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Growth and Consumption: the Built and Natural Environments

Growth and Consumption: the Built and Natural Environments

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By Luke Carothers

As the designers of the built environment, the AEC industry has long struggled to define its relationship with its inevitable partner: the natural environment.  For the majority of human history, this partnership was heavily sided towards the natural environment.  Through the years however, humans developed new techniques and structures that could not only shelter humans from the power of the natural world, but harness small portions of its processes to fuel further growth and development.  

Early farmers developed ways to harness natural flooding cycles to improve their crops and support more robust and sustainable agricultural practices.  This and subsequent advances allowed human populations to grow and thrive in new ways.  By 300 BCE, the first large-scale environmental engineering projects began taking place.  On the Italian peninsula, the Roman Civilization constructed their first aqueduct and began developing a sophisticated system of sewers and plumbing.  These infrastructure developments were among the first to stray beyond harnessing a portion of the natural world into actually shaping those forces.  

In the case of the Roman Civilization, the ability to redirect and focus the flow of water over great distances via aqueducts not only provided a healthier population, it also affected local ecology.  The introduction of agriculture into regions where it was previously unsupported in any large scale expanded our ability to cultivate crops and increased the ability to support plant life.  Romans were also able to move water on a local level, constructing a sewer system in the capital city that drained water from surrounding marshes to carry waste from the city into the Tiber river.

Over the next two thousand years, civilization strove to maintain this relationship between the natural and built environments–in which the breadth of human ingenuity was confined by the bounds of a natural process.  However, as cities and settlements grew larger and larger, this balance shifted as the natural processes we harnessed for thousands of years could no longer support the rate of population growth.  By the middle of the 19th century, three cities had grown to populations of over one million: London, Beijing, and Paris.  As a result of the inability to safely dispose of waste, citizens of cities like London faced significant health hazards in the form of noxious gas, undrinkable water, and repeated outbreaks of diseases like cholera.  Itself an ancient city, London had long relied upon the river Thames to dispose of their waste.  After centuries of use as an open sewer, the Thames was in terrible shape, frequently breeding and emitting bacteria that caused rampant disease amongst the population.  

The City of London responded by constructing the world’s first modern sewage system, which markedly improved the lives of London residents and improved the ecological health of the Thames and North Sea.  To achieve this feat of  constructing the 100-miles of sewers that formed the original system, engineers found an easy solution: converting existing Thames tributaries into parts of the system.  As such, these rivers, while they served a new purpose, had been “lost” from an ecological perspective.  This represents a defining moment in modern humanity’s relationship with the natural world.  By removing these elements from the natural environment and placing them entirely in the built environment, humanity had shifted its relationship with the natural environment to one of consumption.

Provided the tools and technology available, this shift towards a consumption relationship between the built and natural environments was humanity’s way of continuing its natural growth path.  And, certainly, it was this shift in our relationship with the natural environment that fueled influential moments in human history such as the Industrial Revolution.  However, more than a century and a half of this relationship has severely diminished the natural half.  This has had severe consequences for the natural systems that have supported human life since its beginning.

Nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century these natural systems have declined to the point that they can no longer function in a way that supports human growth.  Places like the Mississippi River Delta, which serves a vital role in absorbing the energy of hurricanes and tropical storms as well as countless other functions, are shrinking rapidly because of direct human interaction with the natural environment.  Countless similar stories are unfolding throughout the world.

Just as engineers from Rome, London, and countless other examples throughout history have done, the AEC industry is leading the way to a newer, more sustainable relationship between the natural and built environments.  Using the tools and technologies available, AEC professionals are now more capable than ever before of understanding the environmental impact of their projects and shaping them in a way that is less harmful to natural systems.  In doing so, the AEC industry is not simply reducing environmental harm but rather redefining humanity’s way of interacting with the natural world.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.