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The promise of the ecosystem services concept for planning and decision-making.

Spatial planning is often affected by conflicting sectoral interests. Frequently, this results in unsustainable management practices. Integrating the concept of ecosystem services into planning and decision-making can facilitate communication among decision-makers from sectors like landscape and urban planning, agriculture or water management. The concept accounts for a broad spectrum of quantitative and qualitative data from local to international level, thus revealing the benefits humans derive from ecosystem goods and functions. We propose that the concept of ecosystem services can complement existing policy instruments that focus solely on a specific task or sectoral interest.

The concept of ecosystem services (ES) is gaining increasing recognition in politics, and decision-makers are beginning to integrate knowledge about ES into policy-making processes, management and planning. A case in point is the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 that links ES to concrete aims (European Commission 2011): the strategy requires that "Member States (...) will map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services in their national territory by 2014, assess the economic value of such services, and promote the integration of these values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national level by 2020" (European Commission 2011, p. 12). In Germany, the implementation of the strategy has already begun: researchers are developing an initial set of indicators and mapping approaches for selected ES at the national level using currently available data (Naturkapital Deutschland--TEEB DE 2012, p. 50). These efforts have prompted the more general question regarding the benefits of the ES concept in planning and decision-making processes, especially against the background of existing approaches which currently support planning and decision-making. (1)

Ecosystem Services for Improved Decision-Making

Notwithstanding some justified caveats (e. g., Jax et al. 2013), ES is a unifying concept that helps to understand, define and conceptualise more clearly the links between human well-being and the state of ecosystems with the aim of improving decision-making in nature conservation. It draws on a "language" that can be understood and used in very different contexts. The concept can be used, for example, to facilitate communication among decision-makers from different sectors (nature conservation, water management, landscape and urban planning, agriculture and forestry) as well as from different spatial units (from the European down to the local level). A shared ES concept makes it possible to formulate common questions, criteria and methods. It also integrates values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national level across the different sectors. In particular, such a joint approach facilitates communication across the different scientific disciplines required to address the complex problems relating to the sustainable use of ecosystems and their services. The interplay between the knowledge required and the knowledge available to solve real world problems--i. e., exchange at the science-policy interface--would also benefit greatly from a joint, transdisciplinary approach (Jahn et al. 2012).

Implementing the ES concept enables decisions to be made on the basis of ecosystems' capacity to provide services while also taking into account different preferences for particular services in environmental planning and decision-making. Showing that humans benefit from and depend on nature can also help when putting forward additional arguments for those conservation measures that have been regarded so far as having value only in relation to the intrinsic value of nature itself, e.g., grassland conservation. In this context it could be beneficial to adopt the ES concept not only to help conserve grassland for its rare herbs but also to show its contribution towards providing drinking water for humans and its positive role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Ecosystem Services in Landscape Planning

The implementation of the ES concept into European policy-making via the EUBiodiversity Strategy to 2020 necessitates its use at both national and regional levels. However, many member states have already well-established governance mechanisms and policy instruments in place. For example, the German approach to landscape planning uses the concept of "landscape functions". This refers to the capacities of landscapes to meet human needs (von Haaren and Albert 2011). While landscape planning is interpreted in various ways across Europe, the key task of German landscape planning is to render spatially specific the nature conservation objectives on EU, national and state level. German landscape planning assesses the state of a landscape and provides strategic planning proposals for safeguarding, enhancing or restoring the capacities of landscapes to provide landscape functions (or ES). It thus focuses on the ES supply side. Present and future demand for ES--who needs or wants what kind of ES, in what quantity, now and/or in the future--can to some extent be derived from general objectives as stated in politically authorised regulations and directives such as the German Nature Conservation Act or the Water Framework Directive (D 2000/60/EC). The ES concept explicitly addresses both the supply and demand side. Analysis of the demand side focuses on markets and prices whenever the service in question relates to marketed goods (as in the case of many provisioning services such as the local provision of freshwater) or global costs (e. g., costs of damage per ton CO2). In other cases (e. g., soil erosion, flood control, most cultural services) only a spatially explicit analysis of the demand side can deliver sufficient information to identify, say, supply-demand mismatches across regions and scales as well as their changes over time (Burkhard et al. 2012). Such spatially explicit assessments, however, still pose considerable challenges, as many ES display complex flow patterns (e. g., the ES provided in one area are con sumed in another). Especially in the case of cultural ES (e.g., landscape aesthetics), whole arrangements of various ecosystem components as well as people's divergent perceptions and demands have to be considered.

Nevertheless analysing the demand side in more detail on the basis of individual preferences could certainly strengthen the position of landscape planning. In many cases, requirements set out by current plans are often not binding. Instead, they are only one source of sectoral information which is brought together and weighed against other sectoral interests in the process of spatial planning. A stronger integration of the ES approach in German landscape planning could therefore have several benefits (Albert et al. 2012): it could strengthen the argument in favour of landscape planning requirements by taking account of a broader spectrum of services, by providing quantitative estimates and tradeoff analyses, and, in particular, by demonstrating the importance of demand for ES based on studies of stakeholder interests, preferences and values.

Appropriate Valuation Methods

Only what is needed, required, or valued by humans can be called an ecosystem service (Jax 2010). This does not mean that applying the ES concept always implies attaching a specific quantitative or even monetary value (see e. g., Jax et al. 2013)--ES are often used in a qualitative manner to raise awareness or to broaden the range of arguments and issues.

Generally speaking, preference-based methods for valuing ES can be divided into economic methods and techniques rooted in the social and political sciences (TEEB 2010). Both are very rarely applied in decision-making on natural assets and ecosystem services in Germany. Economic methods include market analysis, cost-based approaches, revealed (e. g., travel costs) or stated preference methods (e. g., contingent valuation such as willingness to pay) (Grunewald et al. 2012).Techniques from other social sciences include discourse-based methods such as group valuation, deliberative valuation and participatory approaches. Remarkable progress has been made recently in, among others, the field of cultural ES valuation (see Gee and Burkhard 2010, Schaich et al. 2010, Oteros-Rozas et al. 2012, Plieninger et al. 2013). However, methods for assessing cultural and also intrinsic values have not yet become well-established, although such methods are promising, especially in relation to local decision-making processes. Much could be learned from interdisciplinary research. Schaich et al. (2010) suggest learning from cultural landscape research, including human geography, landscape ecology and spatial planning, because in these disciplines the investigation of non-material landscape values has a long tradition.

Another highly challenging issue is how to handle and manage the wide variety of ES and their associated trade-offs, as economic methods are not suitable for valuing all relevant services in a comprehensive way (Ring et al. 2010). Multi-criteria analysis, in which a range of different criteria are used to assess the consequences of different options for decision-making, can be used as a tool for estimating trade-offs and synergies between different land uses. (2) However, while the impact of, e. g., agricultural food production on water purification has been amply investigated (e. g., Maes et al. 2013), challenges remain concerning other relations between ES.

Basic requirements for the use of methods such as expert groups, representative focus groups or deliberative approaches--besides biophysical and economic valuation--should be standardised to allow for commensurable outcomes as a prerequisite for further application and integration into planning processes. However, especially in cases where a particular problem or conflict needs to be solved at regional or local level, manifest relevance and acceptance of methods by the stakeholders involved may be more important than standards.

Beyond Spatial Planning

The concept of ES can promote policy-making in, among others, spatial planning and decision-making, including landscape planning, environmental impact assessment, and strategic environmental assessment. Moreover, the concept could systematically check the coherence of policy goals, as a case study from Germany shows: financial support for bioenergy derived from biomass has been implemented to accomplish the transition to renewable energy. The associated incentives are a strong driver for land-use change, giving rise to a large number of trade-offs with other ES, such as large-scale food production, landscape aesthetics and freshwater supply from groundwater resources (see figure). The ES concept could be used to cross-check policy goals for contradictions and their impacts for coherence and unwanted side effects (Hauck et al. 2013). (3)

With regard to the private sector, business can take on certain responsibilities. For example, the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) has been discussed as a tool for integrating the concept of ES into corporate management strategy (Sommerhauser 2012). The card lists criteria against which the consequences arising from a company's activities are controlled and monitored. The non-profit water management company Emschergenossenschaft/Lippeverband (4) has already included ES into its BSC system, serving as an instrument in their continuous improvement processes. The BSC monitors several of the company's activities with special regard to river restoration. Three sectors are monitored: 1. biodiversity, represented by the number of species in restored rivers, 2. cultural services, represented by the additional kilometres of new cycle paths alongside restored streams, and 3. regulating services, measured by the increase of new green areas for carbon fixation located next to restored water bodies (Sommerhauser 2012). In sum, the concept of ES can be used not only to monitor the environmental impacts of production and management activities but also to provide guidance along value chains in the transition towards greater sustainability.

The Need of Robust Data, Indicators and Models

Obtaining sufficient and accurate data on the capacities of ecosystems, their services, individual preferences, demand and values, is not only crucial at the local and regional level where most decisions on land-use change, infrastructure and development are taken. Special requirements also arise in the context of ecosystem accounting (Haines-Young et al. 2012), be it in the form of biophysical accounts or the integration of economic values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national level, as requested by the EUBiodiversity Strategy to 2020. There is a need for robust relevant data, reliable and standardised indicators and, not least, models capable of predicting shifts arising from different kinds of land-use changes. These are important in relation to both the biophysical supply side as well as to societal demand. If such data, indicators and models are not commonly accepted and applied, there is a risk that ES accounting will be rendered inaccurate, if not invalid, by incomparable or even contradictory assessments with the result that, rather than being improved, decision-making merely becomes more complicated.

For instance, the basic sources for ecosystem mapping (e. g., Corine Land Cover (5) or the Digital Landscape Models (6)) provide only coarse-resolution spatial and thematic data which ignore the variability of land uses, especially in the agricultural and forestry sectors. Due to methodological inconsistencies and other issues, more detailed data available at a regional scale cannot easily be aggregated at the nationallevel. This poses a severe hindrance to all attempts at monitoring changes in service flows, capacities for delivering services and the degradation of service provision on the national scale. Here the ES concept could provide as well an opportunity to establish common data collection procedures and databases between the different states and administrative levels in Germany.

In addition, an integrated perspective combining experience and information from various scientific and non-scientific bodies of knowledge is needed in order to better understand the demand side of ES. This integrated perspective should be supported by models for a better understanding of the differences between the capacities of ecosystems to supply ES and the demand (Burkhard et al. 2012).


While research has produced a vast amount of knowledge about ES, in many cases this knowledge has not yet been put to use in decision-making regarding ecosystem services. Therefore we suggest an increase of inter- and transdisciplinary research. For example, in order to further develop and harmonise landscape planning for the purpose of integrating ES, we consider it essential for planners, citizens, ecologists, economists and social scientists to work more closely with one another. Such cooperation could enhance the scientific robustness of the ES approach, as it would have to be approved by scholars from different disciplines. Including citizens, planners and other stakeholders from multiple levels in the development of such an approach would ensure its applicability. (7) It would also provide an opportunity to address, at the appropriate level of decision-making, the challenges that arise when the level of ES provision (e. g., local) differs from the level of ES consumption (e. g., national or global).

Alongside the development of appropriate ES indicators, data collection methods and models that reflect the supply, demand and value dimension of ecosystem services, research has to focus additionally on the integration and--where necessary and possible-standardisation of prediction and valuation methods, including the communication of associated uncertainties. Here again, we recommend transdisciplinary research processes to ensure that the methods are useful to stakeholders.

Future research needs to focus on ways of involving different interest groups, including those that represent environmental needs and future demands, and integrate their preferences into decision-making. Specific challenges arise with regard to valuating the broad range of ES that cannot readily be monetised. In addition, the different and often changing preferences of societal groups create huge challenges for decision-making. Decisions made today in favour of preserving ES might not be appropriate for future generations, or the decisions of one interest group may not be appropriate for other societal groups (Hauck et al. 2013).

To sum up, a great deal of effort will have to be invested in order to resolve the considerable ambiguities entailed in methods of ES assessment and to achieve broad-based understanding and consensus on the practical use of the ES concept. However, we believe these efforts will pay off, not simply because they are key to implementing the EUBiodiversity Strategy to 2020 but more importantly because of the unique opportunity they provide to harmonise divergent perspectives on natural resources and to avoid unsustainable management practices.

Keywords: application, ecosystem services, landscape planning, research needs, valuation

Submitted July 8, 2013; revised version accepted October 15, 2013.


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(1) This article describes key results of a workshop held to discuss these issues, organised by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research--UFZ in Leipzig in the context of the initiative Partnership for European Environmental Research--PEER and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) in February 2013. The participants included researchers working in the field of assessing, mapping and evaluating ES, data experts involved in handling the collection, storage and provision of relevant environmental and socio-economic data and planners and decision-makers responsible for overseeing the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.

(2) Gret-Regamey et al. (2013) describe their experiences with 3D-GIS based software in urban planning and show that it is possible to simulate different scenarios of ES provision and to visualise trade-offs in a readily understandable way.

(3) In order to reduce conflicts between planning decisions and economic interests, intergovernmental fiscal transfer systems at federal and state levels could be developed in such a way that nature conservation and an increased provision of ES is rewarded. Those organisations responsible for environmental degradation and a decline of ES should pay for doing so (Ring 2002).



(6) Digital-Landscape-Models/DIM node.html nnn=true

(7) The concept of ecosystem services can also be an instrument for designing better land management policies (see Eppink et al. 2012).

Contact: Dr. Jennifer Hauck | Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research UFZ | Department of Environmental Politics | Permoserstr. 15 | 04318 Leipzig | Germany | Tel.: +49 341 2351932 | E-Mail:

Dr. Burkhard Schweppe-Kraft | Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) | Bonn | Germany | E-Mail:

Jennifer Hauck

Born 1980 in Erlenbach, Germany. Studies in geography, PhD at the University of Bonn. Since 2009 researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research--UFZ. Research areas: participatory scenario development for analysing environmental policy and land-use management; research on ecosystem services in policy and planning contexts.

Burkhard Schweppe-Kraft

Born 1955 in Dortmund, Germany. Studies in economics at the University of Munster. From 1982 to 1987 lecturer and researcher at the Technical University of Berlin.

Since 1992 scientific advisor at the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), now department for legal affairs, economics and ecologically sound regional development.

Since 2007 lecturer in nature conservation economics at Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, Bernburg, Germany
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Title Annotation:FORUM
Author:Hauck, Jennifer; Schweppe-Kraft, Burkhard; Albert, Christian; Gorg, Christoph; Jax, Kurt; Jensen, Ri
Publication:GAIA - Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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