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  • Writer's pictureKhalana Gocken

What are Ecosystem Services?

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

A quick definition is that they are anything that nature provides us free of charge, but… we must interact with the services to reap their rewards. The more thorough explanation is below.

Ecosystem services is a term used in biophilic design, restoration, sustainable landscaping, community development and the global conversation. It’s used in government budgeting and land-use court cases. Experts think it may be used in real estate valuation one day.

While putting a dollar amount to nature may seem unethical to some, it is a way to make the services nature offers more tangible and concrete. Identifying these benefits helps put a financial value on our natural world. And while it’s difficult to assign dollar amounts to nature, money talk is implicit in gaining the attention of the modern world. These financial values help decision makers compare apples to apples.

The idea of ecosystem services has been around for many years, but the term wasn’t popularized until the early 2000’s by the UN sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was created by over 1300 experts and scientists from all over the world as a way to quantify the effects of ecosystem degradation. The term ‘ecosystem services’ was further broken into four distinctive service categories: provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural.

Provisioning services create consumables like forest products, food, water, energy, genetics, fibers, fertilizers and medicines. Regulating services include disease and pest control, purification of water and air, carbon sequestration, erosion and flood control, pollination and waste decomposition. Supporting services make all of these other benefits possible. They include things like soil building, nutrient cycling and primary production. Cultural services provide things like recreation, science and education, spiritual and cultural relevance and historical references.

It’s clear to see how these concepts apply to landscape enhancement. Proper soil building techniques and landscape materials are where it all begins. Biologically active soils break down leaf litter and recycle all the nutrients and minerals. Through the process of decomposition these nutrients are released into the soil where they are made readily available for plant material, fungi, bacteria, invertebrates and a host of other organisms that live in the soil. These processes cycle nutrients, build soil and support biomass production. Thoughtful landscape design and installation creates these supporting services.

Ecosystem Services diagram; source: WWF Living Planet Report 2016

Landscapes installed in a parking lot, streetside or any other high impact area offer regulating services. As polluted water runs off the hardscapes it is purified in the soil through a process called bioremediation. Riverside plantings create erosion and flood control, and biologically diverse plantings create habitat for pollinators.

Who hasn’t admired a perfectly planted public space? Small public gardens like The Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, or Kendrick Lake in Lakewood provide cultural services to their visitors and nearby residents. And home gardens and community gardens offer provisioning services through food production and seed saving and exchanging.

Ecosystem services is still a concept used almost exclusively by the green building industry but as the environment is given a more important role in our everyday lives and activities, ecosystem services will become a more common concept in everyday life.

Landscapes truly offer more than most observers take at face value. Designed and installed the proper way, landscapes easily contribute to the greater good, even if they are private, secluded spaces enjoyed by few.


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