Development and Fundamentals of the ES Approach

Fig. 2.1
The increasingly intensive use (= social function) of the fertile loess soils of Lommatzscher Pflege landscape in Saxony (high production potential) leads to an impairment of archaeological sites on the plateau of the hill fortification of Zschaitz by soil erosion © Olaf Bastian


While potentials describe the possibility of the use of nature, the reality of the use of nature is expressed in the functional concept. According to this functional-spatial viewpoint, every part of the earth’s surface fulfils societal functions. The Latin term ‘function’ (fungi) generally means ‘carrying out’ ‘managing’ or ‘task’ or ‘activity’ (Brockhaus Encyclopaedia 1996) .

Thus, Speidel (1966) described the multifariousness of the functions of the forest which benefit humankind, and which go far beyond wood production. Niemann later designed a methodology for ascertaining the degree of functional performance of landscape elements and units (Niemann 1977, 1982). Preobrazhenski (1980) referred to the natural functions of landscape, De Groot (1992) generally to ‘functions of nature’. In spatial and regional planning, functions are defined as ‘tasks which an area is to fulfil for the needs of life of the people’ (ARL 1995). According to Wiggering et al. (2003), the determination of the multiple ecological, social and economic functions of the landscape (multifunctionality) in their regional differentiation is the prerequisite for sustainable land use . The protection of efficacy and functionality is today provided by, e. g. the German Federal Conservation Law and the Federal Soil Protection Act.

However, the term ‘function’ is not used uniformly in the literature, frequently leading to terminological uncertainties and misunderstandings (Jax 2005). Thus, a purely ecological interpretation is common, in the sense of ecosystemic ‘functioning’ or the ‘manner of function’, as a scientifically determined organisation of structural-procedural contexts (e.g. food chains and nutrient cycles; cf. Forman and Godron 1986, where function is ‘the interactions among the spatial elements, that is, the flows of energy, materials, and species among the component ecosystem’. In the TEEB study (TEEB 2009), functions are also regarded as purely ecological phenomena. According to Costanza et al. (1997b), and in the MEA (2005) , functions can support ecosystem services (ES) . For Boyd and Banzhaf (2007), functions are ‘intermediate products’ of ES. Eliáš (1983) distinguished between two basic groups of functions: ecological functions (important for the existence of the ecosystems, regardless of concrete societal use claims), and social functions (which reflect societal needs).

Additional imprecisions of definition appear in the widespread blurring of the difference between function and potential. Thus, Marks et al. (1992) refer to the ‘functions and potentials of the landscape balance’ without providing any logical, conclusive differentiation between the two. De Groot et al. (2002) see ‘ecosystem functions’ as ‘the capacity of natural processes and components to provide goods and services which directly and/or indirectly satisfy human needs’.

Petry (2001) sees the distinction between functions and potentials as a discussion within German-speaking, geographically oriented landscape ecology , which, while highlighting theoretical differences in meaning, causes more confusion than clarity at the international level, and with regard to application. Mannsfeld too (in Bastian and Schreiber 1994) noted: “A juxtaposition of the concept of natural landscape potentials as a structural aspect, and the performancev possibilities of the ecosystemic functional viewpoint based on the gifts of nature, … shows that a sharp separation of the two approaches is neither useful nor appropriate.” Here, however, the objection is that it is not at all inconsequential whether one refers to the capacity of ability to render socially utilisable services (the potential concept) , or of its actual realisation, or the actual rendering of such a service (the function concept).

The difference between potential and function can be illustrated as follows, using an example: An undeveloped South Sea island might have a high recreational potential; however, its recreational function will only be fulfilled if it is actually discovered and visited by tourists.

◉ Figure 2.2 shows a coastal section (ecosystem and landscape) in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The recreational potential (possibility) is used by many tourists (realisation of the recreational function), and contributes to the well-being of the visitors (beneficial relevance of ES).


Fig. 2.2
Many visitors use the recovery potential of the Baltic Sea beach in Kühlungsborn–the potential has turned to ES. The visitors have benefits (recreation, health). The potential remains depending on the ecosystem structures and processes. © Karsten Grunewald

Another example illustrates ◉ Fig. 2.3: Due to centuries of withdrawal of fallen conifer needles as straw for cattle stables (straw use: a function and ES), the forest soils in question have been degraded, accompanied by a reduction of its biotic yield potential . Such forest forms have now become rare, and represent not only a habitat for animal and plant species in decline, but also a valuable cultural-historical relict of past methods of economic use–with a potential for environmental education and tourism that has hardly been utilised to date .


Fig. 2.3
Bizarre pines in the protected area Königsbrücke Heath, Saxony: Straw use has reduced the biotic yield potential but formed the potential for environmental education and tourism. © Olaf Bastian

Governance of ES

Spatial distributions and socio-economic aspects are of particular interest for benefits and welfare effects of ecosystems in the sense of the ES approach. This is reflected in ◉ Fig. 2.4 on the one hand by the change of land use and on the other by the delta of the incentive structures originated from the social side. Conceptually, the ecosystem structures and processes are related to ecology , the benefits and values to social and economic sciences. ES should be bridging both (for more details see ▶ Sect. 3.​1) .


Fig. 2.4
Identification and evaluation of ES as well as integration into instruments and incentive structures. © Ring 2010 based on Brouwer et al. 2011

The control and regulating system for ES is not only dominated by the State, so that the term governance comes into play. Governance refers not only to the structure and process organisation of government , administration, and community but also by private or public organisations (Ostrom 2011). Governance processes take place at several levels, and need to be coordinated through the institutions acting in accordance to the principles of (1) accountability, (2) responsibility, (3) openness and transparency of structures and processes, and (4) fairness (Ostrom 2011; ▶ Sect. 5.​4) .

2.1.1 Ecosystem Services (ES)

ES has become established as a conceptual framework on the international stage. In German-speaking countries the conceptual system is oriented to functions and ‘objects of protection’ of nature so far (BNatSchG 2009), so it should be adjusted and further developed. Although the distinction between functions, services and benefits, is to be regarded as important especially for the economic evaluation , often no consistent classifications can be made, because smooth transitions, overlaps and different interpretations of these terms exist .

ES generate human well-being in combination with the means of production and human capital . The largest welfare effect results from the optimum interaction between them. Individual ES can be replaced by technology and labour up to a certain extent. At a complete loss, the welfare effect is equal to zero and human existence cannot be maintained. Changes in the natural capital of any kind lead to changes of costs or benefits for ensuring human well-being.

2.2 ES in Retrospect

K. Mannsfeld  and K. Grunewald 

Ahornweg 1, 01328 Dresden-Pappritz, Germany

Zöllmener Str. 11 b, 01705 Freital, Germany



K. Mannsfeld (Corresponding author)


K. Grunewald

Scientific-Historical Roots

Currently, the concept of ecosystem services is one of the central themes in the scientific and environmental policy debates over the goal of preserving our natural resources . If, as stated above, this term is meant to encompass the benefits that society draws from the functions and capabilities of the ecosystem, then it is important to consider the lengthy evolution of the basic concepts behind this modern terminology for a fundamental societal goal. First empirically and then increasingly systematically, humankind has experienced the benefits, potentials, and also the risks and hazards associated with the use of nature, and, with increasing knowledge, has begun to put these insights to use.

A holistic view of our ambient spatial structures as a synthesis of natural and societal processes is indispensable in order to fully grasp the entire context of ecosystem services. The earliest signs for such a view can possibly be attributed to Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), who, by means of observation and measurement, sought to determine the ‘Totalcharakter’ (translating roughly as total character) of the region of the earth , and who therefore, in his later works, observed that only research that keeps the balance between specialisation and integration in nature as a whole could guarantee the desirable conditions for human life. Hence, Humboldt’s basic concept of the character of nature as a whole with reference to societal and natural-scientific aspects is still a fundamental and challenging question in the present day (Neef 1971).

Only shortly thereafter, Ernst Haeckel (1866), who approached the issue from the biological point of view, coined the term ‘ecology’ to describe this ‘interaction’ between the animate and inanimate elements in nature; later, with Troll’s (1939) landscape ecology, the term would very consciously incorporate the inseparable links between the biological and the geological components of our environment, by encompassing anthropogenic effect factors, and thus describing and emphasising the systemic context which the theory of landscape ecology saw in the effective connection between nature, technology and society (Neef 1967, p. 41). Neef describes this complex as follows:

“Hence, landscape ecology, although oriented toward the natural-scientific order of matter, must incorporate all factors which stem from the work of humankind and which will impact the natural balance.”

In the decades after Humboldt’s death, the analyses and interpretations of his ‘total character of spatial phenomena on the Earth’s surface’ began to increasingly–albeit hesitantly–consider the factor humankind, and, conversely, recognise the positive and negative effects of natural factors on human desires for utilisation. However, it was a lengthy process for the research-historical unilateralism which only considered anthropogenic effects in the landscape when they were clearly dependent on the balance of nature to be overcome, especially in geological and biological sciences. One milestone in overcoming this deterministic view with regard to the anthropogenic component in the real environment was the influence of late nineteenth -century economists on the theoretical conceptualisation of the footprint of humankind in nature and environment. They pointed out a problem in the then-accepted views of the relationships between humankind and nature, and should therefore be seen as ‘contributors’ to today’s modern ES concepts. Specifically, they emphasised labour processes as the key factor in the interaction between humankind and nature, by which the necessary conditions for human existence were generated and upheld–entirely on the basis of natural and environmental conditions. In this respect, we should mention not only Adam Smith, Johann Heinrich von Thünen and others, but also Karl Marx in particular.

Marx used the term ‘metabolism between society and nature’ to describe the category under which he subsumed the role of humankind in withdrawing those materials from the landscape which were needed for its economic activity, so as to fulfil the necessities of life. He wrote:

“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man [sic] and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces.” (Marx 1867; ​www.​marxists.​org/​archive/​marx/​works/​1867-c1/​ch07.​htm)

In this context, he also pointed to the so-called ‘free services’ of nature, which positively affected the process of this metabolism. He noted that, as a result of the effects of natural forces –i.e., with no labour effort–such services of nature as photosynthesis, pollination , groundwater recharging, etc. positively accompany this metabolism , and thus substitute for human activity.

We can credit Carl Ritter (1779–1859; quoted in Leser and Schneider-Sliwa 1999), with calling upon the predominant specialised research activities in the geographic disciplines not to neglect the practical interests of their results. Later, Alfred Hettner (1859–1941) raised the postulate of a ‘practical geography’ (Hettner 1927), the core statement of which was to evaluate and predict the effects of human impacts and changes on the basis of knowledge of the causal contexts of natural processes. From that, he drew the conclusion that such an evaluation should primarily be derived from the given state of the natural systems in the cultural landscape, and that scientifically grounded proposals for improving utilisation should include concepts to preserve and protect the forces of nature . His conceptual proximity to the instrument of compensation/offsetting the impacts of human use of natural resources –which is still in use today–or the environmental impact assessment can hardly be overlooked.

The key realisation upon which this history-of-science oriented reflection is based is that if Marx’s metabolic process becomes critical, which is the case today on both local and global levels, the effects caused by use processes must be ascertained systematically and according to a number of different standards . Otherwise, given the continued overtaxing of nature’s ‘free services’ the healthy development of ecosystems, i.e. a development subjected to only low levels of disturbance and detrimental interference, can no longer be guaranteed. In this respect, it is no coincidence that the ES concept and its numerous predecessors (see below) have placed the preservation of the precious forces of nature at the centre of their considerations.

With reference to the global character of the growing imbalance between availability of natural resources and the degree of utilisation and the resulting destruction of landscape structures and their ecosystems, the report prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) at the end of the twentieth century gave a stern warning for humankind to reconsider its dealings with nature from an economic, social and ecological viewpoint. The core statement of the so-called Brundtland Report (WCED 1987) is as follows: Sustainable development is a development which meets the requirements of the present without endangering the ability of future generations to meet their own requirements.

This basic statement of sustainable development has proven to be of great relevance with regard to setting goals for a permanent environmentally appropriate economic and social order. On the other hand, there has to this day been no feasible methodological concept following up on this sustainability triad; it is largely a regulatory idea, a guiding concept characterised by the ethical principle of generational justice. Nonetheless, today the term carries significant meaning whenever policy-makers, business leaders or academics employ it to identify the linkage between economic development and ecological carrying capacity as a major goal of today’s societal policy, so as to be able to leave a liveable and usable environment to future generations. Indisputably, the ES approach , which is currently being widely discussed, is viewed as a fundamentally suitable instrument for the implementation of the idea of sustainability.

The Substantive and Methodological Precursors of ES

Especially the German geographic community has, by way of a number of small steps, begun to approach the question of the extent to which it is necessary and possible to refer to the service capacity of a natural abundance (natural balance) which functions in a manner appropriate to the ecosystem (▶ Sect. 2.1). One early source is an essay by Schmithüsen (1942) on site ecology and its importance for the cultural landscape, in which he explains that people use the service possibilities existing in the natural plan of a landscape to secure their livelihoods, by drafting a ‘cultural service plan’ of natural and labour processes for distinguishable spatial structures . A few years later, Bobek and Schmithüsen (1949) designated ‘regional nature’ (Landesnatur; a term meaning the totality of naturally provided interactive contexts) in the cultural landscape as a range of potentials, and hence a spatial pattern of arrangements for naturally provided development possibilities (societal use intentions). Schultze (1957) defined the suitability of certain earth regions for use purposes even more concretely, and suggested that this determination of suitability be reformulated into a determination of the cultural-geographical potential of an area.

The growing exploitation of natural resources , with the well-known consequences for the condition of ‘protected goods’ , as we would call them today, confronted society and hence a number of scientific disciplines with the task of seeking answers and proposing solutions as to how to ascertain the service capacity of natural systems and how to preserve and secure them over the long term. Within the geographic community which, as we know, has to deal with hybrid material systems in the cultural landscape surrounding us (abiotic, biotic and societal/cultural components), Neef (1966) presented an initial study for the evaluation of the potentials of natural systems, the essence of which involve the idea of making all aspects of natural factors comparable with the anthropogenic creations in the cultural landscape, and similarly capable of valuation, by defining their various elements in terms of energy content. He entitled this study in which he describes the use of this energy content concept for the elucidation of the relationships between naturally related and economic components of societal activity in the natural environment ‘Questions of regional economic potentials’, clearly highlighting what he believed was involved. He saw it as an important part of this concept and also an absolute necessity to transfer natural scientific findings into societally familiar, i.e. primarily economic, categories if utility , sustainability, resilience and protection of natural resources were to be considered as societal activities at all.

The epistemological phenomenon which he describes as the ‘transformation problem’ became part of the application -oriented foundations of East German landscape research. Neef saw his proposal as an important bridge towards objectifying the various processes of nature and society, and the transition from one causal area to another, and towards making the metabolism between human society and nature, which had up to that time been described only as a fairly general phenomenon, usable for such purposes as balancing-of-interests decisions (Neef 1969). Over 45 years later, the German Federal Government’s Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU 2011) has now used the term transformation research in a study titled Zukunftsprojekt Erde[The earth as a project for the future], albeit with a more specialised meaning–and without mentioning the preceding ideas.

However, the proposed exclusive use of an energy scale (Neef 1966) lead to methodological difficulties of implementation, especially with regard to the specific use demands of society upon the natural-spatial service capacity. The later proposals by von Haase (1973, 1978) provided a way out: Instead of energy as the standard of measurement for service capacity , a thorough analysis of the characteristics of the ‘Naturkapital’ (natural capital) was to be employed in order to evaluate the fulfilment of basic societal functions. Only when the scientific and social goals were clearly defined did material and energetic properties of the services of nature become ‘potentials’, since they referred to the specific distribution of such service possibilities in the spatial context, ‘natural-spatial potentials’ (▶ Sect. 2.1). Thus, the concept is able to illustrate not only the actual degree of tolerance towards societal utilisation, but also the resilience, especially under the conditions of realistic multiple utilisations. The spatially differentiated service capacity of nature suitable for societal development processes has been defined as the natural spatial potential. Due to the different demands placed upon this capacity by society, it is, for methodological reasons, structured into a number of sub-potentials (partial natural spatial potentials), including for example:

  • The Biotic Yield Potential , or the capacity to produce organic substances and to regenerate the conditions for such production (site fertility).

  • The Biotic Regulation Potential , or the capacity to sustain biological processes and to regulate them once again after disturbances (the biodiversity aspect).

  • The Recreation Potential, or the capacity of nature to contribute to the recreation and health of people by psychological and physical effects.

These brief examples describing the properties of potentials indeed show that the occasionally uttered opinion that the concept of natural spatial potential puts too much emphasis on its natural- scientific elements and fails to sufficiently capture societal or economic aspects is unfounded. A broad range of methodological procedures have been developed by von Haase (1991), Jäger et al. (1977), Mannsfeld (1983), and others through which the advantages and disadvantages of potential utilisation interests can be clearly fleshed out on the basis of an initially unbiased and value-neutral analysis of space. The potential approach was at an early stage also adopted into the system of landscape management and landscape planning (Langer 1970; Buchwald 1973; Lüttig and Pfeiffer 1974).

Complementary to the derivation of suitability for utilisation potentially provided by the abundance of nature, a functional-spatial paradigm began to developed, according to which certain landscape spaces are to fulfill societal functions. This involves not so much the functioning of ecosystems as the scientifically determined organisation of structural procedural contexts (Forman and Godron 1986). The German Federal Conservation of Nature Law underscores in § 1 Item 5 the mandate to preserve the service provision and functionality of landscapes (BNatSchG 2009).

Particularly Niemann (1977), also van der Maarel (1978), Bastian (1991), de Groot (1992), Marks et al. (1992), Durwen (1995), Willemen et al. (2008) and others have addressed this functional approach thoroughly and in great depth. As a result, these and other authors have developed often closely corresponding categorisations into main and partial functions, for example production (economic) functions, regulatory (ecological) functions, and habitat (social) functions–a structuring that clearly reflects a proximity to the three pillars of the sustainability thought discussed earlier. The more recently introduced suggestion to follow a transparent action plan that seeks to secure ES at the interface between conservation of nature and societal/economic goals is based, similarly to the landscape function concept, on the economic, ecological, and sociocultural services provided by ecosystems, and this pragmatic subdivision reflects a great conceptual proximity to fundamental concepts that were already conceived two or three decades prior.

The concept of landscape functions was widely accepted in West German landscape planning during the 1980s (e.g. Langer et al. 1985), since it had proven itself advantageous in communications with political decision-makers (Albert et al. 2012). However, landscape functions in general only see those aspects of the landscape that are ignored by the commercial markets, and hence need to be managed by public planning (von Haaren 2004; Albert et al. 2012).

The knowledge gained from landscape ecological studies about the natural processes are generally not suited for incorporation into economic calculations, due to which reason they are not usually considered in spatial planning decisions. Hence, a correct handling of the transition of natural quanta into economic data (the transformation problem) remains indispensable. Neef, in an essay published in 1969, wrote the following in this regard:

“The role of natural functions in economic contexts, and the feedback effects of societal impacts into the natural balance can only be properly understood if both are placed into a relationship with one another. In order to derive a foundation for the evaluation of natural potentials, it is necessary to juxtapose the potential quanta to the effort of societal labour that needs to be performed (Neef 1969)”.