A systematic review of 301 academic articles on “cultural ecosystem services” allowed the researchers to identify how these intangible contributions of nature are linked to and significantly affect human well-being. They identified 227 unique ways in which human interaction with nature positively or negatively affects well-being. These were then used to identify 16 different underlying mechanisms or types of communication through which people experience these effects. This comprehensive review brings together observations from a fragmented field of research that can be of great use to policymakers who wish to benefit society through the sustainable use and protection of nature’s intangible benefits.
Do you ever feel the need to get outside to recharge your batteries or spend time in the garden to relax? In addition to clean water, food and useful raw materials, nature provides many other benefits that we may not notice or are difficult to understand and quantify. Research on cultural ecosystem services (CESs), the intangible benefits we receive from nature, aims to better understand these contributions, whether they arise through recreation and social experiences, or the spiritual value of nature and our sense of place.
Hundreds of CES studies have explored the connection between nature and human well-being. However, they often used different methods and measurements or focused on different demographic groups and locations. This fragmentation makes it difficult to identify common patterns or commonalities in how these intangible contributions actually affect human well-being. A better understanding of them could help in making real decisions about the environment that could benefit people and society as a whole.
To try to get the “big picture”, graduate student Lam Huynh from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Program in Sustainable Development Sciences and team conducted a systematic literature review of 301 scientific articles. After critical reading, they were able to identify hundreds of references. “We identified 227 unique associations between one CES (such as recreation or aesthetic value) and one component of human well-being (such as connectedness, spirituality, or health). We knew there were a lot of connections, but we were surprised to find quite a few,” Huynh said. “Then, through further critical reading, we could discover the underlying commonalities.”
Specifically, they identified 16 different underlying “mechanisms,” or types of connections, that refer to the different ways in which people’s interactions with nature affect their well-being. For example, there can be positive interaction through the mechanisms of “cohesion”, “creativity” and “formation”, and negative interaction through the mechanisms of “irritating” and “destructive nature”. Previous research has identified some of these mechanisms, but 10 have been identified recently, including more negative effects, making it clear that our well-being is linked to the intangible aspects of nature in many more ways than previously thought.
According to the paper, negative contributions to human well-being have occurred mainly through the degradation or loss of CES, as well as through ecosystem “disadvantages” such as wildlife noise irritation, which may affect the mental health of some people in particular. However, on the other hand, the greatest positive contribution of CES was to both mental and physical health, which were created mainly through recreation, tourism and aesthetic value.
“It is particularly interesting to note that the identified pathways and mechanisms do not influence human well-being independently, but often interact strongly,” explained co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo. . “This can create negative trade-offs in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be used to provide multiple benefits for human well-being.”
Despite the comprehensiveness of the review, the researchers acknowledge that there may still be more connections yet to be discovered, especially since the review identified gaps in the current research landscape. “We hypothesize that missing pathways and mechanisms may be present in communities that depend on ecosystems, and especially in traditional and indigenous communities, given their unique relationship with nature,” Gasparatos said.
“Another knowledge gap we found is that the existing literature on these intangible dimensions of human-nature relationships mostly focuses on individual well-being rather than collective (community) well-being,” Huynh explained. “This significant gap hinders our ability to identify potential interactions and trade-offs in ecosystem management research and practice.”
The team has now received a grant to study the impact of CES provision on the well-being of people in Tokyo’s urban spaces. “This project is a logical extension to test whether and how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms unfold in reality and intersect with human well-being,” Gasparatos said.
The researchers hope that this study and similar efforts will apply key findings from this complex and diverse body of knowledge to real-world impact. Professor Kensuke Fukushi of the IFI and a co-author of the study summarized his hope that “a better understanding of nature’s many connections to human well-being and the underlying processes that mediate them can help policymakers design appropriate interventions. Such coordinated action can promote the positive contributions of these connections and become another way to protect and sustainably manage ecosystems.”