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Getting centre stage

COMMENT

What engineering needs to raise its profile with the general public, some say, are some modern icons to rival the geniuses of the Victorian age.

These inspirational people would be all over the national media giving controversial opinions, unveiling dramatic designs to rival David Beckham and Ant 'n' Dec in popularity.

Only then will children queue up to become civil engineers and the nation finally understand the true worth and status of the profession.

It sounds unlikely. But let's not do ourselves down, it could be possible by focusing first on the civil engineering rather than the civil engineers.

After all, Trude Mostue caught the public's attention after people tuned in to see the animals, not the vets of Vets in Practice. Architects like Sir Norman Foster and Sir Richard Rogers achieved their celebrity because of their designs. All became personalities and role models later.

On our side we have the fact that the public is very willing to be fascinated with civil engineering. There is nothing more visually exciting - depending on your tastes of course - than a big foundation dig, or road scheme going at full tilt. And the end products, from the uplifting sight of a bridge stretching across a misty estuary to heart stopping underground caverns on the Tube become regular stops on tour itineraries.

Given half a chance the public would happily spend time gazing at a construction site or finding out more about how something was built.

Unfortunately we don't often give them that opportunity.

Instead they have to catch glimpses of construction work by peeping through grills in increasingly prison - like site fencing or rubber necking dangerously as they drive past an embankment stabilisation bristling with pile rigs and plant.

And on the finished projects, there is usually nothing to remind the public of the construction achievement. No information as to how a structure was built or of who designed it. It is almost as if the civil engineering is a secret, slightly shameful activity to be hidden from view to avoid offence.

What we need is more viewing platforms, more picnic points and visitor centres. The evidence is that people will visit.

For example, a public petition stopped the local council closing down the visitor centre at the Severn Bridge. And over 15,000 people have been through the doors since it opened in 1998.

Severn Bridges Trust chairman Peter Head of consultant Maunsell has been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the local community for the centre and says that it has been an ideal chance to enthuse people about civil engineering.

Where are all the other centres? All major projects need them both during construction and after completion. They need to be in all the local tourist guides and on school field trip itineraries.

With a higher profile, people will want to hear more about who is building civil engineering projects and role models will emerge. Children will want to be civil engineers again So let's start a list - if you have any sort of visitor facility on your projects let us know and we'll put it on our website.

And if you want to help the Severn Bridges Visitor Centre, the trust would be delighted to hear from you. They need cash to cover the £15,000 annual running costs so email peter. head@Maunsell. com.

Jackie Whitelaw is managing editor of NCE.

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