The Work Itself Is Different

guest essay | by James Fleming, LS

SPECIAL ESSAY SECTION: The Future of Surveying


Early scientists in the fields of physics, astronomy, and surveying were also widely viewed as philosophers. With education ranging from architecture to political science to English, Jim Fleming, through his various writings (including a stint as editor of this magazine), has added a touch of philosophical musings to his primary endeavor, that of a respected surveyor in the profession for more than two decades, serving as project manager and surveyor and as an owner/operator. In this essay Jim applies his pen to examining changes not only in the technology of surveying but also in the nature of the work.


A professor of mine in college used to tell a story about his graduation from the University of Michigan. He was seated next to a woman in her mid-80s who was receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy. During the ceremony she turned to him and told him to always remember one thing, that the world is protean in nature.

A lot has been written over the last few years about the advances in surveying technology and the transformative effect it has had on the way many of us work. From GPS to robotics to scanning, each decade seems to bring a new technology. And with each advance we struggle with how best to adapt the new tools to our work. Less attention has been paid to ways in which the work itself is different and the importance of adapting to those changes.

The vast majority of the work performed by land surveyors is related to land development, whether directly for builders and developers in the private sector or on public-sector infrastructure projects. It seems to me that the surveyors whose businesses will be best prepared to meet the challenges of the coming decades aren’t necessarily going to be those who are the first adapters of new tools; rather they’ll be those who have the foresight to know where those tools are needed.

I’ve been surveying for almost 25 years in the Washington D.C. area; over that time (and especially the last decade or so) there have been dramatic changes in land use and development patterns. Urban business centers that were ghost towns after 5:00 PM just a few years ago are being redeveloped with residential elements so that they are populated day and night. Areas along the outer edges of the mass transit system that were strip malls and car lots when the subway was constructed are now walkable, mixed-use communities. Conversely, many outer suburbs that were the focus of development during the housing bubble of the last decade are now overbuilt and under priced.  The firms who specialize in redevelopment and infill development (and, more importantly, cultivate clients who work in these markets) are thriving.

Whether it’s changes in the type and density of land use like I’m seeing in my market, or population shifts from one region to another, or the coming and going of large regional employers, something is driving where and how surveyors will be working in the coming years. So, in addition to using resources like Professional Surveyor Magazine to keep up with the latest equipment, turn to resources like NewGeography.com, Next City, and Metropolis Magazine to target the emerging growth areas in your market, because there is no guarantee that what is successful today will be of any value tomorrow.

James Fleming, LS is survey project manager at A. Morton Thomas & Associates in Rockville, Maryland.

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