Point of Beginning

On The Level

August 1, 2004
Who are we, anyway?

Surveyors have a practical and pragmatic view of themselves and their profession. We understand the importance of our work in the support of construction and we hold in highest regard our role as the sole experts in the determination of the location of property lines. But according to the results of a survey collected by ACSM some years ago, surveyors did not believe their image was very high in the view of the people who use the products of their services. On the contrary, the ACSM board discovered that architects, lawyers and contractors held the surveying profession in higher regard in terms of professionalism, educational preparation and general competence than did the surveyors themselves. From comments heard recently from surveyors around the country, and from letters to the editors of surveying magazines and journals, I conclude that little has changed in the public perception of their profession as surveyors understand it.

There have been many explanations for the relatively low esteem in which the surveying profession has seen its position in the public view over the years. A fee structure several rungs below that of other design professionals and other members of the title transfer community is cited as one reason. ("The surveyor does most of the work, the lawyer does most of the talking, and guess who gets most of the money?") A kind of professional inferiority complex is another explanation, recognizing the more rigorous educational preparation required of lawyers, engineers and architects. (Educational opportunity at the undergraduate and graduate level for surveying has made impressive gains in the past 25 years, but in most states the educational requirements for licensure are still the lowest among the recognized professions.) Some have even suggested a lack of an aggressive public relations program as the cause of our apparently lower status in the land transfer/civil works construction fields.

Whatever the reasons for surveying's humble view of itself, it is unwarranted. Surveying has historically been a critical element in both the land title transfer activity and in the land development and construction industries here in the United States. In all areas of activity the demands on surveying have increased in severity and the profession has advanced to meet those demands. That may be a well kept secret here in the United States, but in other parts of the world it is becoming more obvious.

During my tenure as president of the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) I was privileged to visit several Central European universities where there was rigorous competition for entry to their surveying programs. The transition from communism to market-based economies has generated new activity in land ownership, land value and land use issues, all of which has generated a demand for the expertise of surveyors. Surveyors do not have a self-image problem in the Czech Republic or Estonia.

The importance of surveying goes well beyond commercial considerations, however. Surveying stands squarely in the middle of the sustainable development effort. The concept of sustainable development, defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs" was adopted by the United Nations at its 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development. The three pillars of policy in sustainable development are: protecting the natural environment, improving the social situation for the poor and combating poverty.

We will readily recognize our role in the protection of the natural environment; data collection, mapping and charting are the first steps in any consideration of the natural environment and its importance. What we are not so quick to see is our role in improving the social situation for the poor and in combating poverty. In his excellent book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando De Soto makes the argument that it is access to land ownership that will bring the poor out of poverty. "(T)he major stumbling block that keeps the rest of the world from benefiting from capitalism is its inability to produce capital," writes De Soto, who identifies land ownership as the first source of capital.

De Soto points out the importance of security of land tenure. Real estate accounts for 50 percent of the national wealth of advanced nations, he reports, but in many developing countries the poor have access only to land in "extralegal settlements," that is, land for which they are unable to acquire clear title and security of tenure. FIG Agenda 21* states that "(i)n addition to national policies for the fair and equitable distribution of land, security of tenure requires appropriate institutions, especially legislation, registration systems and organizations"; and "(t)he surveying profession deals with the surveying, planning and management of land and marine resources, with laws and systems needed for access to land and for security of tenure, and with geographic information in all its aspects. This makes it deeply involved in issues of profound importance for sustainable development."

In recognizing their own position in the scheme of things, surveyors can consider their "profound importance" in the sustainable development movement, which has been identified as profoundly important for the well-being of the world and its future inhabitants.

We know who we are and what an important position we hold in society. We need not think less of our profession simply because its importance is not universally recognized by the general public.