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HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM? Ask Lancaster City’s Director of Public Works, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, and she will give you a civilized answer for how her beautiful and elegantly complex engineer’s mind works. Simply stated: You break it down into manageable parts.
Cities have long been equated to insufficient metaphors about ecosystems, informational structures, organisms, and even stars. Physicist Geoffrey West has discovered there are fundamental mathematical patterns underlying the growth of all urban systems. Basically, all growing cities can be measured, their changes predicted in specific, yet common ways. Boiled down: Cities are large living organisms, capable of being both the origin of the problem and the creator of social solutions—able to face total destruction and come back to life. Resiliency—as it were.
Anyone who cares about problems like economics, pollution, social interactions, urbanization, and global warming would naturally be drawn to cities. Katzenmoyer is intelligent. Her warm smile unpretentious. Her story begins with a memory of her hometown in Akron, Ohio—the rubber capital of the world. “I liken how I got into this field with some early childhood experiences and some things that really were imbedded in my mind about the environment,” she says, remembering the Cuyahoga River fires of the fifties and sixties—fueled by industrial pollution. The fires cost millions in damage and made national news headlines—spawning environmental reform such as the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Although the river is still polluted today, mainly from runoff, sewer overflow, and stagnation, the impact it left on one young girl was monumental.
Katzenmoyer’s father was a Brethren minister who also worked in the construction business. “He did a lot of work with disadvantaged people, offering therapy to individuals and groups, and helping the disabled,” she says. After retirement from the ministry, he was involved in running group homes. “His whole approach was about problem solving and helping to make the community better,” she says with conviction. Her father’s values and actions deepened her desire to make a difference—and he encouraged her to pursue education. “Growing up, he would say, ‘Don’t let anything stop you; the sky’s the limit’ kind of thing,” she recounts—her reality not without challenges. It was a time when women didn’t go into fields like engineering, but she took classes in drafting and woodworking in high school. “I had teachers say to me, ‘We don’t have girls in these classes,’ and I’m like ‘I still want to try,’” she recounts with sincerity. The discrimination didn’t discourage her. She excelled in math classes. In college, she was one of few women in her major. “It was my first insight into the male-dominated field—and I really loved it. I wanted to have an impact on the environment and make a community better.” After achieving a BS in Civil Engineering and an MS from Lehigh in Environmental (Civil) Engineering, she went to work at a consulting firm—knowing it wasn’t where her journey would end.
Katzenmoyer considered government and public works. She took a job as a manager within the public works department in Reading, Pennsylvania. While it started well, being hired by a progressive mayor and a really good city manager, the year-and-a-half of bliss ended when a new mayor was elected and things fell into decline. Katzenmoyer’s reputation preceded her, and in the summer of 2001 Lancaster hired her as the Director of Public Works.
Today, she works with a nearly $50 million budget and is responsible for two hundred employees in the bureaus of engineering, stormwater, public art, solid waste & recycling, streets, traffic, parks, water and wastewater that serves nine municipalities around the city. She reports to Mayor Gray and is in charge of maintenance, capital improvements for city-owned facilities, and planning for the future. She has an innovative Wi-Fi initiative in the works, set to be completed this summer—offering positive solutions for accountability, options for Internet service providers, and discounted service to low-income families so school-aged children don’t fall behind in education and tech-centered learning.
Is there anything she can’t do well? She says she was never a good writer, but was the editor for a women’s magazine (poorly translated to “covered woman”) when she lived in Iran. Maybe, like all good cities, the best ones leave room for creativity and further exploration. For Charlotte, she’s just hitting her stride—planning for Lancaster’s bright future. What does it look like? “I hope it is truly a multi-modal city that is respectful of the environment and has great facilities for bicyclists, improved pedestrian walkability, and continues to thrive with the arts scene and public projects. All of our parks will be renovated and people will want to move into and live in the city rather than flocking away from the city,” she says. Sometimes all it takes to solve a problem is the determination to understand its parts and re-engineer the system—from the inside out.