Connecting to nature and understanding ecosystem services: the urban perspective

Food and water – two resources vital for life on Earth. These are two prime examples of the products that arise from ecosystem services. There are four broad categories of ecosystem services: provisioning regulating, supporting, and cultural. Food and water are a form of ecosystem service provisioning – these are the products that directly benefit humans. Globalization and climate change are increasingly threatening food and water security, and other vital ecosystem services throughout the world.

In a special session at the Resilience1 Alliance conference in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017, researchers Vanessa Masterson (Stockholm Resilience Centre), Katharina Fryers Hellquist (Stockholm Resilience Centre), and Mitchell Pavao – Zuckerman (University of Maryland) research questions that keep some of us up at night: How do we ensure food and water security for current and future generations? Can we minimize the negative impacts of climate change on ecosystem goods and services?

Urban and circular migration dissolves the human-and-local-environment connection

Building and using infrastructure is required for citizens living in urban areas to access natural, and other remote areas. The thoughtful design of infrastructure is critical for maintaining human-environment connections.

Vanessa Masterson (Ph.D. student, Stockholm University) conducts her research in South Africa. She is identifying the role that local knowledge and cultural diversity has in building the social-ecological resilience. Masterson’s work explores the effects of human migration on both the environment and the local community. People who leave their ‘home town’ and return only on a seasonal basis may lose their connection to and understanding of local ecosystem goods and services. In the August session she suggested, “…a break in the social contract can create a loss in the ecological literacy and wellbeing…” within the community.

Urban migration is a term used to describe humans moving from rural areas or small towns to larger areas or towns. Circular migration includes both the movement into and from cities by urban migrants, typically as a recurring event coinciding with seasonal job or resource availability. Urban and circular migration decreases the amount of a time a person interactions with one environment, and consequently lessens or even breaks the bond that locals have with their environment2.

Co-production of ecosystem services and goods

Building and using infrastructure is required for citizens living in urban areas to access natural, and other remote areas. The thoughtful design of infrastructure is critical for maintaining human-environment connections.

Katharina Fryers Hellquist (Research assistant, Stockholm Resilience Centre) explores the challenges and opportunities that are associated with the co-production of ecosystem services and goods. Co-production is a way of thinking about how ecosystem services arise. Humans can enable the generation and availability of some ecosystem services or goods. We can also destroy, or inhibit the growth of these products.

When is the last time you accessed near-pristine areas without a major reliance on some form of assisted transportation like a road or paved walkway? If you live in an urban area, you might not have an answer to this question, and that’s okay.

Although this may sound contradictory, Fryers Hellquist suggests that in order for many humans to experience nature we must build and use infrastructure to access it. Roads, homes, and machinery are required for many humans to interact with their natural surroundings. Throughout the world we blast through mountains and pave over forest so that we can travel the world and access nature. As the global human population continues to rise 3, it is increasingly important that we identify how our actions are influencing ecosystem services. Thoughtful design of these and other infrastructures prior to construction might minimize the negative effects our actions has on the environment and the ecosystem services that we require.

Green infrastructure in drought-prone areas: designing rainwater flows

Water capture and storage is especially important in hot and dry areas, like Tucson, Arizona, USA. In this arid environment, rainstorms are rare. Despite its rarity, much of the water available to Tucson residents is allocated to residential landscape management. Grass, flowers, and more grass. Dr. Pavao-Zuckerman (University of Maryland) suggests turning to green infrastructure  may help solve some of Tucson’s major water demand problems 4. Thoughtful design of how rainwater (or storm water) flows within and through the city may alleviate a significant portion of the water demands of Tucson residents 5.

Planning where and how we will capture, redirect, or store storm water is an important part of city planning and is especially important for drought-prone and arid areas.

Understanding and building social-ecological resilience is vital to our future

The study of ecological 6 and social-ecological resilience 7 is a pulsing field of study. Ecological resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance without changing its fundamental characteristics. Researchers affiliated with the professional society, the Resilience Alliance 1, study aspects of social-ecological resilience ranging from below-ground organisms (e.g., soil 8 and nematodes 9) to city sizes 10. Understanding and building resilience in our social and natural environments will aid in our ability to adapt to and persist after major disturbance events, including extreme weather and disasters.


Much of the water available to citizens in Tucson, Arizona, USA, a very hot and arid area, is allocated to land and landscape creation and maintenance.

1 Resilience Alliance, Stockholm, Sweden.

2 Masterson, Vanessa, Maria Tengö, and Marja Spierenburg. “Competing Place Meanings in Complex Landscapes: A Social–Ecological Approach to Unpacking Community Conservation Outcomes on the Wild Coast, South Africa.” Society & Natural Resources (2017): 1-16.


4 Pavao‐Zuckerman, Mitchell A. “The nature of urban soils and their role in ecological restoration in cities.” Restoration Ecology 16.4 (2008): 642-649.


6 Holling, Crawford S. “Resilience and stability of ecological systems.” Annual review of ecology and systematics 4.1 (1973): 1-23.

7 Berkes, Fikret, Johan Colding, and Carl Folke, eds. Navigating social-ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

8 Birge, Hannah E. “Soil ecosystem service tradeoffs and social-ecological resilience in the North Central Great Plains.” (2017).

9 Pavao-Zuckerman, Mitchell A., and David C. Coleman. “Urbanization alters the functional composition, but not taxonomic diversity, of the soil nematode community.” Applied Soil Ecology 35.2 (2007): 329-339.

10 Allen, C. R., Birge, H. E., Bartelt-Hunt, S., Bevans, R. A., Burnett, J. L., Cosens, B. A., … & Solomon, M. D. (2016). Avoiding decline: Fostering resilience and sustainability in midsize cities. Sustainability, 8(9), 844.

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Jessica Burnett

Jessica Burnett

I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying indicators of changes in ecosystems and social-ecological systems at continental and sub-continental scales. I am particularly interested in using existing, long-term, and publicly-funded data sets to identify large-scale and long-term patterns in ecological communities and species.

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