Cultural ecosystem services

Key Messages:

  • Interdisciplinary research with stakeholders in multiple landscapes is developing new approaches to cultural services and demonstrating how people love what they know.
  • Doses of nature improve mental, physical and social health in urban environments.
  • A high proportion of nature experiences are concentrated within a small proportion of urban populations.
  • Improving doses of nature depends on both increasing opportunities for direct and indirect experiences of nature and on increasing people’s orientation towards nature.
  • Deconstructing the different ways people experience nature across a population is important to develop recommendations for targeted health outcomes.
  • Biodiverse urban meadow plantings benefit both people and wildlife.
  • Perennial meadows increase perceived quality and appreciation of urban greenspace.
  • People prefer higher diversity and structure in urban meadows and more species of garden birds.


Cultural ecosystem services are fundamentally about our connection with nature: valued capabilities and experiences in people’s minds. However, the complexity of cultural services and the many disciplines involved as well as perceived implementation barriers means that they are often overlooked in decision making and planning [1]. The BESS programme offered an opportunity to integrate different disciplinary approaches so that future decisions are better able to take cultural services into account [2].  For instance, joint BESS/NIA workshops brought together academics and practitioners from different backgrounds to consider aesthetic and spiritual values and to develop the cultural services aspect of the Toolkit for Ecosystem Services Site-based Assessment (TESSA).

Highlights of research findings and tools from the BESS programme

[Numbers in brackets are links to research papers]

Connecting with nature in urban areas

Doses of nearby nature improve mental, physical and social health in urban environments [3, 4].  However, there is inequality in access to urban nature [5].  Research by the F3UES consortium found that people who regularly have direct experience of nature are the exception rather than the norm [6].  75% of the total time spent in nature was experienced by only 32% of this study population in Milton Keynes [6].  The most common experiences of nature were indirectly as a view through a window [6]. Despite the benefits of a natural view, a significant number of people had no good view of nature at home or work. People living in neighbourhoods with low tree cover visited both public and private greenspace less often and for a shorter amount of time [7]

Improving people’s nature dose depends on both increasing opportunities to have indirect, incidental and intentional experiences of nature, and on increasing people’s orientation towards nature [4, 6, 7].  There is also a need to understand the extent to which particular ecological properties, such as biodiversity, are important for health outcomes, rather than area of greenspace alone [5].  This has implications for green infrastructure design, biodiversity restoration and the conservation of remnant habitats [6, 8, 9].

Urban meadows benefit both people and wildlife

Concerns about introducing urban meadows include feelings that naturalistic planting looks untidy and uncared for.  To explore this further, the F3UES consortium created a variety of urban meadows in partnership with Local Authorities in Bedford and Luton.  Local people preferred meadows to mown grass, with meadows that had more plant species and greater structural diversity being most favoured.  When shown photos, people also preferred meadows to herbaceous borders or formal planting [10].  Preferences for meadows were stronger in people who visited the countryside more frequently and had more knowledge of plant species [10].  Providing information about the biodiversity benefits of the meadows, the reduced need for mowing and summer appearance increased people’s acceptance of winter appearance [10, 11].        

Improving urban grassland for people and wildlife. A Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) Policy and Practice Note co-authored by Helen Hoyle.






Garden birds act as 'ambassadors for nature'

Many consider the separation of people from nature to be both a public health risk and a barrier to reversing biodiversity loss.  Research by Daniel Cox and colleagues on urban bird feeding shows that biodiversity matters: people prefer seeing a variety of bird species rather than simply more individuals of the same species [12].  The ability to identify bird species is correlated with feeling more connected with nature while watching birds [12].  This suggests that wellbeing benefits to people could be increased both by supporting learning about and interaction with birds and by increasing songbird diversity [12].  In this way, garden bird feeders can act as ‘ambassadors for nature’ [13]

The delivery of benefits from garden birds depends on the features and layout of the surrounding urban environment - a residential area where greenspace was more connected had greater movement of birds compared with urban areas where greenspace was highly fragmented by roads [14].  In the more fragmented area there was greenspace where birds tracked in the study did not visit garden feeders at all [14].  Targeting ‘greening’ at particular points might help to improve movement of birds into these isolated areas and hence benefit residents [14].  This is the first study that uses tagged birds to model both the potential of birds to move among urban habitats (structural connectivity) and the amount that individuals actually move (functional connectivity) [14, 15]. 

Connectivity and ecological networks. Landscape Institute Technical Note 2016.






Recreation and tourism on saltmarshes and mudflats

The CBESS research consortium used a range of research methods to understand the cultural benefits which arise from coastal  ecosystems. Monetary (choice experiments), non-monetary (ranking in questionnaires and interviews), deliberative (interactive workshops), and spatial methods (mapping recreational activity) have been employed in two study site regions, Essex Estuaries and Morecambe Bay. They found that 1.2 million hours of recreational activity per annum are associated either directly or indirectly with these coastal habitats in Essex alone.

To better understand how biodiversity underpins these services, CBESS has developed the Saltmarsh App, a citizen science tool which aims both to increase awareness of the importance of saltmarsh habitat and allow a wide audience to contribute data on saltmarsh plants and soils.  CBESS research has also been investigating preferences that local people have for different coastal management options that aim to manage coastal flooding.


Lowland agricultural landscapes

The cultural ecosystem services available to people in the chalk landscapes of Wiltshire were studied by the Wessex BESS consortium. Local people shared their activities, attitudes and preferences using a combination of in-depth workshops [17], face-to-face interviews coordinated by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and in an online survey using a Public Participation Geographic Information System [19]

Exploring cultural ecosystem services in the Wessex region A Wessex BESS Project Report: exploratory workshop results






Cultural values of uplands

The DURESS consortium focused on upland river catchments in Wales and compiled alternative future scenarios for the catchments by considering drivers of change, including socio-cultural trends. Researchers interviewed over 1200 people across four Welsh river catchments asking them to choose between the alternative future scenarios for the catchments.  The aim was to look at benefits and costs associated with possible changes to rivers and to understand what people value.

Upland scenarios: what will the future look like? DURESS project report card. Authors: H.Prosser, T.Pagella and I.Durance












These pages contain the archive of the NERC Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability (BESS) programme