Many of us have natural places in the world that we like to visit for fun, for their beauty or to relax. Maybe it’s the park or forest you loved as a child, or the beach you walked with your friends last year. I love my annual visits to the clear waters and white sands of Moonta Bay in South Australia. Wherever it may be, there’s much to enjoy about the intangible benefits of a natural landscape.

Sheer enjoyment is part of a broader host of services ecosystems provide to humans. Increasingly, the quantitative value of these services is factored into decisions about managing ecosystems. This ensures that ecosystems are valued for more than the monetary value of products we directly use, such as wood from trees.

Commonly considered “ecosystem services” are tangible benefits such as insect pollination for agriculture, storm surge protection by wetlands and air purification from plants. However, ecosystems also provide cultural services: nonmaterial benefits that are spiritual, recreational, therapeutic or aesthetic.

The intangible nature of these benefits makes them difficult to quantify and, as a result, they are neglected when people put dollar values on ecosystem services. Many environmental managers, researchers and local residents are finding new ways to value cultural services for management decisions.

Cultural services are a key but sometimes neglected part of the overall ecosystem services picture. Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

“We’re placing a professional value on something,” says Ian Mell, a senior lecturer in environmental and landscape planning at the University of Manchester. “That’s part of the way we can engage in high profile or political discussions.”

Blue Danube to David Attenborough

Protecting cultural value is not a new idea. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began listing World Heritage sites in 1972 to protect places of natural and cultural significance.

The Angkor ruins in Cambodia were protected in part due to their cultural value. Photo © | wanderluster

Over 80% of protected sites were listed for their cultural value, ranging from the ancient ruins of Angkor in Cambodia to the palace and park of Versailles in France. In 1940, the bald eagle was legally protected in part due to its status as the national symbol of the United States. 

Throughout history, humans have found ways to acknowledge the cultural value of nature — Viennese composer Johann Strauss famously immortalized his reverence for the Danube River with his “Blue Danube” waltz. Today, we watch the awe-inspiring documentaries of David Attenborough for their educational and entertainment value, which is part of cultural ecosystem services.

Most efforts to place a monetary value on cultural services to date have focused on ecotourism and recreation, as the use of these services often generate income. Newer methods aim to capture a broader range of cultural benefits.

bald eagle cultural ecosystem services

The bald eagle is legally protected in part because of its cultural value as the U.S. national symbol. Photo © | billdoss

For example, when some parts of British Columbia’s lower Bridge River dried up after it was dammed for hydropower, this loss disrupted cultural activities for the St’át’imc First Nations.

A review of the river’s management allowed St’át’imc First Nations to explain the cultural importance of the river and translate its “spirit” into a set of criteria based on the senses: how the river should look, feel, sound and smell.

Following stakeholder meetings, the new management plan increased river flows to restore the river’s cultural value. This recognition of cultural value enabled the inclusion of indigenous concerns, and the new criteria allowed continued monitoring of the river’s “spirit” by First Nations.

Indigenous Insights

In many indigenous cultures, nature is interwoven with cultural identity. For example, Maori culture has “whakapapa,” which describes the genealogical-like belonging of all things, including inanimate objects, in time and space.

These understandings can be difficult to address through a nonindigenous cultural ecosystem services lens. This is because ecosystem services are viewed as something that nature provides, which is markedly different from how most indigenous cultures view the relationship between humans and nature, explains Terre Satterfield, a professor of culture, risk and the environment at the University of British Columbia.

Nevertheless, she says, “the language of ecosystem services and cultural ecosystem services is a way into representation in environmental assessment contexts [for] indigenous groups,” such as the St’át’imc First Nations.

New Technologies

New technologies are also changing how cultural services are studied. A recent project called Wessex BESS collected data on ecosystem services in southern England to help inform future land management decisions in the area. As part of that, Lucy Ridding, a spatial ecologist with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a U.K.-based research organization, used mapping software to visualize how people use and value outdoor places in Wiltshire.

map of cultural ecosystem services in Wiltshire, England

Mapping software helped spatial ecologist Lucy Ridding home in on places of cultural importance in Wiltshire, England. Map courtesy of Lucy Ridding.

Researchers collected data using a survey with a map on which respondents marked their favorite places. Mapping data provided by the public is a relatively new approach, and the study captured educational, spiritual and aesthetic cultural services as well as services that are easier to quantify, such as recreation and tourism. It also identified characteristics that people valued most.

“Historic features were coming out as quite important [as well as] distance to travel and what [respondents] could see in the landscape,” she says.

Currently, Ridding says she is working on a way to estimate recreational value of different places by collecting photos from social media with locations attached to them. “It’s a great way to get data without having to set up [a survey].” she says.

Although using data like these as a means of valuing cultural services is promising, images on social media tend to overrepresent beautiful or iconic places — landscapes worthy of making it to Instagram. And overuse has become such an issue in some places that sharing locations of photos on social media is now discouraged.

In recent years, new technologies and greater inclusion of diverse voices have improved our ability to understand and value cultural ecosystem services. These services can sometimes be at odds with other ecosystem services — for example, ecotourism can improve cultural value, but developing infrastructure can damage habitats in the area.

Such trade-offs complicate management decisions, and the lack of quantitative data on cultural services means their true value may not always be fully factored in. Nevertheless, the benefits of cultural services are increasingly considered by land managers when assessing what proposed management activities will preserve or, potentially, destroy.

Editor’s note: Olivia McRae wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Aleszu Bajak