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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ecological engineering

Ecological Engineering is an emerging of study integrating ecology and engineering, concerned with the design, monitoring and construction of ecosystems. The design of sustainable ecosystems intends to integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both.


Ecological engineering emerged as a new idea in the early-1960s, but its definition has taken several decades to refine, its implementation is still undergoing adjustment, and its broader recognition as a new paradigm is relatively recent. Ecological engineering was introduced by Howard Odum and others as utilizing natural energy sources as the predominant input to manipulate and control environmental systems. Mitsch and Jorgensen wrote that ecological engineering is designing societal services such that they benefit society and nature, and later noted the design should be systems based, sustainable, and integrate society with its natural environment. Odum later emphasized that self-organizational properties were a central feature to ecological engineering.

Bergen et al. defined ecological engineering as:

* utilizing ecological science and theory,
* applying to all types of ecosystems,
* adapting engineering design methods, and
* acknowledging a guiding value system.

Mitsch and Jorgenson have more recently taken an applied approach to defining and characterizing ecological engineering. They suggest the goal of ecological engineering is: a) the restoration of ecosystems that have been substantially disturbed by human activities such as environmental pollution or land disturbance, and b) the development of new sustainable ecosystems that have both human and ecological values. They summarized the five concepts key to ecological engineering as:

1. it is based on the self-designing capacity of ecosystems,
2. it can be a field test of ecological theory,
3. it relies on integrated system approaches,
4. it conserves non-renewable energy, and
5. it supports biological conservation.

Ecological engineering involves the design, construction and management of ecosystems that have value to both humans and the environment. This engineering discipline combines basic and applied science from engineering, ecology, economics, and natural sciences for the restoration and construction of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The field of ecological engineering is increasing in breadth and depth as more opportunities to design and use ecosystems as interfaces between technology and environment are explored.


Implementation of ecological engineering has focused on the creation or restoration of ecosystems, from degraded wetlands to multi-celled tubs and greenhouses that integrate microbial, fish, and plant services to process human wastewater into products such as fertilizers, flowers, and drinking water.

Potential applications of ecological engineering in cities have included the field of landscape architecture, urban planning, and urban horticulture , which can be synthesized into urban stormwater management. Potential applications of ecological engineering in rural landscapes have included wetland treatment and community reforestation through traditional ecological knowledge.

Design Guidelines

Ecological engineering design will follow a cycle similar to engineering design - problem formulation (goal), problem analysis (constraints), alternative solutions search, decision among alternatives, and specification of a complete solution. Elements that distinguish ecological engineering design are elaborated by many authors, however a singular approach is still absent. Typically, the design goal involves protecting an at-risk ecosystem, restoring a degraded ecosystem, or creating a new sustainable ecosystem to satisfy needs of nature and society.

A temporal framework is provided by Matlock et al., stating the design solutions are considered in ecological time. In selecting between alternatives, the design should incorporate ecological economics in design evaluation and acknowledge a guiding value system which promotes biological conservation.

* applying to all types of ecosystems,
* adapting engineering design methods, and
* Design steps should be based on utilizing ecological science and theory ,
* the self-designing capacity of ecosystems;
* accept the adaptive management theory of learning from mistakes as the design will field test ecological theory;
* utilize integrated system approaches; and
* conserve non-renewable energy .

Academic Curriculum

An academic curriculum has been proposed for ecological engineering , and key institutions across the US are indeed starting programs. Key elements of this curriculum are:

* quantitative ecology,
* systems ecology,
* restoration ecology,
* ecological modeling,
* ecological engineering,
* economics of ecological engineering, and
* technical electives.

Complementing this set of courses are prerequisites courses in physical, biological, and chemical subject areas, and integrated design experiences. According to Matlock et al., the design must identify constraints, characterize solutions in ecological time, and incorporate ecological economics in design evaluation. Economics of ecological engineering has been demonstrated using energy principles for a wetland , and using nutrient valuation for a dairy farm.

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