Water is a fundamental component intricately interwoven with the fabric of our ecosystems, communities, and civilizations. As we grapple with the profound implications of climate change, urbanization, and unsustainable practices, the imperative to reimagine our relationship with water has never been more pressing. A key strategist in this pivotal paradigm shift is Erin English, a visionary leader in the field of Integrated Water Strategies. With a unique blend of expertise in chemical and environmental engineering, Erin embodies a passionate commitment to fostering innovation, sustainability, and ecological stewardship in water infrastructure planning and design.

Bioneers caught up with Erin to discuss her work, favorite projects, and vision for ecological restoration.

BIONEERS: Drawing from your extensive experience in studying water systems and their interconnectedness with other systems, what key message would you prioritize for audiences to grasp about water overall?

ERIN ENGLISH, PRACTICE LEADER AT BIOHABITATS: I feel like the little bit of time I spent at Standing Rock really elevated the call that water is life. And that’s it. That is the essence of what everyone needs to know about water. Although that is a deceptively simple statement, it is a lifetime of study to come to discover how that can be used in our lives in a way that honors that fact.

BIONEERS: Could you elaborate on the transition you experienced when shifting from the extractive engineering focus typically offered to another engineering focus?

ERIN: I did study chemical engineering in college by conscious choice. I did not know when I signed up for that that it was so focused on oil and what you do with oil. I did not realize chemical engineering was actually birthed from taking oil and turning it into the millions of things that we use it for. Although I was studying chemical engineering, I had no illusions nor intentions to ever actually be a chemical engineer. However, I had to endure the educational process and the realization that certain aspects of that field did not align with my interests.

In the mid-1990s, when I was in college, the environmental engineering program did not seem quite strong enough to me. The chemical engineering program had a stronger basis in science, and I was able to choose to study fuels and energy so that I knew how to undermine that work, move around it, or work with it. So it was a little bit of a pathway of resistance, arming myself with the knowledge of the chemical processing industry, the fuel processing industry, the oil and gas industry, polymers and plastics.

I was unsure at that time which environmental direction I would take it, but I had intended to be in the environmental field for the whole time. That was my plan.

When I met biologist and ecological designer Dr. John Todd in college, I had an opening to work directly with him as a student and to go to some lectures. Dr. Todd brought a very basic, profound statement: When you allow life the opportunity to organize itself and to introduce bacteria and microorganisms to a pollutant in a controlled, safe way, they will adapt, and that system will grow, that system will evolve, and it will essentially engineer itself.

That was the moment when I found what it was I wanted to do with my very convenient process engineering background. I wanted to be able to move toward the biological, creating the systems and the opportunities for ecology and biology to create themselves.

The profound shift that I had in discovering the work of John Todd was that if you build it, they will come. If you create the space, allow the time, and create the conditions conducive to life, organisms can arrange themselves in a way to help us with the problems that we have to solve. 

As an engineer, I saw that as mostly a one-way street: They will help us. But as I’ve grown up and had more opportunities to understand the systems, I’ve learned that we have the potential as communities to be in more reciprocal relationships. When we’re designing ecological water systems, we can uplift habitat for other creatures. We can create spaces that are not only cleaning water but that are also drawing in a diversity of pollinators and that are becoming spaces for birds and for refuge.

From my perspective, some of the greatest potential of ecological engineering is in a co-creative process where we are designing for non-humans of all sorts – plants, animals, bacteria – and welcoming them back into urban settings or places where they might not have had a refuge.

BIONEERS: Can you give us an example of when that co-creation with life has really excited you?

ERIN: One of the more co-creative projects that I’ve had the honor to be involved with is the transformation of an old, outdated, and abandoned wastewater treatment plant outside of Portland, Oregon, called Fern Hill Treatment Wetlands in Forest Grove. They had abandoned their 90 acres of treatment lagoons, which are a bit of an outdated technology. They had built a more modern wastewater treatment plant, but the water from that treatment plant was too warm to discharge right into the river, which was supporting cold water fish.

They had the option to invest a lot of money, energy, electricity, and carbon into a chiller, which is a big machine that cools water and has a very large energy footprint. Or they had the idea of putting those 90 acres to work as a treatment wetland that was re-engineered to cool the water before it went to the river.

The studies were done, and we modeled to make sure that the temperature could be reduced reliably. We also recognized that we had a massive bird population, some of which had already been coming to these lagoons. We had an active community who wanted access to paths that they had already self-created around some of these lagoons. We wanted to be able to enhance and buffer the effluent from the wastewater plant to also remove more nutrients, metals, and contaminates of emerging concern that can cause harm if released back into the river. 

Through this project, we were able to re-contour, redesign, and plant millions of native species in 90 acres of wetland ponds and create different habitats.

This is now the only wastewater treatment plant that I know of that has a TripAdvisor page. And when you go to the TripAdvisor page for the Fern Hill Wetland, the quotes are all about, “I come here to meditate,” “I love this bird sanctuary,” “I come here because it’s peaceful and quiet, and this is a place for humans and birds,” and it’s also a place for wastewater to be transformed and buffered before it’s returned.

BIONEERS: Can you tell us what the term “biophilic” means, as in “biophilic design”?

ERIN: Biophilic is a term, for me, that means recognizing and honoring our connection to the natural world and welcoming it back. Biophilia as a concept has emerged in different forms, and there are different formal definitions, but they almost all relate to this idea of humans’ innate affiliation with nature and with other forms of life. There’s mention of a natural pleasure that we receive from being surrounded by living organisms and by nature.

The use of biophilia and the understanding of how to integrate it into design is called biophilic design. Only recently have I seen biophilic design included in conversations within the design world. 

Most people who have a background in landscape architecture or environmental design, or in environmental engineering or science, have knowledge of this, because many of the projects that we’re working with have elements of nature associated with them. So the beauty of it is it’s not a big leap for most designers to make. I believe even architects happen to lead with biophilic design often because they’re integrating these connections with nature into the buildings themselves.

It’s really important to understand that biophilia and biophilic design are completely democratic, available, and decentralized for everyone. There is no special skill or even real training that you need to be able to use biophilic design. It’s something that we all have in us. I’m really drawn to it because it can’t be claimed by any one firm or any one discipline.

BIONEERS: Where are you making an effort to prioritize biophilic design?

ERIN: I plan to start with my own staff and team. As a firm, we have a mission around restoring the Earth and inspiring stewardship. It’s always good practice for us to check back in with our team to make sure that we’re remembering what it is that we’re doing when we’re in the midst of consulting and design. That biophilic design check-in with our own team will help us embed the work at the ground level with these projects.

We also have the great fortune of doing a lot of work within the Living Building Challenge and the community of owners, clients, designers, and teams who are yearning for projects that are profound in how they affect the people who use them. 

BIONEERS: All obstacles aside, what is your vision for ecological restoration broadly?

ERIN: My hope and intention for the ecological restoration realm, or, as some people call it, the restoration economy, is to help people see that everything we do is already dependent upon natural systems. Everything we have comes from natural systems and from the Earth. We must recognize that we can only push those systems to such limits. We are already seeing the consequences of that disconnection.

Right now there is an opportunity to highlight the fact that restoring our ecosystems happens to be one of our main tools for addressing the climate crisis. Although technology and ingenuity will contribute, realigning ourselves and redirecting our energies toward restoring our natural infrastructure is one of the best climate solutions, and to me, that’s tremendously exciting.

The benefit of doing that carries so many other benefits. It helps with re-wilding. It helps bring nature back into our urban spaces. It helps people feel more connected to the benefits of being close to living systems. From a water perspective, restoring natural infrastructure and using ecological engineering to do that allows us to filter and clean water while restoring wilder wetland spaces, by reducing the amount of energy and carbon it takes to treat water and re-imagining how our gray infrastructure.

BIONEERS: Could you share any insights about addressing the substantial impact of industrial agriculture in the United States? Are there any specific projects or initiatives you’re involved in or aware of that aim to restore these systems and foster life within depleted areas?

ERIN: While we wait for what I hope to be the transition to a fully regenerative agricultural system, we need bridges to provide refuge and corridors for creatures and buffers for managing water. Although I don’t think we will have a clean Mississippi or intact wildlife corridors until we transform the agricultural system, I do think there are some interim bridging techniques that ecologists and others have created to identify the high-value habitats and ensure they aren’t destroyed. They’re also finding ways to connect them to more of themselves and finding places to target our restoration dollars and energies so that those corridors can be put into place as interim measures.

Although I’m absolutely a proponent of managing water wisely and providing opportunities and safety for wildlife, we have to be very careful. There’s not a lot of ecological knowledge within the design community yet. We hope to be an honest voice that reflects what’s feasible and pushes for projects that have more capacity to be meaningful.

The post Navigating the Waters of Ecological Innovation: A Conversation with Erin English on Integrated Water Strategies and Biophilic Design appeared first on Bioneers.

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