What are the challenges related to an investigation of cultural ecosystem services? A newly published study co-authored by Agnieszka Nowak-Olejnik, a Cultural ecosystem services team member, provides some answers.

Nature provides a wide range of benefits for people, among which it is worth highlighting the importance of cultural ecosystem services (CES), which dependence is increasing (Guo et al., 2010).

What are CES? – nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, educational value, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences (MA, 2005).

As a result of global change, ecosystems and the provision of cultural ecosystem services are affected. Although the vital role of cultural ecosystem services is increasingly appreciated, the research on them needs to be more represented with other types of services due to their intangibility and incommensurability (Chan et al., 2011), which trigger conceptual and methodological challenges. These challenges were described in the review paper Nowak-Olejnik et al., 2021.

Challenges of the CES research – what does the study say?

The results indicate that the research does not consider all nonmaterial benefits equally. Most studies focus on aesthetic experience, knowledge and skills, spirituality, and engagement. The least attention was paid to transformative experience and freedom.

One-fifth of all publications only mentioned disbenefits such as a sense of fear, insecurity and noisiness. This may result from the fact that people perceive disbenefits less than benefits.

In addition, the lack of a standard classification and definition of disbenefits may create difficulties in conducting research. Apart from that, disbenefits may also send the wrong message to society, threatening conservation goals.

There is also a disproportion between research on CES in Global South and Global North. For example, about half of all case studies were in Europe, while only a few concerned Africa.

Also, local people should be involved in research on a greater scale as they are underrepresented. This concerns groups that are often marginalized, such as indigenous people, people with special health and mobility needs, and the elderly.

Further research avenues?

These challenges in CES research may be addressed by strengthening interdisciplinary collaboration to deepen the understanding of the human dimension, widening the bundle of applied methods and involving underrepresented stakeholders. Especially in the face of global change, it is essential to research future scenarios concerning nonmaterial benefits and disbenefits changes.

Integrating methods from medicine and psychology can improve the understanding of health benefits resulting from human-nature interactions.

Furthermore, interdisciplinary collaboration may close research gaps related to benefits largely neglected, such as transformative experience and freedom.

Wrapping it up!

CES are currently one of the main reasons for ecosystem conservation. The knowledge of their provision may be used in managing and conserving nature. However, as the study concludes, there are significant gaps in the research and more interdisciplinary research is needed to respond to them.

This post was brought to you in cooperation with Agnieszka Nowak-Olejnik, co-author of the publication.