Ecosystem services are benefits that humans receive from the functioning of ecosystems regardless of their level of human alteration. The ecosystem services framework includes direct provisioning (food, fibre, fresh water) and cultural services (education, well-being, spiritual inspiration, etc), as well as those that enable them, such as regulation (of erosion, climate, disease, pollination, etc.) and supporting processes such as nutrient cycling, soil formation and primary production.  Recently, increasing attention has focused on the importance of ecosystem services to sustain human societies, resulting in calls for increased consideration and protection of ecosystems that sustain services amidst human activities, especially for those that must be generated at the same site where the benefit is accrued – for example, pollination. Not all services can co-exist in the same place at the same time: managing ecosystem services, like all management, involves trade-offs.

There is little argument that the ‘invisible hand’ of nature provides benefits for humans. Less clear is the utility of the ecosystem services framework and its current vogues of application, such as monetary valuation of those services. At the same time as the use of the framework expands from academe into decision-making settings some scholars are starting to question its use. Some examine its underlying rationale, asking how human quality of life can be improving if ecosystem integrity is simultaneously degrading. Others question the application, asking if there is any evidence that the use of the framework has led to better decisions.

This research will use urban systems and planning as a case study to explore the following questions:

  • Does it work for managers? Is there a strong business case for ecosystem services as a management principle? Do the benefits for managers of functioning ecosystems outweigh costs or lost opportunities? Does consideration of a wider range of outcomes for a given management option fit well into current decision-making settings?
  • How might it be used better? What role, if any, should monetary valuation play in the use of ecosystem services to drive decision-making? Does quantification help or is the framework more useful as a checklist or heuristic? Can qualitative assessments be helpful in practical settings?
  • Does the principle hold? What are the aggregate environmental and public good outcomes of individual managers making decisions using ecosystem service principles? Does its application result in a net gain in ecosystem integrity and human well-being?

Research output

Thompson, K., Duinker, P., & Sherren, K. (2016, December). Ecosystem services: a new framework for old ideas? Poster presented at A Community on Ecosystem Services (ACES) Conference, Jacksonville FL. 

Research trainees

Kate Thompson works doing advising and undergraduate teaching in the Dalhousie School of Planning, and is enrolled in an IDPhD at Dalhousie on this topic, co-supervised by me and SRES colleague Peter Duinker.