As a natural-area restoration designer in Wisconsin, Collin Smith (BBE ’16) is involved in projects to preserve the state’s wetlands. Wisconsin has lost nearly half of its original 10 million acres.
Photo credit
Savanna Daniels

Designing Greener Spaces

CSE alumnus brings ecological restoration to rural and urban areas 

Ever since he can remember, Wisconsin native Collin Smith (Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering ’16) has been fascinated by the relationship between humans and the environment.

Growing up, he loved the outdoors and became deeply involved in environmental studies in high school.

When it was time to choose a college, he was drawn to the University of Minnesota for its academic rigor and beautiful campus. And while earning his degree at CSE, he furthered his knowledge by pursuing green opportunities on the side, including assisting with bark beetle research for the entomology department, interning as a water resources engineer, and volunteering for Engineers Without Borders (EWB). One of his EWB projects involved creating a rainwater harvesting system in Uganda.

All this experiential learning paved the way for what Smith calls “a dream job” as a natural-area restoration designer at Applied Ecological Services (AES) in Milwaukee, which creates ecologically driven land-use solutions.

Green is in

Since joining AES in 2018, he’s helped plan, design, and manage dozens of Midwestern projects that have a large engineering or landscape design component.

On any given day, he collects and analyzes data, works with key stakeholders to identify and educate them about concerns, and develops and implements solutions. It’s a job that requires a broad skill set, including technical expertise, creative problem solving, and familiarity with local, state, and federal regulations. Smith is more than up to the myriad challenges that come his way

Watershed planning is a particular favorite.

The projects are diverse, from resolving stream instability and flooding issues to preserving wetlands that are habitats for hundreds of native plants, insects, and animals. Smith, who worked as a watershed and sustainability coordinator in Ohio prior to joining AES, also appreciates how collaborative the work is.

“Because watersheds don’t follow city and county borders, a number of entities have to work together to manage water quality,” he said.

These include landscape architects, health and public works departments, regional planning agencies, and agriculture groups. Once consensus is reached and ecological strategies are agreed upon, Smith and his colleagues design, construct, and help maintain the desired infrastructure.

Integrating nature in the city

He’s also quick to say that ecological restoration isn’t limited to rural areas.

Smith currently involved in several projects in Milwaukee, where communities are addressing environmental degradation and climate resiliency, as well as health issues, such as obesity and chronic illness, that are impacted by lack of green space.

“The benefits of integrating nature into urban environments are well-researched and far-reaching,” stated Smith.

For example, when blighted areas are converted to public parks, community gardens, plazas, and multi-use trails, it helps negate urban heat and offset greenhouse gas emission. It also promotes physical activity and social interaction, which helps reduce stress levels and improve health.

Smith anticipates that graduate school is in his future.

“I don’t know if it will be in ecological engineering, urban planning, public health, or something else,” he said. “But I’m a learner, and there are many amazing fields that overlap and many ways to make a difference.”

Written by Jodi Auvin

Read about CSE alumnus Michael Overcash's work with mapping industrial chemicals in "Mapping the Other Genome."

Read about CSE alumna Stella Mandago job working as an energy advisor for African Development Bank in "Empowering Africa."