker.

It freezes over during the winter, creating the 7.8km-long Rideau Canal Skateway.

The equivalent to 90 Olympic size skating rinks, this makes it the world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink according to the Guinness World Records.

ice skaters on the Rideau Canal
Rideau Canal in Canada becomes a world-breaking skateway when it freezes over. Image credit: Shutterstock

3. Civil engineers improve lives by… giving us access to nature and protecting natural habitats

In the more carbon-minded world we now live in, engineering is no longer about building the biggest, tallest, or longest structures, but rather the most sustainable.

A good example of this is the Manchester sky park, which opened in 2022.

Civil engineers took the disused Castlefield Viaduct and turned it into a green oasis in the middle of a city famous for the Industrial Revolution.

Castlefield viaduct sky park
Castlefield Viaduct was brought back into use as a green oasis in the middle of Manchester, UK. Image credit: NT Images and Paul Harris

The conservation skills of civil engineers were also demonstrated by a past ICE People’s Choice Award winner, the project to restore the Regency period landscape at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

The project was applauded for embedding sustainability throughout, and for involving the local community.

Civil engineers can also create habitats for the natural world, as the Eden Project in Cornwall proves.

Built in 2001 as the biggest greenhouse in the world, the project turned a disused Cornish claypit into a temperature-controlled environment for an entire rainforest, as well as hundreds of other plants.

Eden Project
The Eden Project is home to a rainforest and lots of other tropical vegetation. 

4. Civil engineers improve lives by… protecting our homes from flooding

Extreme weather events, such as flooding, are only going to increase as the world heats up due to climate change.

Civil engineers work hard to make communities more resilient to this challenge, by building protective flood defences.

From the New Orleans floodgates, which were built following Hurricane Katrina, to the award-winning Boston Barrier scheme in Boston, UK, these structures have been designed to improve thousands of lives today - and in the future.

New Orleans floodgates
The people of New Orleans are protected by floodgates built after the devastating Hurricane Katrina. Image credit: Anne Rheames/Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East

5. Civil engineers improve lives by… placemaking - creating communities that people want to work, live and play in

The London Olympics in 2012 was an event that brought in millions of tourists to the UK capital.

Civil engineers built a huge amount of infrastructure to support it - and the same happens in other countries that are new to hosting the Games and other major sporting events, like the FIFA World Cup in Qatar this year.

And the sporting venues and places built, such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, not only regenerated parts of East London, but also have a life beyond the Games as tourist destinations.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park helped to regenerate East London.

On the face of it, Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead, north east of England, appears to be just a (very) big statue that helps put the city on the map.

Yet, a report commissioned by Gateshead Council 10 years after the sculpture was erected said that visitor numbers, business start-ups and employment in the area would not have increased as fast without it.

Civil engineers also try to build sustainability into modern constructions

Take the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. This museum has 21 galleries and hosts exhibitions that connect art and science through digital technologies.

ArtScience museum
The lotus flower-shaped museum has carbon-friendly credentials.

The building harvests rainwater for domestic use, which is channelled through the bowl-like roof, falling into a spectacular waterfall into a central pond.

It also has air conditioning built into the floor to help save energy. This lowers the temperature at the visitor’s height, rather than trying to cool the entire space.

6. Civil engineers improve lives by... responding to emergencies

When a natural disaster strikes, you might think of the blue light emergency services as the main people at the scene.

However, civil engineers can have a critical part to play, whether that’s building the UK’s Nightingale hospitals at lightning speed during the Covid-19 pandemic, or reconnecting communities divided by an earthquake in New Zealand.

The natural disaster in Kaikoura, New Zealand, caused 85 landslides and extensive damage to roads, railways and tunnels.

Kaikoura earthquake hit mountain
Civil engineers restored transportation links in the earthquake-hit Kaikoura region.

The project to rebuild the transportation links was another ICE People’s Choice winner, with the speed of recovery among its achievements.

Civil engineers also plan for natural disasters.

For example, the Hong Kong government runs a scheme to stop landslide disasters that would occur after heavy rain in the country by upgrading man-made slopes to modern safety standards.

Its efforts have reduced the chance of landslides in Hong Kong by 75%.

Interested in becoming a civil engineer?

There are many ways to become a civil engineer, including engineering apprenticeships, degrees or higher qualifications.

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  • Anh Nguyen, digital content lead at ICE