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Ecological Engineering

IEES defines Ecological Engineering as an art of engineering using insights from ecology as approach for problem solving. These insights and a holististic way of thinking are combined with «classical» engineering practice. “Tools” used by ecological engineers are: natural substances, organisms, ecological processes, natural and artificial ecosystems as well as principles, all derived from ecological science. These can be combined with auxiliary technical means to achieve a benefit for both humans and nature.

Ecological Engineering practices are not new. Especially in Asia, systems such as polyculture and recycling strategies have a long tradition. In the Western world, the term ‘Ecological Engineering’ was introduced by H.T. Odum in the 1960ies. Since then, however, the field has developed significantly.

Ecological Engineering is often associated with wastewater treatment, ecological mitigation or restoration measures, such as flood-plain or river restoration. In IEES’ definition, Ecological Engineering is much broader. We see it as a way of design thinking that can potentially influence many different types of design tasks. In this view, the Ecological Engineering approach can become a key practice for reaching the UN sustainable development goals.

Learn more about Ecological Engineering and get involved in an exciting, rapidly evolving area of sustainable solutions!

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Think piece

Think Piece on Ecological Engineering by Dr. Ken Gnanakan

Dr. Ken Gnanakan

Ecological Engineering is a relatively new science but has made a timely entry as we confront increasing environmental degradation all over the world. With the ecosystems suffering from centuries of unrestrained exploitation we need eco-sensitive and multi-supportive solutions, and this field of studies has provided some very effective answers.
The term, “ecological engineering,” was first coined by Howard Odum in 1962, and the study emerged in the sixties. Odum, with one of the most creative minds, advocated several integrated scientific studies including ecological economics. He described ecological engineering as the utilizing of natural energy sources in order to control environmental systems. Ecological engineering has evolved over the past decades bringing ecology and engineering together.

A definition that comes from the Center for Wetlands, University of Florida, a center that Odum founded, elaborates ecological engineering as follows:

“Ecological engineering is the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both. It involves the design, construction and management of ecosystems that have value to both humans and the environment. Ecological engineering combines basic and applied science from engineering, ecology, economics, and natural sciences for the restoration and construction of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The field is increasing in breadth and depth as more opportunities to design and use ecosystems as interfaces between technology and environment are explored.”

Two other pioneers and leading voices in the field, William Mitsch and Sven Erik Jorgensen, laid out some foundational thinking to take this science forward in their book “Ecological Engineering and Ecosystem Restoration” (1989). They looked at ecological engineering as designing societal services such that they benefit society and nature, and that they should be systems based, self-organized, sustainable, and integrate society with its natural environment.

A leap forward in development was taken in 1991 at the Stensund Wastewater Aquaculture Project in Trosa, Sweden, where the 1st International Ecological Engineering Conference was held and a “critical mass” of experts met (Etnier & Guterstam 1991). At Stensund preparations started for network that was formally established in 1993 under the name of IEES in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

One important foundation on which ecological engineering works is that it fits into the basic foundations of ecology, being sensitive to the chains and cycles of our ecosystems. It is human activities that disturb these natural processes that have caused complications. Rachel Carson, writing in the sixties when the environmental movement got started, exposed the problems posed by use of DDT and its harmful effects on nature as well as human beings. The title of her controversial book “Silent Spring” implied that there would be a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, because they had all died from pesticide. Anything we do in our environment has wider repercussions.

Some Basic Principles

Ecological engineering calls for a paradigm shift – philosophically, scientifically, technically, design-wise, economically and ecologically. Therefore it requests a systems thinking by switching from a human-centered towards a partnership or co-beings-oriented approach in engineering and design practices. In a way it is common sense solutions that require a sound understanding of how our environment works. In targeting at keeping our environment healthy and sustainable and to integrate human use within the capacity of natural patterns and processes of ecosystems we develop some principles of Ecological Engineering that will be guiding lights for us as we move ahead.

1. Ecologically based

First, Ecological Engineering is ecologically based. Ecology is the scientific study of interactions of organisms with one another and with the natural environment. It is the study of how living things and their environment interact with one another. There is an intricate interrelationship among organisms and between organisms, and all living and non-living beings in the environment. If there are indeed such interrelationships any tampering of these interconnections can cause grave disturbances. Therefore the solutions must be based on restoring and continuous regeneration of these interconnections.

2. Incorporation and adaptation of engineering and technology based solutions

Second, Ecological Engineering incorporates and adapts engineering and technology based solutions. Ecological engineering should not be confused with some ecological solutions that want to bypass newer technologies. Modern technologies can be adapted carefully to ensure that the environment is not affected adversely. Ecological engineering is a healthy blend between ecology and technology.

3. principles of sustainable development

Third, Ecological Engineering is based on principles of sustainable development. Sustainable development is a much used term today. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” as the UN Brundtland Commission defined. The definition contains within it two key concepts. First, the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the basic needs of the world’s poor. And secondly, there is reference to limitations imposed by technology and social organization on the environment. We need to address these issues as we explore sustainability at every level.

4. mutually beneficial to humans and the environment

Fourth, Ecological Engineering is mutually beneficial to humans and the environment. Critics of modern environmental development based on economic advancement attack our “human-centered” approaches that have not taken nature and its intricacies into account. Ecological engineering calls for actions that strive for mutual benefits for both the environment and humans. As threats of climate change and severe environmental degradation loom large before us, we must consider not only how we survive but how other living beings and ecosystems can be mutually sustained.

5. integrated systems

Fifth, Ecological Engineering is based on integrated systems. Integration is a word used today for bringing together otherwise fragmented parts. It is based on the theory of holism where the whole is seen to be greater than the sum of the parts. Rather than considering piece-meal solutions ecological engineering looks at the whole. The key solution for present and future ecological problems is in such integration systems approach that looks at our ecosystems as whole units.

6. reuse and recovery of waste

Sixth, Ecological Engineering focuses on reuse and recovery of waste. In our increasingly consumerist society with plenty to consume, waste has become a growing problem. In many countries mounds of garbage still lie unattended and where attention is being given often environmentally destructive technologies are being employed. Such actions are compounding our ecological crisis. Ecological engineering considers waste to be a resource. In other words, if waste is treated adequately, products and infrastructure designed accordingly, biological and technical nutrients could be recovered and used beneficially for various purposes.

7. stakeholder advise and participation

Seventh, Ecological Engineering is concerned for stakeholder advise and participation in the design process.
In the planning, designing, construction and maintaining technology objects, all those directly concerned (designers, builders, customers) as well as indirect actors (future users, managers, demotion contractors) and people who will (probably|) become affected (now and in the future) should participate or should be fully taken into account.

For comments contact gnanakan@vsnl.com

Essential Governing Principles of the Biosphere and Ecological Engineering by Prof.Dr. Dr.h.c.mult. Winfried E.H. Blum

Winfried Blum

Director of the Institute of Soil Research
Department of Forest and Soil Sciences
University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU)
Vienna, Austria



Ecological engineering postulates to be different from the traditional technical engineering, but in which sense? In which conceptual framework does it perform? What does “ecological” mean? Is it simply a wish to be different? Or what is behind the ecological approach in engineering?

I will try to answer these questions by looking into the governing principles under which the biosphere performs, without human interference. Therefore, let us see how nature works. There are 6 basic and essential principles of the biosphere, see Fig. 1.

1. Solar orientation

There is no fossil energy involved in any of the natural processes. Moreover, all genes of plants and animals, including humans, have developed exclusively under solar orientation. Even until the Medieval times or even later, this was also true for human societies, which were nearly uniquely based on renewable energy, produced by photosynthesis, through converting solar radiation into chemical energy, called biomass. – This process is reducing entrophy in the global system and therefore the basis of an energetically balanced system, as long as the solar radiation is maintained.

governing principles biosphere

Fig. 1: Six basic and essential principles of the biosphere

2. Closing material cycles

Nature works by closing material cycles, with very few exceptions, e.g. when materials are deposited for a longer time as terrestrial sediments or at the bottom of the sea, where they are in a more or less inaccessible position for some time. We can therefore distinguish between very long-term cycles and shorter cycles, measuring in human lifetimes and shorter. – This means that e.g. the biomass produced by solar radiation and photosynthesis is decomposed by biological/microbiological processes into water and carbon dioxide, setting free the elements which were used in order to create this biomass, thus delivering again products (water, carbon dioxide and elements which sustain the biomass production system).

3. Use of energy in material cascades

Nature does not waste any energy or material. The decomposition of a leaf or a needle from a tree occurs first through mechanical attacks by insects, afterwards through a sequence of different biota, which all gain energy out of this decomposition process in the sense of a food web. Sometimes, even humans are participating in this food web, especially in cases where biomass serves as food. This use of energy and material in cascades is most important for minimising entropy production and the same is true for

4. Concentration of surplus

This means that nature never dissipates any kind of excessive materials or elements, but concentrates them. If this were not the case, we would have no quartz veins in rock materials or ores, or other forms of element concentration which humans are using for different technical purposes. Even today, the formation of manganese deposits at the bottom of the sea is a sign that nature concentrates surplus, which is also the case in plant and animal physiology. Material which cannot be put into prevailing structures is excreted and/or bound as concentrates, e.g. in cells.

This principle is most important. On the other side, former technical engineering tried to get rid of pollutants by constructing higher chimneys, in order to achieve better dissipation, which was a basically wrong principle of handling these problems.

5. Maximum variety

Nature uses a maximum of biological, chemical, mechanical and other options, in order to be ecologically stable. This can be seen all over in nature, where humans are not interfering, because the variety of plants and animals is the greater, the less humans are interfering. Especially on very extreme sites, an extremely high variety of biological options can be found, thus stabilising biological systems under these conditions.

6. Networking of decentralized systems

Another feature of ecological stability is that nature is working in decentralised systems, which are networking with each other under different forms. This can be seen by mycorrhiza and other cases, where networking in terrestrial and aquatic systems is the basis of ecological stability. The importance hereby is that these systems are decentralised and therefore, different options can be found, according to the prevailing conditions.

After this consideration of essential governing principles of the biosphere, the question is: How close is ecological engineering to these governing principles? These principles could be seen as the framework in which ecological engineering should be undertaken, under the slogan “Let nature do the job”, and what nature cannot achieve we will add by technical measures.

Therefore, the essential governing principles of the biosphere can provide some guidance in ecological engineering and I do hope that future progress in this new field of science and technology can be achieved on this basis.


Ecological Engineering: Criteria for Engineers by Andrew Dakers

Andrew Lakers

ecoEng Limited
63 Bowenvale Avenue
Christchurch, New Zealand


There have been a number of definitions of ecological engineering offered. The definition I have chosen is:

Ecological engineering is the design of sustainable systems consistent with ecological principles that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both (University of Washington)

As a practicing professional engineer, and grandfather, my keen interest is that the outcomes of my work and the work of other professional engineering colleagues, will place our communities on the pathway to authentically sustainable lifestyles.

Many professional engineers are primarily responsible for designing and implementing physical (and in some cases biological) infrastructures and technologies that will serve civil and/or military objectives. Societies and ecosystems have both benefited and suffered as a consequence of such engineering.

Practicing professional engineers, with a desire to implement ecological engineering principles, don’t have the luxury to theorize and philosophize about principles of sustainability. They are required to implement pragmatic designs that will move us from our current mostly unsustainable lifestyles to a more sustainable way of living. There are many strong influences (social, cultural, political, economic, limited knowledge and skills) that make implementation of these principles difficult. Sometimes, for pragmatic reasons, the practicing engineer has to compromise and depart from the ideal, in order to negotiate such obstacles and move forward.

My ecological engineering principles are for practicing engineers who may have no specialized training in the discipline of ecological engineering. They are:

1. Recognise and understand:

  • that all engineering projects are embedded within ecological systems:
  • that ecological systems can be very small (a teaspoon of top soil is a vibrant and essential living micro-ecosystem) to very large – the earth we live on;
  • the role and importance of ecosystem services;
  • that all engineering projects are embedded within human systems with unique social and cultural attributes:
  • that human wellbeing, now and in the future, is entirely dependent on healthy ecosystems and stable and healthy human systems;
  • one’s limits in understanding ecosystems and know when to engage expert advice from a systems ecologist;
  • one’s limits in understanding human social and cultural systems and know when to engage an appropriate expert to advise.

2. For the engineering project, adopt an integrated system that:

  • eliminates, or mitigates, or compensates for, emission (gas, liquid and/or solids) impacts on the ecosystem;
  • eliminates, or mitigates, or compensates for, habitat fragmentation and/or destruction;
  • eliminates, or mitigates, or compensates for use of non renewable resources;
  • eliminates or mitigates risks from natural hazards;
  • avoids or minimizes the use of non-renewable material and energy resources
  • provides for sustainable use of renewable material resources and energy;
  • provides for closed material cycles.

3. Adopt relative risk management assessment

When necessary adopt relative risk management assessment for determining priorities and where appropriate engage the affected community in this assessment.


Quotes on Ecological Engineering

Several definitions of Ecological Engineering are in use of which the one by Mitch and Joergensen (below) is the one of the most commonly used. However, Ecological Engineering is far from being a strictly defined practice. It may be better reflected by its principles, goals and context of application:

“Designing the human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both”
Mitch and Jørgensen, 1988

“Management that joins human design and environmental self-design, so that they are mutually symbiotic”
Odum, 1996

“Ecological Engineering is a tool in sustainable management of our resources using resource management principles of the ecosystems”
Jana, Banergee, Guterstam and Heeb, 2000

“The application of our knowledge of ecosystems, and our skills of technical and engineering problem solving and design, to achieve the integration of human endeavour and creativity with the natural world, for sustainable efficiency”
Dakers, 2001

“Engineering with an attitude”
Del Porto, 2003

“Ecological Engineering serves as a valuable toolbox in designing and developing regenerative landscapes”
Bruell and Buergow, 2006

Engineering design can be considered as “creative art, based on science, for useful purposes” (Davies and Painter 1990). In that respect Ecological Engineering may be understood as creative design, based on the science of ecology, for sustainable solutions.
Bruell, 2008

What do others think about engineering and reorienting the profession?
The Brundtland report called for a “reorientation of technology – the key link between humans and nature”
Brundtland, 1987

“Virtually any engineering project modifies the environment in some way and therefore has an effect on the welfare, health and safety of the surrounding community” of living-beeings.
Gillin, 1992, President of the Australian Institute of Engineers

“The whole ethos of engineering practice will have to be different”
Thom, 1993, Chairman of WFEO World Federation of Engineering Organisations

“Future engineers, scientists and business people must design technology and economic activities that sustain rather than degrade the natural environment, enhance human health and well-beeing and mirror and live with the limits of natural systems”
Cortese, 1999, President of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers

Your ideas are welcome!

Would you like to share your idea of Ecological Engineering? We are happy to receive your comments. Please mail your one-sentence quote to:


Fields of Ecological Engineering

Engineering greatly shapes our built and managed environment. It influences our lives and those of ecosystems delivering essential and valuable services to society and its economy. Therefore we believe that all decisions in developing and applying technologies shall be taken with respect to our limited but best possible understanding of integrated human-ecosystem behaviour.

Presently active applicable fields of Ecological Engineering are:

  • constructed wetlands and aquacultures
  • wastewater reuse and recycling
  • ecological sanitation
  • integrated water resources management
  • restoration ecology & habitat reconstruction
  • renewable energy
  • solids recycling systems
  • transportation & infrastructure
  • process & product engineering
  • green architecture & integrated building techniques
  • urban and regional planning
  • landscape architecture & regenerative design
  • agroengineering & permaculture
  • phytoremediation
  • industrial ecology


IEES also seeks to introduce approaches and principles of Ecological Engineering to classical fields of Engineering such as

  • civil engineering
  • mechanical engineering
  • chemical engineering

Don’t find your field of work here? Please send a keyword with a short description of your practice of Ecological Engineering to contact@iees.ch

Benefits of Ecological Engineering

The benefits of Ecological Engineering practices are manifold: water retention and flood protection, erosion control and nutrient provisioning, energy and resource savings, reduction of investment and maintenance cost, recreational opportunities, rural prosperity and poverty reduction, improved habitat for wildlife and endangered species etc. to name just a few.

Ecological Engineering offers pragmatic low cost solutions for engineering services (i.e. wastewater treatment) and production techniques (i.e. bioenergy production), while at the same time providing multiple ecosystem services as an added value. Holding a multifunctional perspective Ecological Engineering can achieve synergies rather than trade-offs between economic benefits, ecosystem services and biodiversity protection. It integrates land-use practices with conservational approaches.

Ecologically engineered solutions address major global issues and increasing demands imposed on the land surface, such as providing for energy, water and sanitation, nutrients, carbon sinks and education etc. By incorporating ecological knowledge into the design process from the beginning and allowing for participation more desirable social-ecological effects than undesirable side-effects can be achieved.

Therefore Ecological Engineering is an effective tool for sustainable development.
It is appropriate engineering for a “full-world”.

Resources for Ecological Engineers

  • Ecological Engineering Journals (2)
  • Books on Ecological Engineering (15)
  • Workshop Reports, EcoEng Conference in Christchurch 2002 (7)
  • Books on Ecological Sanitation (5)
  • Books on Constructed Wetlands (4)


Ecological Engineering – The Journal of Ecotechnology

A journal to bridge between ecologists and engineers, as ecotechnology is not wholly defined by either field.
Published by Elsevier

Landscape and Ecological Engineering.

Published by Springer

Books on Ecological Engineering

Van Bohemen, H. (eds.), 2005. Ecological Engineering – Bridging between Ecologgy and Civil Engineering. Aeneas Technical Publishers, Delft

Kangas, P., 2004. Ecological Engineering – Principles and Practice, Lewis Publishers
E. Tiezzi, C.A. Brebbia and J.-L. Uso (eds), 2003. Ecosystems and Sustainable Development IV (2 volume set), WIT Press, UK

J. Brandt and H. Vejre (eds), 2003. Multifunctional Landscapes – Volume I: Theory, Values and History, WIT Press, UK

J. Brandt and H. Vejre (eds), 2003. Multifunctional Landscapes – Volume II: Monitoring, Diversity and Management, WIT Press, UK

Ü. Mander and M. Antrop (eds), 2003. Multifunctional Landscapes – Volume III: Continuity and Change, WIT Press, UK

D. Fayzieva (ed), 2003. Environmental Health in Central Asia: The Present and Future, WIT Press, UK

Brissaud, F. , Bontoux, J., Mujeriego, R. , Bahri, A., Nurizzo, C., Asano, T. (eds.), 2001. Wastewater Reclamation, Recycling and Reuse; Selected proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Wastewater Reclamation, Recycling and Reuse, July 2000

Jana, B.B., Banerjee, R.D., Guterstam, B., Heeb, J. (eds.), 2000, Waste Recycling and Resource Management in the Developing World – Ecological Engineering Approach. University of Kalyani, Kalyani 741 235, India.

Ü. Mander and R. Jongman (eds), 2000. Consequences of Land Use Changes, WIT Press, UK

Ü. Mander and R. Jongman (eds), 2000. Landscape Perspectives of Land Use Changes, WIT Press, UK

Etnier C. and B. Guterstam (eds), 1997. Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment. 2nd Edition. Lewis Publishers.

Proceedings of the Conference at Stensund Folk College, Sweden, March 24-28, 1991
Staudenmann,J., A. Schönborn and C. Etnier, (Eds.), 1996. Recycling the Resource: Ecological engineering for wastewater treatment. Environmental Research Forum, Vols. 5-6, 479 pp. Transtec Publications, Switzerland.

Thofelt,L. and A. Englund, 1996. Ecotechnics for a sustainable society. Proceedings from Ecotechnics 95- International Symposium on Ecotechnology (March 29-31, Ostersund, Sweden). Division of Ecotechnics, Mid-Sweden University: Frösön, Sweden.

Mitsch,W.J. and S.E.Jørgensen (eds.),1989. Ecological Engineering: An Introduction to Ecotechnology. Wiley, New York.

Workshop Reports from the EcoEng Conference in Christchurch, 2002

Dakers, A. & Arshad, A., Workshop Report: Ecological engineering for sustainable regional development: Banks Peninsula case study
Download as PDF document (135 kB)

Lewthwaite, W. & van Toor, E., Workshop Report: Urban eco-technology and infrastructure
Download as PDF document (540 kB)

Thorpe, H., Workshop Report: Ecological Engineering Education
Download as PDF document (120 kB)

Griffin, M., Workshop Report: Planning an ecological farm-park for the city of Christchurch
Download as PDF document (504 kB)

Peet. J., Workshop Report: Ecological engineering and decision-making
Download as PDF document (115 kB)

Tanner, C., Workshop Report: Wetlands and aquatic systems for wastewater and stormwater management.
Download as PDF document (29 kB)

Rutherford, K., Workshop Report: Integrated Riparian Engineering
Download as PDF document (8 kB)

Books on Ecological Sanitation

Del Porto, D., Steinfeld, C., 2000. The Composting Toilet System Book, Published by the Centre for Ecological Pollution Prevention (CEPP), Concord, Mass., USA.

Esrey, S. A., Gough, J., Rapaport, D., Sawyer, R., Simpson-Hébert, M., Vargas, J., Winblad. U. (ed)., 1998, Ecological Sanitation, Published by SIDA.

Esrey, Steven A., Andersson, Ingvar, Hillers, Astrid, Sawyer, Ron, 2001: Closing the Loop – Ecological Sanitation for Food Security, SIDA publications on Water Resources No. 18, 1st edition 2001, ISBN No. 91-586-8935-4

Lens, Piet, Zeeman, Grietje, Lettinga, Gatze, 2001: Department of Environmental Technology, University of Wageningen, The Netherlands: Decentralized Sanitation and Reuse, Concepts, Systems and Implantation; IWA-Publishing, Integrated environmental technology series, 650 pages, ISBN: 1- 900 222- 47-7.

Magidy, J., Dalsgaard, A., Henze, M., 2001, Closing the Rural-Urban Nutrient Cycle – New Trends in Organic and Blackwater Waste Management

Books on Constructed Wetlands

Kadlec, R., Knight, R., 1996. Treatment Wetlands, CRC Lewis Publishers
A standard book for any engineer who wants to design constructed wetlands.

Vymazal, J., Brix, H., Cooper, P.F., Green, M.B., Haberl, R., 1998. Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment in Europe, Backhuys Publishers, Leiden

A review of the state of the art in Europe, with reports from 15 European conutries.
Ü. Mander and P.D. Jenssen (eds), 2002. Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment in Cold Climates, WIT Press, UK

Ü. Mander and P.D. Jenssen (eds), 2002. Natural Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment in Cold Climates, WIT Press, UK

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 13 December 2017 )