Common Steps for Ecological Engineering Design

There is no cookbook available for ecological engineering design. The emergent properties of ecosystems do not lend themselves to a constant set of variables such as exists for chemistry (periodic table of elements) or mechanics (design table properties for steel or concrete). Each setting for ecological engineering design will have a unique history and set of interactions.

Ecological engineers are aware of and take advantage of the processes that are active in natural systems. This awareness comes from a thorough understanding of ecological theories that describe the ecosystem of interest to the designer. The naturally occurring ecosystem processes are partners in design, not obstacles to overcome and dominate. Important aspects of ecosystems that need to be accounted for in design include disturbance, diversity, heterogeneity, change, and self-organization at multiple scales in space and time. Using a standard design procedure allows for the documentation of responses and allows ecological engineering to be used to test ecological theories. Importance of the following components and depth of analyses will vary by environment and design objectives.

Following the steps below provides the relevant ecological information that is needed to create an ecologically engineered design. The final design, grounded in the information gathered below, adheres to the traits listed in Table 1 under ecological engineering.

1. Identify the biotic and abiotic factors that drive the ecosystem of interest.

(a) Climate affects site potential and the presence and absence of biota.

(b) Site history of physical, chemical, and biological components should be investigated as historic conditions can affect current site conditions and site potential.

(c) Current biotic and abiotic factors control organisms and pathways through which energy flows and materials cycle.

(d) The design should be compatible with existing conditions and enhance or sustain organisms and pathways through which energy flows and materials cycle.

2. Identify the types of disturbance, whether chronic or intermittent, biotic or abiotic, that are present in the system.

(a) The design should be ecologically resilient to these disturbances.

(b) The design should be safe-fail.

(c) The design should maintain spatial and temporal heterogeneity in the system.

3. Identify the goods and services being produced by the ecosystem.

(a) Production of goods and services should be maintained or enhanced.

(b) Inputs of human-produced materials should not exceed assimilation capacity.

(c) Any wastes that are produced should be usable in another design.

(d) Energy needs of the design should minimize the use of nonrenewable sources.

(e) Extraction of renewable resources should be less than the rate of renewal.

Table 1 Concepts and characteristics of traditional versus ecological engineering designs

Traditional engineering

Ecological engineering

Efficiency of function

Seeks stability

Resists disturbance

One equilibrium point

Redundancy of structure

Single acceptable outcome

Spatially and temporally uniform

Tries to control natural forces



Tight tolerances

Heavy reliance on nonrenewable energy and material

Rigid boundaries and edges

Unconcerned by production of waste materials from the design Deductive

Engineering resilience

Persistence of function

Accepts inevitability of change

Absorbs and recovers from disturbance

Multiple, nonstable equilibria

Redundancy of function

More than one acceptable outcome

Spatially and temporally diverse

Works with natural forces



Wide tolerances

Maximum use of renewable energy and energy and material Flexible boundaries and edges

Minimizes production of waste and seeks to use the waste in another design or process Inductive

Ecological resilience

4. Use the naturally occurring forces of nature to help with design and maintenance.

(a) Working at cross-purposes with nature is frustrating and expensive in the best case and disastrous and counterproductive in the worst case.

5. Recognize that implementation of any design will create some disturbance to the preexisting conditions.

(a) No design is perfect. Accurate appraisal of potential problems allows for minimization and/or mitigation of the impacts.

(b) Where possible, connectivity to adjacent ecosystems should be maintained or enhanced through use of corridors and ecological networks.

6. Keep complete and accurate documentation of design process, parameters, and outcome.

(a) Documentation of preexisting conditions, design process, and monitoring of outcome provides the means to improve designs in the future.

Ecological engineering designs can be applied to a variety of ecosystem problems, such as

• Phytoremediation and wastewater treatment wetlands can be used to reduce or solve pollution problems. In this case, the design seeks to replicate or take advantage of ecosystem properties.

• Forest restoration or wetland mitigation can be used to reduce resource problems. Here the design seeks to copy or reproduce ecosystem structure and function.

• Mine land restoration or lake restoration seeks to hasten the recovery of an ecosystem following major disturbance. Here the design seeks to uses the self-organization properties of ecosystems to recreate the predisturbance system. The design is mindful that some disturbances, such as fires and hurricanes are natural, and ecosystems have recovered from them before human management or intervention was possible or even considered.

• Extraction or use of ecosystem goods and services are done such that production of those goods and services is not decreased. Here the design seeks to meet sustainabil-ity criteria and decrease the use of nonrenewable energy.

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