Engineered Ecologies

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, yet those who experienced its intense water and winds are still feeling the effects. Since I attend University on the East Coast, I have heard many stories of friends and family affects by the hurricane, with only some families having basic services such as hot water, heat and electricity returning. New York City in particular was hit drastically, resulting in flooded roads and subway tunnels, power outages and even a power plant explosion. Even with the steps taken to prepare for the hurricane, New York City was still shut down for a good number of days – a scary thought considering that the City is an economic hub not just for the United States, but for the world. It’s natural disasters like these that remind us of the terrible beautify and unforgiving power of nature. My thoughts go out to those who still are recovering.

Source: New York Times

After Sandy hit, there was much discussion on the internet regarding the resilience of cities. How could we re-design our cities to withstand such intense natural forces? The traditional approach – building levees and concrete seawalls – seemed to be failing, what other methods existed to combat to winds and waves? With Climate Change increasing sea levels, would we eventually have to retreat from the coastlands? One article from the New York Times, “Protecting the City, Before Next Time,” outlines three possible approaches that forego the costly and ineffective “hard-infrastructure” solutions, for alternative, “soft-infrastructure” solutions. One approach is the construction of mossy wetlands bordering Lower Manhattan’s coastline. Theses wetlands would act as sponge-like barriers during floods. The wetlands would soak up the incoming water, thereby reducing the force of the surges. The wetlands and marshes would be woven together and combined with additional landfill to create park spaces as well. The nearby streets would also be re-designed with porous concrete to help soak up excess water. The second solution was the creation of an artificial reef near the neighborhood of Red Hook. The Reef would be made of rocks, shells, and rope, ingredients that would fuel the growth of oysters. The reef of oysters would hold the coastal islands together and act as barriers to break up incoming waves. Oysters also have the benefit of acting as natural water filters.

Mr. Cassel, one of the designers of the Lower Manhattan wetlands solution, described his plan as “engineered ecology.” It’s an interesting term, one that combines two seemingly opposite concepts. How can you engineer something natural? Well, in our age of rapidly advancing technology, engineering natural things is becoming commonplace. We now have genetically modified animals and plants, and the field of biotechnology is ever-growing. But the concept of engineered ecology isn’t one of engineering cells or microorganisms, it’s one of engineering systems – mainly, the natural system. Historically, civil, structural and mechanical engineers have relied on the concepts of physics to guide their designs, but as we enter the age of synthetic biology, these engineers will start looking at both physics AND biology to guide their designs. Green infrastructure (such as bioswales and wetlands) are just one example of using biology for infrastructural engineering purposes. Engineered ecologies are ecological systems that benefit humans.

Manhattan Island: Before and After (Source: National Geographic)

For the final project for one of my courses this semester, I am researching the new Urban Planning movement of Landscape Urbanism. Landscape Urbanism is a relatively difficult school of thought to describe (and is often criticized for its lack of definability) but in short, this movement focuses on the landscape as a means to hold the city together, not the buildings. Landscape Urbanism plans and designs focus less on physical form, but on processes. Instead of creating a permanent, unchangeable design, Landscape Urbanist plans are more rules and guidelines that point out the natural processes that affect, and are affected by the project. The plan acknowledges natural processes as a player in the creation of a design, and uses these processes as guides to change the landscape in as small of a way, to produce the largest result over time. It is this kind of thinking – designing WITH nature and natural processes – that produce engineered ecologies. The design evolves with nature, it is strengthened by nature, to the point that it becomes nature.

Source: dutchwatersectorcom

Another example of an engineered ecology would be the Sand Motor, a project in the Netherlands. The shores of the Netherlands erode each year due to the waves, causing the loss of valuable land. To remedy this, Dutch engineers use the process of Zandsuppletie (Dutch for Beach Nourishment) as a way to revitalize the coast. In short, the Sand Motor is simply a large pile of sand deposited on the coast to form an artificial beach and island. As the years pass, the coastal winds and waves will push the sand along the coast, effectively smoothing out the artificial beach and act as protection for the coast. The Sand Motor also acts as a new site for beach activities. This project required an immense amount of planning and design. Designers needed to understand the natural processes of wind and waves to create a suitable form of sand that could be molded in a particular way. Planners needed to figure out how to coordinate such a large scale construction process that was ‘simply,’ pouring a lot of sand into the water. The result may not seem impressive, but perhaps that’s the point, the result is something that looks natural, with just a hint of human intervention. (A nice video of the project can be found here.)

Lower Don Lands (Source: MVVA)

Engineered ecologies don’t necessarily mean a return to nature, but in some cases, a return to nature may actually benefit humanity. The Lower Don Lands Waterfront redevelopment, designed by MVVA, is a prime example of Landscape Urbanism, and of an engineered ecology. The plan calls for a renaturalization of the Don River. Instead of having the river make the abrupt 90 degree turn into the Keating Channel, the plan calls for opening up space for the river to flow in its natural direction. This would help prevent flooding, and open up attractive waterfront space. Here, the flow of a river is being altered (although it was already altered in the first place) to act as a flood prevention system (among other benefits).

These examples show a new way to look at infrastructure. Infrastructure isn’t just services for humans, but for nature as well. Engineered ecologies make nature essential for society as they serve as our infrastructure as well.

You may notice that engineered ecologies sounds a lot like geoengineering (a topic that I talked about earlier). In a way, they similar, in that they involve changing the earth to suit human needs, but in many (fundamental) ways, they are different. Geoengineering seeks to manipulate the very natural processes that engineered ecologies seek to use (such as wind and water patterns). Engineered Ecologies respect these processes, and seek to utilize them. Additionally, geo-engineering requires obvious human intervention on a global system, while engineered ecologies are based on natural examples and only affect targeted areas. Still, we as a species still don’t know the full roles of each actor in this grand play, and as such, changing anything on as big of a scale as altering rivers, water currents and ecologies could bring unintended negative consequences. We may be creating engineered ecologies without intending to (for instance, the creation of a lake in the middle of a desert).

Still, engineered ecologies offer a potentially cost-effective solution (moving the earth still requires a lot of money) to combating climate change and providing essential services. It offers a new way of thinking, one that stresses designs that rely on natural processes for improvement. The examples discussed above deal mostly with water, but what other natural processes could we utilize? Could we design canyons and valleys to direct airflow to wind farms? Could we strengthen our bridges and buildings using trees? Could we create entire ecosystems to attain human goals (see: permaculture)? The goal of engineered ecologies is to create something man-made, but let nature take it over, while still providing all the intended benefits. I think engineered ecologies are the future of infrastructural design and offer may options for visibly integrating our society back into the natural system. It’s passive design that requires a great deal of planning and thought before even the smallest amount of matter can be moved. It may seem like a complicated topic, how can someone design something that is meant to grow in a certain way, especially when the future is so uncertain? Well, we already plant trees in our front yards with the hopes that nature will make it grow and eventually provide shade for our homes.

6 thoughts on “Engineered Ecologies

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  2. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what that particular branch of literature called “Science Fiction” actually consists of. Is it space-ships and monsters? Time machines? Galactic empires? Well, its all of those things, and often none of them.Science Fiction, broadly speaking, is story-telling that deals with the impact of organized knowledge on human beings. Usually, this means technology, and the way it changes us.`

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    1. Thank you for the complement, I’m glad that you found it fascinating!

      Engineered Ecologies is something I’m a very interested in and hope to pursue in the future. It’s a strategy that is growing in popularity nowadays, I’m sure more information will be popping up in the coming months!

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