Ecology Ecological Engineering
Patrick Kangas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0217


Ecological engineering is a hybrid discipline developed for solving certain kinds of environmental problems. The conceptual basis is to engineer solutions that incorporate ecosystems that are fueled by natural energies such as sunlight into the design. The creation of ecologically engineered ecosystems includes both restoration of past systems for conservation and the design of new systems that address environmental problems. The goal is to create designs that are cost effective and that provide multiple benefits to society. Where applicable ecological engineered systems are intended to be alternatives to conventional technologies that rely on higher inputs of fossil fuel energies. As with other kinds of engineering, ecologically engineered systems require quantitative methods of design such as sizing, optimization, and input-output balances. However, because ecologically engineered systems utilize living ecosystems, they also allow for and often rely on self-design of the system itself through the self-organizing quality of species populations and abiotic components. It is the utilization of natural ecosystems and self-design that differentiates ecological engineering from traditional engineering disciplines. Because engineering is inherently based on complete knowledge of and control over designs, there has been some resistance to the concept of self-design from traditional engineering disciplines. In fact, ecological engineering is applicable to only a subset of problems but, where appropriate, it offers solutions that can be more effective and sustainable than conventional approaches. The challenge is to combine the strengths of ecology and engineering to create a new paradigm for environmental problem solving. Ecological engineering is both an academic field with curricula taught in universities and with a regularly published journal of peer-reviewed articles (Ecological Engineering by Elsevier) along with a practical field where systems are designed, built, and operated by commercial companies for clients. Professional societies, such as the American Ecological Engineering Society, have arisen to try to better connect theory and practice in this emerging discipline through the use of certification programs and annual meetings of academics and practitioners.

General Overviews

The term ecological engineering was introduced by the American ecologist H. T. Odum in the 1960s. Odum 1971 includes a chapter on ecological engineering in which the author describes the goal of the field as a partnership with nature. Odum pioneered the field by adapting ecological theory for applied purposes and he carried out major design experiments throughout his career. Odum and Odum 2003 provides a summary of Odum’s lifelong approach to ecological engineering, published posthumously. William Mitsch, one of H. T. Odum’s students, became a leader in the field and has carried on the Odum tradition. He co-edited the first major edited volume on ecological engineering; see Mitsch and Jørgensen 2004. Mitsch established a model field laboratory on wetland science and engineering on the Ohio State University campus, as described in Mitsch, et al. 1998, and he has been the editor of the journal Ecological Engineering from its start in 1992 until recently. Three major textbooks on the field of ecological engineering have been published: Kangas 2004, Mitsch and Jørgensen 2004, and Matlock and Morgan 2011. Each of these texts has different emphases, which represent a maturation of the discipline. Some of the original thinkers in the field continue to inspire students and practitioners: Walter Adey’s text on the unique approach that he has called synthetic ecology has gone through three editions (see Adey and Loveland 2007), and John Todd’s work on eco-machine technologies has been summarized by his wife and collaborator: see Todd 2005. As Mitsch 1995 has pointed out, work on ecological engineering developed in China independently from the Western world with similar types of applications and with historical leaders such as Shijun Ma and Chung-Hsin Chung.

  • Adey, W. H., and K. Loveland. 2007. Dynamic aquaria: Building and restoring living ecosystems. 3d ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    This is a broad-based book that covers aquatic ecology and its application to a form of ecological engineering termed synthetic ecology. Walter Adey’s unique approach to creating microcosms and mesocosm as living models of ecosystems is described. The book ends with coverage on the algal turf scrubber technology that Adey invented.

  • Kangas, P. C. 2004. Ecological engineering: Principles and practice. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis.

    A major college-level textbook on the field with an emphasis on the ecological contributions to ecological engineering. Special features include chapters on exotic species and economics.

  • Matlock, M. D., and R. A. Morgan. 2011. Ecological engineering design: Restoring and conserving ecosystem services. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470949993

    A major college-level textbook on the field with a focus on ecosystem services provided by ecologically engineered systems. The text also takes a hierarchical approach ranging downward from the biome to the watershed to the site and finally to the soil.

  • Mitsch, W. J. 1995. Ecological engineering: From Gainesville to Beijing—A comparison of approaches in the United States and China. In Maximum power: The ideas of applications of H. T. Odum. Edited by C. A. S. Hall, 109–122. Niwot: Univ. Press of Colorado.

    A comparison of the field of ecological engineering as developed and practiced in the United States and in China. Case studies from each country are included and contrasts in the different approaches are explored.

  • Mitsch, W. J., and S. E. Jørgensen. 2004. Ecological engineering and ecosystem restoration. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    A major college-level textbook on the field with a balance between restoration and ecological engineering. A case study approach is used. Special features include a chapter on computer modeling and a chapter on ecological engineering in China.

  • Mitsch, W. J., and S. E. Jørgensen, eds. 1989. Ecological engineering: An introduction to ecotechnology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

    The first major text on the field of ecological engineering, in the form of an edited volume of nineteen chapters. Chapter 3 by the volume editors is particularly instructive in listing thirteen principles of the field.

  • Mitsch, W. J., X. Wu, R. W. Nairn, et al. 1998. Creating and restoring wetlands: A whole-ecosystem experiment in self-design. Bioscience 48.12: 1019–1030.

    DOI: 10.2307/1313458

    A description of William Mitsch’s approach to wetland creation with an emphasis on self-design. A summary of data is presented on the early development of the wetland research park that Mitsch established on the Ohio State University campus.

  • Odum, H. T. 1971. Environment, power, and society. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

    A textbook on energy systems theory applied to natural and human systems. Chapter 10 is a summary of the author’s early thinking about ecological engineering.

  • Odum, H. T., and E. C. Odum. 2003. Concepts and methods of ecological engineering. Ecological Engineering 20.5: 339–361.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2003.08.008

    A summary of H. T. Odum’s work in the field of ecological engineering that was published after his death. Theory and practical methods are covered with illustrations from his research conducted over fifty years.

  • Todd, N. J. 2005. A safe and sustainable world: The promise of ecological design. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    A book intended for a non-technical audience that covers the contributions of John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd to ecological engineering and to other environmental fields. Their work in developing systems, such as bioshelters and treatment ecosystems, and in establishing organizations, such as the New Alchemy Institute, is described.

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