Q: What is urban marine ecology?

Urban marine ecology is a subdiscipline of ecology that is relatively new. Unlike urban terrestrial ecology, which has been evolving over several decades, urban marine ecology is in its infancy. The discipline was first formally mentioned in the academic literature in the mid 2000s, and currently is studied by a small number of researchers (30-40 people) globally. Given the limited attention urban marine environments have received historically, they remain a mysterious frontier in ecological science, with more exciting discoveries every year. The “Science” page of this site is intended to summarize the major themes emerging from recent research in urban marine ecology.

Q: People in coastal cities have been looking at the sea for millenia! Why do we know so little about urban marine ecosystems?

Indeed, there’s a long history of the sea being an integral part of urban life in coastal cities, be it for transportation, commerce, recreation, or simply as a source of beauty, inspiration, and connection to nature. But looking “at” is not the same as looking “under” or “within.” We only developed the means to freely explore underwater habitats (SCUBA) within the last century, and for the most part, we applied that technology first to exploring more pristine environments like kelp forests, coral reefs, and remote islands. At this point, we’ve explored amazingly little of the underwater seascapes that are right at our back doorstep, in coastal cities. What we have explored suggests that urban marine environments can be surprisingly diverse. Sometimes that most surprising and impressive things are those that were right under your nose all along, where you never thought to look.

Q: But aren’t urban waterways devoid of life?

Not at all! In fact, they support an impressive diversity of marine organisms, from large predators like sea lions and octopus, to tiny filter feeders like clams and sea squirts that are essential for processing pollutants. This is not to take away from the current need to improve habitat quality and curb habitat degradation in coastal cities. The point of this website is to freely share resources and information that can help us change the way we design and build waterfronts and waterfront structures so as to maintain and enhance native marine biodiversity in urban areas.

Q: Is it possible to restore urban marine ecosystems to their pre-industrial state?

Not restore — enhance. Urban marine environments are seascapes of our own making, that support marine assemblages we have facilitated over decades through a myriad of environmental changes. It is probably well beyond our current brain power to fully understand our effect on these ecosystems and beyond our terraforming skills to reverse engineer urban marine ecosystems to their pre-industrial state. But we can enhance them through ecological engineering and sound science.

Q: What is ecological engineering?

Marine ecological engineering is an approach to shoreline development that is informed by ecology and consistent with both development and conservation goals. Ecologically engineered structures are constructed both to meet engineering requirements and enhance the quality of habitats for marine organisms. Much of the ecological engineering research that has been performed to date focuses on seawalls, though ecological enhancements have been developed for subtidal habitats and other shoreline structures as well.