By Megan Rippy, Gregory Pierce, David Feldman, Brandon Winfrey, Andrew Mehring, Patricia Holden, Richard Ambrose and Lisa Levin
Combatting global challenges related to climate, plant and animal diversity, and human health and wellbeing requires us to re-envision urban infrastructure. There is growing consensus that this new vision must embrace elements inspired by nature (i.e., natural treatment systems) that rely on natural processes to generate services that benefit society (so-called ecosystem services).
The variety of challenges natural treatment systems must address mean they must be designed as multi-use spaces. Because the values and biases of designers shape final infrastructure outcomes, it is important to understand the perspectives the next generation of designers have about these spaces. What ecosystem services do they value, do they presently associate these services with natural treatment systems, and why or why not?
This study aims to answer these questions, starting with engineering students because engineers are often involved in the early stages of natural treatment system design in the U.S. We evaluate engineering student perspectives about the services provided by natural treatment systems and other green spaces (lawns, gardens, and plant assemblages that occur naturally) across four universities in Southern California, U.S. Our results suggest that student perspectives are influenced by their culture, knowledge about stormwater management, views about safeguarding the environment, and attitudes about the relative value of ecosystem services.
We find that that engineering students appear to view natural treatment systems and other green spaces as capable of providing multiple services, but share no consensus about the kinds of services natural treatment systems perform well. Although students are generally aware of how natural treatment systems might be used to manage stormwater, they are less familiar with their built appearance, how they are integrated with other green spaces in cities, and how they function, making it difficult to link natural treatment systems to services. Expertise from urban planning and ecology could help bridge these knowledge gaps, improving the capacity of tomorrow’s engineers to design natural treatment systems (in collaboration with other disciplines) as multi-use spaces, moving towards a new vision for infrastructure in cities that incorporates principles and processes from nature.