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Ecological engineering

Ecological engineering brings together a set of techniques from classical engineering and ecology and is defined by the purpose of the actions carried out, which aim to contribute to the resilience of the ecosystem. The association of engineering and ecology aims to cooperate with the living, to associate and promote natural processes with the aim of creating, restoring or rehabilitating functions provided by natural environments. Thus, ecological engineering is not defined solely on the basis of the techniques used, "with the living", but above all by the objective targeted by the work, "for the living": ecological engineering contributes directly to preserve and develop biodiversity.

Thus, ecological engineering seeks to optimize ecosystem services. But he can also recreate them by integrating them into a layout. It is based on, and plays with, the natural processes at work in ecosystems, unlike traditional civil engineering which sometimes has to fight against the dynamics of ecosystems. Ecological engineering can then be associated with civil engineering and propose alternative techniques by promoting the ecological resilience capacities of ecosystems and by enhancing the faculties of living things to shape, improve, stabilize, purify certain elements of the project and the landscape: road, building, soils, slopes, banks, edges, wetlands...


Ecological engineering is defined in France as being the "conduct of projects which, in its implementation and monitoring, applies the principles of ecological engineering and promotes the resilience of ecosystems", ecological engineering being defined as the "all scientific knowledge, techniques and practices which take into account ecological mechanisms, applied to the management of resources, to the design and construction of facilities or equipment, and which is suitable for ensuring the protection of the environment. ».

In Anglo-Saxon countries, it is “the design, construction and implementation of projects combining nature for the benefit of both biodiversity and human society”.

In the Spanish-speaking world, the closest concept is that of "environmental engineering", which is defined as "the design, application and management of processes, products and services to prevent, limit or repair degradation suffered by the environment with a view to sustainable development”.


The concept of ecological engineering appeared in the 1960s. It responds to new challenges which appeared at the end of the 20th century and which human societies all over the world are facing: erosion of biodiversity, climate change, degradation of ecosystem services ... Ecological engineering is then used to repair the ecosystem when it is too degraded to be able to implement its resilience capabilities itself8. The concept is in particular theorized by the American ecologist Howard Odum who showed the possibility of controlling the evolutionary trajectories of ecosystems by influencing natural dynamics. The United States was the first to develop a professional activity in ecological engineering, in particular following the Clean Waters Restoration Act (1966) which enabled the creation of Mitigation Banks ensuring the protection of wetlands.

Mitsch & Jorgensen, two American ecologists characterized in 1989 ecological engineering as being a discipline which:

1) is based on the resilience capacity of the ecosystem;

2) is a testing ground for scientific ecology;

3) implements a systems approach;

4) limits the expenditure of fossil energy;

5) aims to preserve biodiversity.

In 2015, on the occasion of the COP21, the French committee of the IUCN proposed a new approach to fight against the erosion of biodiversity: “nature-based solutions (NBS)”. NFS build on natural processes to address “big societal challenges” while delivering multiple benefits, including improved ecosystem resilience. Ecological engineering will be the preferred tool for implementing these actions.

[[In France]]

Still emerging at the beginning of the 1990s, the ecological engineering sector was supported in France in its development by the public authorities: in 1995, launch of a call for projects Recreating nature which aimed to bring research and environmental managers closer together. natural spaces by requiring the dual operational and scientific dimension; in 2009, creation of the ecological engineering sector working group led by the Ministry of Ecology, which helped to structure the young sector; in 2012, publication of the Ambition Ecotech roadmap by the Strategic Committee of the Eco-Industries Sector14 which considers the sector as a strategic economic sector. The world of research has also played a decisive role in providing better knowledge of living organisms and their processes, an essential step for the implementation of ecological engineering projects. Since 2010, the CNRS has had an interdisciplinary Ecological Engineering program (IngECOTech) in which INRAE ​​(formerly Irstea15) also participates.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the professional sector of ecological engineering has gradually been structured around a growing market driven by the growing importance of environmental issues within French society. The market benefited in particular from two public policy levers. The first is the Water Framework Directive, dating from 2000, which sets the objective of the Member States of the European Union to improve the state of aquatic ecosystems. This framework directive has resulted in the implementation of major ecological rehabilitation work on rivers and wetlands carried out by local authorities. The second follows the construction of the A65 motorway, the first post-Grenelle environment motorway project, which has been subject to ambitious ecological compensation measures. This case law has made effective an obligation to compensate for damage to biodiversity and the functioning of the ecosystem which dates back more than 30 years with the Law of July 10, 1976 relating to the protection of nature.

In October 2012, after three years of exchanges between the actors of the sector carried by the Professional Union of Ecological Engineering (UPGE), Afnor published the French standard NF X10-900 on the methodology of applied ecological engineering projects wetlands and waterways. More generally, it aims to professionalize “a new sector by proposing concrete and pragmatic solutions that can be adapted to any ecological engineering project” by proposing a common language, clarifying the role and coordination of stakeholders, defining the downstream stages of the project and framing the realization to ask “the right questions at the right time”. It defines the methods of intervention on these natural habitats and the associated ecosystems, from the decision to launch a project, to the evaluation by the long-term follow-up of the actions. This standard describes studies, project management, restaurant management operations and proposes a profession of “biodiversity coordinator”.

In 2017, a professional rule N.C.4-R0, dealing specifically with ecological engineering works, was drafted for the landscape sector by ecological engineering professionals. It harmonises and specifies the technical terms and best practices for implementing works, the constraints to be taken into account and the control points to be applied. It insists in particular on the place of the ecologist whose intervention is described as “indispensable” to the success of any ecological engineering project.

Today, the evaluation and standardization of ecological equivalences is demanded of the actors of ecological engineering by the financial sector when the intervention of the latter in the maintenance of natural capital is desired. In the context of this financialization of nature, compensation banks are led to use ecological engineering and to be evaluated. These approaches are controversial.

[[A new profession]]

Ecological engineering is a new profession that has been developing since the end of the 20th century. It implements the techniques of ecological engineering, the principles of which are defined by the CNRS as follows: "Ecological engineering is the use, most often in situ, sometimes under controlled conditions, of populations, communities or ecosystems with the aim of modifying one or more biotic or physico-chemical dynamics of the environment in a direction deemed favorable to society and compatible with the maintenance of ecological balances and the adaptive potential of the environment”.

While the world of research plays an important role by providing new fundamental knowledge, ecological engineering operators are also inspired by old practices and develop innovations based on the observation of living mechanisms. Thus, Leonardo da Vinci wrote: "The roots of the willows prevent the collapse of the embankments of the canals and the branches of the willows, which are placed on the bank and then cut, become dense each year and thus a living bank is obtained from a alone holding”. These techniques were long neglected in favor of heavy protection systems requiring civil engineering. These living environments, which are sometimes more efficient, are endowed with a capacity for self-maintenance and resilience, although they require regular management depending on the situation.

[[Progress of an ecological engineering project]]

The implementation of ecological engineering projects involves many skills; from consultation with economic and social actors to the ecological monitoring of the project, including its design and implementation. A classic operation begins with consulting and strategic support activities, followed by stages of diagnostic studies, definition of actions, work, monitoring, management and finally promotion of the approach through communication. These activities involve naturalists, biodiversity advisers, workers and specialized technicians around the pivot that is the ecological engineer.

Ecological engineering considers all the dimensions of the ecosystem: flora, fauna, fungal, bacteriological, soil, biogeochemical, geological processes and also human societies. To act on all these living processes, the ecological engineer uses a wide variety of techniques. For example, he will use plant engineering, sometimes called bio-engineering or biological engineering, and many other techniques that can replace traditional civil engineering techniques.

Ecological engineering aims to reconcile economy and ecology. Indeed, since its objective is to promote the resilience of the ecosystem, ecological engineering must take into account the human activities present, an integral part of the ecosystem. The activity of the sector is therefore at the center of the interrelationships between humanity and biodiversity, and develops in relation with all the economic sectors. The activity of ecological engineering then consists of supporting professionals in development, agriculture and even industry, real estate and urban planning to work on the compatibility between human activities and living systems.

Thus the success of an ecological engineering project is measured by two criteria: by social acceptance and the involvement of local residents and users in the project and by a scientific evaluation. The latter is done on the basis of the monitoring of indicators, in particular bioindicators, which vary according to the biogeographical context, the surface area of ​​the site and the objective of the operations. Ecologists mainly rely on a few species deemed to be bioindicators to assess and, if necessary, correct the operations carried out.

[[Techniques and applications]]

Ecological engineering techniques can be implemented in connection with all kinds of human activities when they have an impact on the ecosystem and its functioning, which is very broad: management of natural areas, land use planning , urban planning, farming, economic activity... Depending on the objective, the interventions can be separated into four: management, restoration, creation or integration of the activity into the ecosystem. This distribution is not exclusive but allows an overview of the many applications of ecological engineering.

[[Environment management]]

Environmental managers use ecological engineering when their objective is to increase biodiversity, stabilize it or halt its decline. Indeed, certain natural processes have now disappeared and only human intervention can compensate for this lack and prevent the disappearance of certain environments and certain species. From natural environments to urban spaces via agricultural areas, the ecological engineer will then recommend, in connection with the uses, the interventions to be carried out to promote biodiversity. Here are some examples :

1) maintenance in an open state by crushing, mowing or clearing, depending on the plant communities present;

2) differentiated management to diversify environments or preserve existing diversity;

3) weeding in order, for example, to limit the proliferation of exotic species or to reduce the eutrophication of a wetland;

4) eco-grazing, to preserve the openness of the environment in the long term thanks to herbivores such as horses, sheep or cattle, or even the beaver or the  elk which can be used in the case of grassland or humid environments.

For the first three points, slash management is decisive. If these are exported, the environment is depleted of organic matter which, in some cases, favors the enrichment of biodiversity.

[[Management of aquatic environments and flood risk prevention]]

The GEMAPI competence, which came into force on January 1, 2018, today calls on local authorities to implement innovative solutions allowing flood prevention to be combined with the integrated management of aquatic environments. Nature-based solutions, based on the use of ecological and vegetal engineering works, complementary to civil engineering works, can respond to the cross issues of flood prevention and restoration of environments by providing ecological added value. .

For Freddy Rey, INRAE ​​expert in ecological engineering: "Combined with recent innovations in the field of ecological engineering, we can now propose the following standard actions:

1) re-meander the watercourse and/or let it wander to dissipate its energy;

2) allow the watercourse the possibility of eroding its banks in the areas least vulnerable to flooding;

3) develop flood expansion areas, including the use of riparian wetlands, to allow the watercourse to overflow;

4) combine civil engineering and plant engineering at the level of the banks, sometimes using wooden structures (vegetated boxes for example), and ensuring that woody plants and their large roots do not destabilize any nearby protection works (e.g.: a dike at the top of the bank);

5) plant the banks of waterways to limit the speed of the current, protect them and create a green belt;

6) revegetate the slopes of the basin to reduce and slow down runoff;

7) revegetate the beds of eroded gullies (barriers and fillings on wooden thresholds, fascines, hedges, etc.) to reduce the input of fine sediments into the rivers".


The ecological engineer also works on agricultural areas. He can then propose a new management of the farm better adapted to the functioning of the ecosystem. In this case, he is inspired by permaculture techniques.

The farmer can promote biodiversity to assist the productivity of the agrosystem and guarantee their stability over time in the face of external disturbances. Different biological or ecological processes linked to biodiversity can be intensified: enhancing the diversity and activity of soil micro-organisms for the benefit of plants, associating and bringing together various species, using different families and strata of vegetation, ecologically regulating the crop pests via their natural enemies, etc. It can also act on the cycles of organic matter and nutrients to improve the productivity of agrosystems with low input use thanks to the good management of organic resources, and therefore of the nutrient and energy flows they induce. It is then possible to intervene at several levels: strengthening the interactions between livestock and agriculture to preserve natural resources, restoring the biological life of the soil through specific organic inputs, feeding the plant locally.

Finally, water management is a determining factor, especially in dry areas, where the resource is limited and irregular. Management can be improved in several ways: adapting the crop to erratic rains or the risk of drought, conserving water at plot level by limiting runoff, taking into account the essential role that trees play on the soil and water in dry areas...

[[Restoration of the ecosystem or ecological functionalities]]

The last World Conference on Biodiversity, held in Nagoya in 2010, stated that it was necessary by 2020 to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems in addition to conservation policies (15th Aichi target).

Ecological engineering takes advantage of the ecological resilience capacity of ecosystems to restore environments and ecological functions:

1) earthworks, import of materials (rocks, sands) for the restoration of environments, soils, waterways;

2) use of the morphological functionalities of plants to naturally restore eroded environments and/or protect against natural risks, planting species with extensive root systems for the sustainable restoration of degraded soils, the stabilization of slopes, banks, dunes or coastlines;

3) depollution processes using plants or bacteria, for example to treat materials from mines with heavy metals (chemolithotrophic bacteria), oil spills (organotrophic bacteria), water purification or waste degradation;

4) opening up the environment by uprooting or felling to diversify habitats;

5) soil management: stripping (stripping) to promote biodiversity, reconstitution of soil by displacement of mineral matter, biomass or litter, rehabilitation of technosol;

6) transfer of species or habitats in order to reconstitute the minimum conditions of resilience of the environment: restocking, repopulation, restoration of algae from phanerogam beds in the marine environment, stabilization of mudflats by a bed of mussels, etc.

[Creation of a functional ecosystem]

The creation of an ecosystem occurs when the environment is too degraded to be restored or when the diversification of habitats is deemed necessary by the ecological engineer in coherence with the local social, economic and environmental context. In the land area, this may concern the creation of a complete environment such as buffer zones for water purification, ponds, embankments, hedges, etc. or the creation of habitat elements for animals: hibernacula, nest boxes, insect hotel, lodges. In the marine environment, the ecological engineer can request the establishment of habitats in the underwater port area or in the intertidal zone, with the creation of artificial reefs in a port, a dyke or other coastal protection devices, by integrating, for example, filtering species (mussels, oysters). In agricultural environments, ecological engineering techniques by adding organic matter are being tested in the French West Indies to clean up soil contaminated with chlordecone.

[[Integration of human activity into the ecosystem]]

Techniques for the management, restoration and creation of natural environments are used for the ecological integration of developments and infrastructures. Ecological engineering then puts in place urban, agricultural, hydraulic or forestry developments integrated into the ecosystem, where previously civil engineering used concrete or sheet piling more willingly. Ecological engineering offers solutions inspired by nature and makes it possible to increase the ecological permeability of structures and reduce the ecological footprint by strongly limiting the withdrawals from natural resources and by promoting the use of eco-friendly materials. compatible. Resource reuse techniques can also be related to ecological engineering by their desire to reduce the use of non-renewable natural resources, such as ecological sanitation.

In concrete terms, these techniques aim to promote ecological connectivity and the integration of development into the functioning of the ecosystem. Ecological continuities are improved with the creation of ecoduct-type crossing structures associated with wildlife channeling devices: embankments, hedges, ditches42... The ecological integration of buildings is ensured thanks to the consideration of their influence, their surroundings, and the enhancement of the structures themselves. Green roofs and green walls are thus gaining importance since the integration of biodiversity in the environmental standards of buildings such as HQE or BREEAM and tend to interest architects and interior designers, and no longer only road developers or of banks.

Ecological integration can also be carried out on scales greater than a simple development site. The actors of ecological engineering thus support professionals to think about the compatibility of their company's activity with the functioning of the ecosystem and even to work at the level of the economic model of the territory, or even the country. This can concentrate all economic sectors, even the most above ground.

[[Adaptive management]]

The adaptive management of an environment or a species is an iterative method which consists in adapting the management measures according to the evolution of its conservation status. This notion is particularly used for hunting management43. Its application in France is criticized by nature conservation associations.

[[French actors]]

French ecological engineering players have come together in different networks:

1) Researchers from public research establishments, such as INRAE ​​(ex-Irstea) and the CNRS, who work on the issue have created two specialized networks in recent years: Gaié, the Group of actors in ecological engineering, and Rever46, the Network exchanges and promotion in restoration ecology.

2) Ecologists have been brought together individually since 1979 within the AFIE, the French Association of Ecological Engineers.

3) In 2008, companies created the UPGE, the Professional Union of Ecological Engineering, which saw its work of federating actors confirmed in 2012 by the Ministry of Ecology. The UPGE launched the standardization work which led to the publication of the NF X10-900 standard in 2012.

In 2015, these actors created an Ecological Engineering Resource Center48 now run by the French Agency for Biodiversity (AFB) to capitalize on and share the know-how and best practices of public and private actors in the field. The objectives are multiple: to improve continuing education, to promote the emergence of new tools & methods and to facilitate the work of professionals both upstream of the sector, diagnosis and work, and downstream, evaluation and feedback. This platform complements the existing Green and Blue Grid Resource Center.

LifeSys was also created at the end of 2016, a collaboration of several leading structures of French ecological engineering in order to respond to complex national and international issues in terms of ecological engineering.


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