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Valuing Ecosystems and Their Services: Investigating Eco-Engineering as a Sustainability Tool in an Urbanizing World


Valuing Ecosystems and Their Services: Investigating Eco-Engineering as a Sustainability Tool in an Urbanizing World


Urbanization displaces and fragments existing ecosystems, replacing them with homogenous urban ecosystems. This severely degrades ecosystem services that humans and the rest of the ecosystem rely on. With these services damaged, humans have to put resources toward performing the same function at a high cost. Preventing loss of ecosystem function and limiting urban expansion are top priorities, but in heavily modified areas there may be an alternative. Eco-engineering seeks to employ ecological principles to build sustainability. This is accomplished through engineering with the needs and services of the ecosystem in mind, attempting to benefit all parts of the ecosystem including humans. While a relatively young design philosophy, studies have shown that it holds great promise. Despite this many challenges still remain, particularly as it relates to human socio-economic systems. Building resilience in a changing world requires creativity, an evidence-based approach, and care for all stakeholders. 

Keywords: Biology, Eco-Engineering

Literature Review:

This paper seeks to investigate eco-engineering as a tool for increasing sustainability in the wake of urbanization. While a relatively young engineering philosophy, eco-engineering has great potential to improve not only the health of the ecosystem but the health of the humans within it in turn. The critical concepts of ecosystem services and urbanization are defined, and methods of measurement discussed. With these important terms put into perspective, they are used to frame the goals, challenges, and potential future of eco-engineering. Public support for these and other land management strategies are crucial in ensuring governmental action to protect the environment. This makes education a critical tool for sustainability, and that is the exact goal of this paper. Since urban ecosystems are so immediately relevant to most humans, it is important that they understand the ecological cost presented by cities, as well as potential mitigation strategies.


Climate change has become an ever-looming threat to humanity and the biosphere at large. This period of warming has been accompanied by an enormous change in human demographics and distribution. The growth of urban areas has been driven by economic and social factors but has huge implications for the environment (Wang et al., 2022). These urban areas displace and fragment existing ecosystems, reducing ecosystem health and resilience in the process (Liu et al., 2022). This process is called urbanization, and is a phenomenon seen around the globe, but is of particular concern when it happens rapidly such as in India or China. A particular area of concern is ecosystem services (ESs). These are services provided to humans by the ecosystem. This can include things like crop production and water purification. Without this support from the ecosystem, humans would have to devise ways to perform all these functions ourselves, which makes ESs immensely valuable. Through the displacement or outright replacement of these ecosystems with an urban one, ESs become degraded. Declines in these functions of the ecosystem as a result of urbanization have been observed on global, regional, and local scales (Zhang et al. 2020). Ensuring the continued functioning of ecosystems is not only critical for its own sake, but because humans live in and benefit from these ecosystems.

These problems facing us are great, but through creativity and sound scientific research, solutions will be found. One of these potential solutions is eco-engineering. This is the use of engineering and land management strategies that seek to benefit both humans and the rest of the ecosystem (Bishop et al., 2022). By keeping ecological principles and ESs in mind during the design and implementation of urban development, the worst impacts of the urbanization can be mitigated. Projects range in size and scale, like the addition of habitat panels to marine infrastructure, or using vegetation to reinforce loose sediment (Mickovski et al., 2022). There has been rising interest in ecoengineering as a solution to various problems caused by and around urban ecosystems ever since the 1990s (Strain et al., 2018). However, without the proper evidence backing these claims, these projects can do little ecological good or even harm while having the appearance of a solution. While not a new concept, eco-engineering may be one way of building sustainability in a changing world.

Ecosystem Services:

ESs are functions that are provided to humans through the ecosystem. These include things like crop production, soil retention, and air and water purification. Along with these functions, vegetation can help to lower temperatures and increase comfort through shading and evapotranspiration (Murtinová et al., 2022). Any way in which the ecosystem provides or regulates can be considered an ES. The functions of the ecosystem in this regard are varied and valuable, supporting humans’ health as well as the other members of the ecosystem. This mutually beneficial relationship between humans and the rest of the ecosystem is one of the reasons that ecological protection is so vital. There is also a huge amount of cultural value gained through ecosystem function, whether it be in wild areas or in constructed areas such as recreational parks (Liu et al., 2022). This is not only of benefit to humans however: outdoor recreation and biodiversity conservation go hand in hand, especially in areas that rely on ecotourism (Zhang et al. 2020). Since humans make up a primary component of urban ecosystems, cultural aspects must especially be considered ESs in these environments. One such cultural value and need is recreation. This concept is typically applied to ‘natural’ or ‘pseudo-natural’ areas like national or local parks, but the constructed elements of an urban ecosystem also provide cultural ESs (Morris et al., 2016).


One of the most common ways to quantify ESs is by assigning a monetary value to them (Wang et al., 2022). If humans performed the services of ecosystems themselves through infrastructure like water purification plants it would cost money, but the ecosystem naturally performs these services at no cost. This is useful as it allows ESs to be translated into the socio-economic world of policy makers who may not understand the ecological benefits or inherent value of the ecosystem. Though this approach is limited as it reduces the inherent value of the ecosystem to a simple number rather than acknowledging it for the complex system it is.

Each ESs must be measured differently because of the sheer breadth of services provided. Some of these such as water or crop yield are easy to measure and track over long periods of time. This long period data tracking is important as it allows us to see over time changes that may be too subtle to see over the period of a few years. Issues often arise when studying services like air purification where data has not been logged consistently (Liu et al., 2022). Scale issues also arise spatially, where pairwise correlation coefficients and global regressions models are commonly used to statistically analyze ESs data. This approach is helpful when looking on a global scale but falls apart when looking at regional or local scales, which is the scale that most land managers are working at (Zhang et al. 2020). Changes in ESs due to urbanization often go untracked for this exact reason, leaving huge gaps in our knowledge. Since losses in ecosystem function have been seen on scales from global to local it is clear that new statistical measurements must be developed and utilized.

Net Primary Productivity of a given region can be useful in quantifying ESs because it is a measure of the total amount of energy available to the food web of a given ecosystem. However, it is deeply affected by climate, with things like drought and extreme temperatures affecting vegetation growth. This makes it ineffective to use without other supporting data (Xu et al., 2021). Another source of difficulty in measuring ESs is the heterogeneity of their distribution. Since they are not evenly distributed across a landscape, it is important to be able to identify key areas these ESs are the strongest (Zhang et al. 2020). Understanding the challenges in measurement and long term tracking of ESs will lead to better and more informed land management decisions to strengthen the ecosystem overall.


Due to the interconnected nature of ecosystems, changes to one ESs may ripple throughout and alter the functioning of other ESs. These ripples can have strengthening effects but can also expose vulnerabilities. This leads to the implementation of the concept of ES bundles. Grouping them together into categories based on the nature of the service provided helps to better visualize changes across the entire ecosystem. Four examples of categories used in research and analysis are regulating, supporting, provisioning, and culture ESs (Liu et al., 2022). This interconnectivity can help strengthen ecosystems in synergistic relationships but can also cause unintended damage in trade-off relationships. One example of a synergy between ESs is that placing agricultural land near forest patches can increase pollination, bolstering carbon storage for both land use types while also bolstering grain production in the agricultural land (Zhang et al. 2020). This balance can be tricky to strike, as some types of land use can supply multiple ESs such as farmland providing both carbon storage and grain production. However, in areas of dense farmland this becomes a trade-off relationship because they are not as effective as forests at carbon sequestration. Land managers must take these relationships into consideration, as improper management can actually harm the ecosystem if the interactions of these ESs are not taken into consideration.

In land management, when considering ESs it is important to understand the relationships within the ecosystem. Multiple ESs can have synergy, where the functioning of one bolster another. Alternatively, there can be trade-off relationships, where the strength of one ESs is damaged by another being expanded. These trade-off relationships are critical in policy and land management decisions, as policy makers seeking to bolster one ecosystem service may inadvertently cause damage to another. One example of this comes from the Fujian Province in China, which suffers from food insecurity because its land is mostly made up of forest used for outdoor recreation and ecotourism (Zhang et al. 2020). Research in urban areas shows that improvement of habitat quality can improve supporting services like carbon storage. Focusing on areas of loss of ESs is of utmost importance, such as the loss of provisioning services like grain and fruit production in urban spaces (Liu et al., 2022). Understanding these relationships is critical in land management, as it can help guide effective and ecologically sound decision making (Wang et al., 2022). Unfortunately, it is not simple, as many services like soil retention and water yield are heavily dependent on variable things like annual rainfall and temperature. Changes to these services due to climate change is not something that land managers may have direct control over, but foreknowledge can help guide management decisions.


Urbanization is understood to be the conversion of existing ecosystems into an urban ecosystem, shifting from natural land cover to constructed land cover (Murtinová et al., 2022). This often results in the fragmentation and degradation of existing ecosystems (Liu et al., 2022). In coastal cities the implementation of seawalls to combat rising sea levels has led to a proliferation in coastal construction. Seawalls now cover 50% of urban coastline, fragmenting the original coastal ecosystem into a few smaller and more vulnerable ones (Bishop et al., 2022). The building of road networks and expansion of constructed spaces can create this same fragmenting inland. Urbanization can also be seen as a simplification of the existing habitat, creating a relatively homogonous ecosystem which reduces the number of available niches. However, urbanization can help improve quality of life for the humans living in the newly created urban ecosystem (Wang et al., 2022). It can also reduce overall energy consumption and reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing required travel distance (Ullah et al., 2023). These factors underscore that it is crucial to be able to balance urbanization with ecological protection.


One of the most common ways to measure urbanization is by looking at the changes in land use and land cover. The conversion of something like agricultural land into an urban land involves an increase in impervious surfaces in the form of road networks and buildings (Liu et al., 2022). To fully understand urbanization though, multiple factors must be addressed, including population, socio-economic, and landscape. All these factors influence the urban ecosystem in different ways and drive different kinds of development. This wide variety of factors make modeling using mathematical equations to examine the growth and development incredibly useful for scientists and land managers looking to understand urbanization (Ullah et al., 2023). Typically, areas urbanize by population first, followed by socio-economic and landscape urbanization (Wang et al., 2022). In one study Wang et al. used a Comprehensive Urbanization Level to simplify the many different aspect of urbanization into one value which could be easily displayed on a map like in figure 1.

Map of Comprehensive Urbanization Level (CUL) in the Yellow River Basin, China in 2000 and 2015

Figure 1. Map of Comprehensive Urbanization Level (CUL) in the Yellow River Basin, China in 2000 and 2015. Adapted from Wang et al. 2022.


As much as 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with predictions putting this percent at 60% by 2030 (Wang et al., 2022). By that same year, the total area of urban space will have expanded by one million square kilometers (Ullah et al., 2023). This makes it a crucial ecosystem to understand, particularly how it spreads and displaces other ecosystems. Of the major world cities, 60% of them lie within 100 kilometers of a coastline (Strain et al., 2018). Coastal development serves a range of functions for humans: coastal protection, recreation, energy resources, and fisheries. This has led to the proliferation of coastal infrastructure, from seawalls and marinas to fisheries and wind turbines. Urbanization is not a problem to be dealt with retroactively, but one to understand now so that future development can be done more sustainably.

While a problem globally, urbanization is particularly a problem when it happens rapidly. Huge population and socioeconomic growth in China have driven increasing urbanization, with urban area expanding by 13.3% per year over the past 15 year (Ullah et al., 2023). This amplifies changes in the displaced ecosystem and damages sustainability. This unsustainable growth is worsened by the lack of coordination that has gone into expansion particularly in regions like the Yangtze River Economic Belt (Xu et al., 2021). The impacts of urbanization on ESs are amplified when the city has a low population density, such as in the case of Ordos in the Yellow River Basin (Wang et al., 2022). This low density is indicative of land use changes outpacing population growth, very common with rapid urbanization.

Effects on Ecosystem

As to be expected with the complex nature of ecosystems, the effects of urbanization are variable and highly subject to spatial and temporal variability. With urbanization, provisioning services like grain and fruit production tend to decrease and can even disappear entirely. Supporting services like carbon storage and water yield are severely degraded. Overall habitat quality increases but with major fluctuations (Liu et al., 2022). This can vary spatially and temporally with urbanization due to the uneven nature of development, especially under rapid urbanization as seen in places like China (Xu et al., 2021). Urbanization can actually increase the chance of synergies between ESs through changes in land use, but this is vastly outweighed by the detrimental effects on the ecosystem which harms all ESs (Zhang et al. 2020). When looked at through an economic lens, urbanization causes an increase in the demand for ESs while decreasing the supply. This varies by ESs though as urbanization can increase the supply of cultural ESs while decreasing or not affecting the supply of other ESs. Each ESs and the relationships between them must be considered individually when assessing the impacts of urbanization, as its broad sweeping consequences are not consistent spatially or temporally.

Urbanization tends to reduce the complexity relative to the displaced ecosystem, reducing available niches. This means that the effects of urbanization are very species specific, with some thriving in the new ecosystem and many others left without suitable habitat (Bishop et al., 2022). Urbanization also changes the physio-chemical makeup of a given environment. Pollutants such as heavy metals, nutrients, artificial light and sound spread the footprint of an urban ecosystem far beyond its official boundaries (Strain et al., 2018). Impervious surfaces such as stone, concrete, asphalt, metal absorb and trap heat more efficiently than traditional wood architecture or vegetative cover. Urban areas with these surfaces suffer from higher temperatures than surrounding areas due to this in what have been dubbed urban heat islands (Murtinová et al., 2022; Ullah et al., 2023). These are some of the components that make the effects of urbanization highly localized and specific. Uneven development has led to a heterogeneous spatial distribution of effects on ESs (Xu et al., 2021). Less developed areas typically have stronger ESs, especially those that provide food or regulate things like carbon and water. Conversely, urban areas have a larger amount of cultural ESs in the form of parks, which is especially true in regions that have undergone rapid urbanization (Liu et al., 2022). Though this may not be true ad undeveloped mountain and forest areas may have higher outdoor recreation value than constructed urban parks (Zhang et al. 2020). This all culminates in heterogenous development and expansion of a relatively homogeneous ecosystem.

While a problem in all urban spaces, pollutants can affect the survivorship and colonization of habitat forming taxa like barnacles and bivalves in marine settings. Along with providing ESs such as water filtration to humans, these taxa provide and develop habitat that benefits the rest of the ecosystem (Strain et al., 2018). Thermal and desiccation stresses on organisms are some of the most important to consider in intertidal species. In urbanized spaces modifications like seawalls don’t retain as much water as natural shoreline and provide less shelter for organisms due to their generally flat and smooth design (Bishop et al., 2022). As the world becomes more reliant on coastal infrastructure for food, safety, and commerce, the amount of constructed marine spaces will only increase. This is particularly troubling as percentage of construction land has the greatest effect on ESs in coastal environments (Zhang et al. 2020). Given the importance of coastal regions to global food supply, urbanization of marine environments is of great concern.


Eco-engineering is the process of engineering human structures with the needs and services of the ecosystem in mind. This can include the construction of new building designs, the retrofitting of older structures, or other land management techniques (Bishop et al., 2022). Green infrastructure is one such technique, which uses a network of green spaces in and around urban areas for socio-economic and ESs benefits (Murtinová et al., 2022). One critical component to eco-engineering is that it prioritizes the health and needs of humans and the rest of the ecosystem (Morris et al., 2016). This involves applying ecological principles to the design of infrastructure. This way all conservation, commercial, or functional interests can be achieved while enhancing native biodiversity (Strain et al., 2018). This can include projects of any scale within an ecosystem: from simple retrofits of older structures to larger sustainable land management projects. Projects across Europe have used natural materials and vegetation in efforts to reduce soil erosion along rivers, coasts, and hills (Mickovski et al., 2022). Many projects have looked at modifications to marine infrastructure such as the variety of panels added to a seawall in Sydney Harbour in figure 2. The common thread between these projects is the use of ecological principles to support the health and needs of humans and the rest of the ecosystem.


Urbanization itself drastically impacts the resilience and sustainability of urban ecosystems, decreasing the supply of ESs while increasing the demand (Liu et al., 2022). In similar ways, climate change is forcing changes to the urban ecosystem. Coastal cities are at great threat from rising sea levels, so marine structures such as seawalls are covering more and more coastline in urban areas (Bishop et al., 2022). Eco-engineering can be used to reinforce and repair ESs. For example, structures can be built to promote the growth of water purifying species such as oysters. Implementation of green infrastructure has been shown to significantly reduce land surface temperature and increase overall human comfort in cities (Rajagopal et al., 2023). These green spaces are found to be most effective when complex, including trees, shrubs, and herbs. Simple green spaces such as lawns offer little benefit in bolstering ESs compared to these more complex vegetation systems. Many current projects use modeling and computer simulation to find optimal materials and urban morphology due to the difficulty of deploying projects citywide for direct experimentation. The loss in ESs and the heavy existing modifications make the urban ecosystem the perfect candidate to explore the possibilities of eco-engineering.

Many of the most well-known examples of eco-engineering come from coastal cities. These projects seek to improve habitat quality in urbanized section of coastline. Pictured in figure 2 is a modified seawall. Researchers placed four unique panel designs to promote the growth of intertidal organisms. Some of these panels were effective at promoting colonization when compared to the flat control panels. Particularly those panels which offered habitat by trapping water or allowing other habitat forming taxa to colonize (Bishop et al., 2022). This enrichment of abundance and diversity was seen across 109 examples of marine eco-engineering through meta-analysis (Strain et al., 2018). The results of these projects show the importance of providing habitat and surfaces suitable for colonization.

Retrofitted eco-engineering project on a seawall in Sydney Harbour, Australia. Five hexagonal panel designs with the purpose of increasing biodiversity were used.

Figure 2. Retrofitted eco-engineering project on a seawall in Sydney Harbour, Australia. Five hexagonal panel designs with the purpose of increasing biodiversity were used. Adapted from Bishop et al., 2022.

In Urban Ecosystems

Sustainability in the context of an urban ecosystem involves not only environmental, but economic and social dimensions (Mickovski et al., 2022). This is because a key component to urban ecosystems is the humans that live in them, so when considering sustainability, the socio-economic aspects must be understood along with the ecological principles. Since the 1990s there has been an increased public and governmental interest in eco-engineering solutions, particularly in coastal environments (Strain et al., 2018). Even more recently, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy devastating the east coast of the United States, more attention is being put on eco-engineering solutions. These projects have the potential to mitigate the destructive power that storms have on cities, while bolstering the ESs provided by the intertidal zone (Morris et al., 2016). Without support from the socio-economic elements of the urban ecosystem sustainability projects become not more than pipe dreams.

The public perception of eco-engineering projects is a key aspect that must be understood since they are one of the primary stakeholders. Many people value the ecosystem inherently, but others consider aesthetics of the urban environment to be equally important (Morris et al., 2016). Beyond the public, various stakeholders can impact the development and implementation of eco-engineering projects. This can include construction companies, academia and research institutions, governing bodies, and of course the communities directly affected by the project (Mickovski et al., 2022). Research shows that the public responds well to eco-engineering projects, and that they consider cost to be irrelevant for the ecological benefit gained. Despite this existing enthusiasm, engaging and educating the public and other stakeholders is crucial in advancing sustainability.


Eco-engineering is a relatively new concept, largely taking off in the 1990s. Though a lot of research has been done there is much more work to do (Strain et al. 2018). Most studies on eco-engineering projects only collect data for 12 months, which can overinflate the usefulness of these projects. More long-term studies are needed to help identify which strategies bolster ecosystems long term as improper management can cause serious unintended damage to ESs (Zhang et al. 2020). In a study with an observation period of 24 months it was observed that growths in abundance and diversity stopped between 12 and 24 months (Bishop et al., 2022). Studies on urbanization itself often study periods upwards of decades (Wang et al., 2022). If eco-engineering projects seek to increase sustainability they must be thought about long term, as treating them like a quick fix is little more than green washing.

Another issue posed by the youth of eco-engineering is a lack of standardization in monitoring, construction, and performance analysis (Mickovski et al., 2022). Projects that lack monitoring will usually also lack proper maintenance to ensure the continued success of the project. The construction industry is a very standardized place, meaning that a lack thereof in eco-engineering projects can make the recruiting of specialists necessary. Ideally the specialists would be included from the design phase but that is often not the case. Performance analysis ties in with standardization, as without a set of standard performance metrics comparisons between projects can become complicated or impossible.

Oftentimes, a ‘natural’ solution to a problem is better than an eco-engineering one. Tactics like conservation and remediation of displaced ecosystems are more effective at bolstering ESs. Similarly, natural reefs and other marine structures may offer more protection to coastal cities than infrastructure like seawalls. However, in highly modified environments like those found in urban ecosystems, eco-engineering offers a powerful tool for repairing and reinforcing ESs (Strain et al., 2018). This means that eco-engineering should not be the primary method of increasing sustainability. Rather, land management should focus on limiting and coordinating the growth of urban areas.

black white and red world map

Figure 3. Map of eco-engineering projects around the world. Adapted from Strain et al. 2018.

One of the most pressing challenges in the field of eco-engineering is the presence of socioeconomic inequality. This inequality is demonstrated well when looking at the distribution of projects around the globe. Research is concentrated heavily in North America, Europe, and Australia (Strain et al., 2018). This distribution pictured in figure 3 shows echoes of colonialism: with colonial powers having the monetary and academic resources to research eco-engineering. Even on the scale of a single country, eco-engineering strategies have been shown to increase the socioeconomic disparity between regions (Xu et al., 2021). Since the goal of eco-engineering is to design the environment to benefit humans and the ecosystem, it is important to consider all humans when designing and implementing projects.


As the world changes, climatically, demographically, and ecologically, strategies must be employed to lessen the impact humans have on the ecosystems they reside in. The expansion of urban areas displaces existing ecosystems: degrading and fragmenting them. This makes these ecosystems more vulnerable to future changes (Liu et al., 2022). Urbanization has already heavily altered landscapes around the world, with 50% of the world population living in urban ecosystems. With the urban population projected to hit 60% by 2030, urbanization is only going to continue (Wang et al., 2022). Coastal ecosystems are at particular threat from urbanization as 60% of the largest cities are within 100 kilometers of a coast (Strain et al., 2018). Expansion of sea infrastructure will only continue as climate change raises sea levels, forcing coastal urban centers to adapt. It is of utmost importance to be able to develop sustainably as the urban population expands.

Developing sustainability in the wake or urbanization requires understanding of ecological principles and proper application of those principles to mitigate the damage caused to ecosystems. One of the most crucial ecological concepts to be aware of is ESs. These provide humans with crucial services like water and air purification that would cost humans money to do independent of the ecosystem. Proper understanding of these services and their relationships is key in developing effective land management strategies that don’t cause inadvertent harm to the ecosystem (Zhang et al. 2020). Urbanization damages and alters these services as a result of the displacement and fragmentation of existing ecosystem (Liu et al., 2022). The urban ecosystem that replaces these is often much more homogenous, which means that fewer species are able to thrive (Bishop et al., 2022). Past work done on the effects of urbanization on ESs has focused on a global scale, but the effects can be seen all the way down on a local scale. This is the scale at which most land managers are working, so developing frameworks for use on regional and local scales is critical. Understanding how urbanization modifies ESs and ecosystems as a whole is the first step to repairing damaged ecosystems.

Eco-engineering offers a tool for mitigating the damage of urbanization. Solutions like remediation and conservation of ecosystems are often more effective at preserving and repairing ESs. However, in heavily modified environments like urban areas eco-engineering strategies may offer ways to bolster ESs (Strain et al., 2018). Marine eco-engineering has received a particular amount of attention and has been shown to be effective at increasing speed of colonization, especially of habitat forming taxa. Though many projects only collect data for 12 months, and studies of longer periods show that diversity and abundance plateau between 12 and 24 months (Bishop et al., 2022). Though challenges still remain for this burgeoning engineering philosophy. The lack of standardization in execution and monitoring makes it challenging to integrate into the construction industry and compare projects (Mickovski et al., 2022). Furthermore, there are large disparities in the distribution of these projects around the world, with colonial powers having the most resources to execute them. Ensuring that all stakeholders in a project understand and approve of them is crucial. Education on ecological principles and inclusion of specialists early in the process can help ease the concerns of these stakeholders. One of these most important stakeholders is the public, but many members of the public already understand the need for these projects (Morris et al., 2016; Ullah et al., 2023). Public support is another crucial factor in pursuing ESs protection, especially in a socio-economic system so focused on monetary gain.



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Harbor Larsen Headshot

Harbor Larsen graduated from Westminster University in 2023 with a BS in Biology and is interested in research that explores human-ecosystem interactions.