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  • Writer's pictureFiona Smith

Who values what?

Awareness of the concepts underpinning ecosystem services is growing, but before we can use them as a practical tool, we need to recognise the subjectivity that influences our actions. Dr Caitriona Carlin, NUI Galway, outlines the importance of identifying values and attitudes towards ecosystem services and natural capital.

When thinking about value, we must ask who values what, how and why, and to explore these questions it is worth revisiting the example of Finland's approach to natural capital, as outlined in a recent blog by Dr Tomás Murray.

Finland led the way in developing a framework to map ecosystem services: three years of detailed cooperation between the government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), research institutes and expert groups resulted in 112 nationally important socio-ecological measures that include berry and mushroom habitats as indicators. This is not surprising given Finland’s forests and the Finnish love of foraging, and it highlights the clarity of the connection between the Finns and their natural environment.

We need to understand who values what, and why

While some people in Ireland forage along hedgerows and seashores, as a society, we do not share an overwhelming view of the natural environment as a food resource in the same way that the Finns do. But we value nature in other ways, and in understanding those values, we could be better placed to make decisions about how to maximise nature's benefits for people.

             "In understanding the ways we value nature, we could be better placed to                          make decisions about how to maximise nature's benefits for people"

Take, for example, urban parks and gardens. These are green spaces accessible to people in towns and cities, and Irish people enjoy spending time in them to relax, play, meet up with friends and family, exercise and have picnics. These spaces meet other needs as well: trees, shrubs and grass provide us with oxygen, filter pollutants, purify air, store carbon, support biodiversity, mitigate noise pollution and have a cooling effect. Vegetation stabilises soil, helps to manage run off and can also improve water quality (Derksen et al. 2015). It's clear that urban green spaces are valuable, but they are valuable in different ways to the different stakeholders who benefit from them. People enjoying a picnic or going for a run, local authorities looking to improve urban air quality and mitigate flooding, governments concerned about sequestering carbon, wildlife enthusiasts and NGOs restoring biodiversity - all of these stakeholders have different perspectives on what's valuable about urban green spaces. But what and whose values are taken into account in the decision-making process when it comes to designing, managing and promoting new ones?

People dancing in a bandstand in a green leafy park
St Stephen's Green, Dublin

"Stakeholders have different perspectives on what's valuable about urban green spaces. But what and whose values are taken into account?"

Traditionally, planning and providing green space has been the remit of local authorities (Britt & Johnston 2008, Carmona et al. 2004). Researchers at NUI Galway were funded by the EPA to analyse the values and viewpoints of planners, engineers, health promotion officers and conservationists in relation to green space (Carlin et al. in prep). While all stakeholders recognised the value of nature and green space for health and wellbeing and acknowledged that knowing nature was just around the corner made them happy, they differed in recognising that playgrounds and sports fields can integrate features to support biodiversity and also differed in preferring open spaces to densely planted woodlands. Interestingly, these differing views were held both across and within stakeholder groups (see Table 1).

​Recognising where differences in perceptions and values lie can help in identifying tensions, as well as understanding whether and how those tensions might influence outcomes regarding the availability, design and size of green spaces.

Awareness of stakeholders' subjectivity helps to frame more effective arguments The subjectivity of values held by different stakeholders was also appraised by the BESAFE EU Project which sought to assess the effectiveness of arguments to protect biodiversity. One part of their study engaged with national decision makers, NGOs and researchers regarding nature and ecosystem services. Current EU policy-making is largely influenced by arguments based on economic values of nature. While the BESAFE project pointed out that economic values are meaningful, in particular to local policy-makers and stakeholders with utilitarian views, they showed that many decision-makers and stakeholders also use and respond positively to ethical and moral arguments.

While all stakeholders recognised the scientific, ethical, economic and emotional basis for biodiversity protection and ecosystem services, there were some differences between the groups. Nature conservation practitioners related ethical and economic dimensions of biodiversity conservation to the provision of ecosystem services. Scientific researchers prioritised the functional role of biodiversity but social science researchers place greater value on an emotional connection to nature and were more likely to question the role of biodiversity in ecosystem services. Overall, conservation practitioners were more supportive of emotional arguments for biodiversity than scientific researchers. Both this and the NUI Galway study reflect the complexity of values held by different stakeholders, the diversity of views within and across stakeholder groups, and that views cannot be conclusively categorised solely on the basis of the role of a stakeholder. This means that a broad range of arguments (encompassing economic, ethical, moral, emotional and scientific values) are crucial to engage all stakeholders at all levels.

​From these studies, it's clear that understanding who values what, how and why will influence how we make the strongest and most inclusive case for protecting and restoring natural capital, how the initiatives themselves are developed, and how their effectiveness is assessed.

References: Britt, C., Johnston, M., 2008. Trees in towns II: a new survey of urban trees in England and their condition and management. Department for Communities and Local Government, London.

Carlin, C., Quinn, D., Cormican, M. and Gormally, M. (in prep) Perceptions of stakeholders regarding planning, providing and promoting the use of green spaces. EPA report.

Carmona, M., De Magalhaes, C., Blum, R., (2004). Is the grass greener? Learning from international innovations in urban green space management. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment – Space, London.

Derkzen, M., van Teeffelen, A. & Verburg, P. (2015). Quantifying urban ecosystem services based on high-resolution data of urban green space: an assessment for Rotterdam, the Netherlands. J Applied Ecology, 52(4), pp.1020-1032. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12469

Harrison et al. (2014). Final report on relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services and values in case studies.

Harrison et al. 2014 Final report on relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services and values in case studies, Part III: Analysing the relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services and values in local case studies.

Termansen et al. (2014). Final report on relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services and values in case studies, Part II: Q study of heterogeneous perceptions of the relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services and values in national case studies.

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