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Current frameworks to assess human-nature relationships are too simplified and risk compromise human dependence on nature

People walking in nature. Photo: Unsplash.
Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash.

We need new ways of understanding and accounting for how people depend on nature to protect and preserve our environment. Research from Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) strives to diversify ways of measuring and evaluating ecosystem services to take into account people’s place-based, varied and often emotional relationships with nature.

– An important question is to what extent we can integrate a deeper understanding and connection to nature into ecosystem management, urban planning and efforts to protect biodiversity, says Sanna Stålhammar, researcher at LUCSUS.

In her thesis, she examines different ways of understanding values of nature in frameworks and assessment methods for ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the benefits humans obtain from nature and healthy ecosystems. The concept of ecosystem services gained attention after the United Nations launched its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. Since then, a number of assessment frameworks and methods have been developed – in order to support urban and rural planning and implementation efforts, and to protect and preserve biodiversity. 

– Up to now, much of the assessment of ecosystem services have been based on a cost-benefit approach, where, for example, a company can compensate for a factory built on recreational land by planting new trees in a different location. This economic quantification approach fails to take into account people’s deep connection to a place, the myriad ways they might use this space, and the emotional cost of the loss, says Sanna Stålhammar.

Her thesis is based on an analysis of green space management in Cape Town, South Africa, and interviews and focus groups with favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and citizens in Skåne, Sweden. The findings show that people’s perception of, and relationship with nature often differs from established frameworks and concepts to measure ecosystem services. For example, many participants in the Swedish focus groups described their relationship with nature in spiritual and emotional terms. Nature was seen as healing, as authentic, and as something magical. Participants had difficulty describing their experience of nature in terms of a service or a benefit, or even as preferences, which is often the assumption behind ecosystem services assessments. 

Field Work in Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro

The thesis also demonstrates some tensions between the current focus on measuring ecosystem services and taking people’s values into account within research and management. Despite a large focus on inclusivity and participation, stakeholder’s values of nature are not necessarily in line with sustainability goals and biodiversity conservation. 

In Cape Town, civil servants and practitioners face management challenges of juggling highly polarised views and values of biodiversity, for example between the localized use of green space, where invasive species are often preferred, and traditional conservation, which would normally cut invasive species down. This highlights the challenges of using standardized frameworks for green space planning and management, and of trying to use more people-centered approaches based on ecosystem services to protect biodiversity.

– Biodiversity protection is often in conflict with how people use and perceive nature, especially in densely populated areas, such as Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. 

In Rio de Janeiro, residents in the favela expressed both positive and negative views of nature, for example: informal green spaces were often linked to problems with waste and sewage, bad health, and crime. This viewpoint is in contrast to the implicit assumption in ecosystems services that nature and green spaces are inherently good, a benefit, and that the inclusion of many values of nature will result in a preference for conservation and protection of biodiversity. 

Based on her findings, Sanna Stålhammar argues that decision makers on different levels, need to diversify the way we understand and conceptualise human—nature relationships. That includes a move away from a world-view based on a quantification logic and an economic perspective on nature.

During her thesis work there has been a move to broaden the ecosystem service concept. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), in its recent report on biodiversity, for example recognised that indigenous people and local communities possess detailed and place specific knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem trends. 

– It is good that more ways of understanding nature are becoming recognized through IPBES but we need to go further in terms of how we capture what nature means to us. The focus should not be on nature’s economic value to us, but on the relationship and interlinkages between nature and humans. 

Research ties in with the UN Global Diversity Framework

Sanna Stålhammar’s research is timely since it is anticipated that the final decision on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will be taken at the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference in October. The delivery and achievements of the UN Strategic Plan for Diversity 2011 – 2020 will also be discussed and highlighted.

– Frameworks and standards are a double-edged sword. We need ways to measure and capture what nature gives us so we can protect and preserve biodiversity. And yet current frameworks and measurement-logic often oversimplify human-nature relationships to the extent that human dependence on nature becomes compromised.

– Now, with the UN biodiversity conference coming up, we have a possibility to really rethink how we understand values of nature and the assumptions behind our current accounting frameworks and consider more representative and just ways forward, concludes Sanna Stålhammar.

Download the thesis: Reconnecting with nature through concepts: On the construction of values in the ecosystem services paradigm on

About the researcher

Sanna Stålhammar

Sanna Stålhammar is a researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies.

Read more about Sanna's work and research.