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Ecosystem Services and the Historic Environment

The potential of an approach common in the natural environment sector.

Photograph of a shipwreck on a beach with visitors in the background.
The wreck of the SV Carl in Booby’s Bay, Cornwall, exposed after winter storms in February 2014. As physical structures (supporting services) wrecks can provide cultural interest (cultural services) but also be habitats for wildlife. © D Hooley

What are ecosystem services?

‘Ecosystem services’ are the ways in which the natural environment provides benefits to humans.

The term is increasingly used to describe a methodology which assesses the value of these benefits. The ecosystem services approach is becoming popular with policymakers and land managers, as well as within the planning system. However, the historic environment is not always included in these assessments.

Historic England has begun to explore how the heritage sector might more fruitfully engage with this influential methodology.

The approach is used to identify and assess the services that the environment provides people, and the impact of any change to those services. This value is sometimes, but not always, expressed in monetary terms.

Ecosystem services first emerged in the 1980s but the current iteration stems from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment commissioned by the United Nations in 2001 and published in 2005. Subsequently the UK Government commissioned the National Ecosystem Assessment, the reports of which were published in 2011 and 2014. Ecosystem services has a focus on people, and the benefits that the natural environment can provide to their health, well-being and prosperity. It identifies four categories of services:

  • supporting services: these are the environmental processes that underpin the other services. Such things as soil formation, the nutrient cycle and oxygen production are examples
  • provisioning services: these are concerned with the provision of the things we need or use, including food, fibre, fuel and water
  • regulatory services: these  regulate our environment ; examples include the processes which keep water pure, the self-regulation of the climate, and the way in which landforms serve to mitigate the damage potentially caused by floods
  • cultural services: these are typically intangible. They include such things as the educational, recreational, and aesthetic value of the natural environment. The historic environment is usually included within this category

Ecosystem services places people and their well-being centre stage. This is very familiar territory for the heritage sector, which has people and their stories past and present at its heart. However the historic environment is often overlooked by those using the ecosystem services approach.

There are clear challenges and opportunities here. On the one hand, the breadth of approach and the specificity of language used by practitioners of ecosystem services can be challenging. On the other, the approach offers a fresh way of considering the benefits provided by the environment, and places ‘cultural services’ among these benefits.

The focus of the ‘cultural services’ category is frequently on intangible types of value. The way in which the historic environment contributes to the value of the the more physical ‘natural environment’ that underpins other services is less often acknowledged. One notable exception is a recent Scottish Natural Heritage working paper, in which the role the historic environment plays as a supporting service is explicitly recognised as contributing both to the physical components of space and to the more intangible qualities of place.

The heritage sector has gathered considerable information about the value of the historic environment, whether in terms of ‘sense of place’ or more tangible measures. The Heritage Counts reports produced annually by Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum are a key source of information here. This work has not been drawn on by those applying the ecosystem services approach, but there is a case that it should be.

Areal view of a watermeadow with water mnagement channels.
As a historic landscape that aids water management, this water meadow at Alderbury, near Salisbury contributes supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural escosystem services. © Historic England

A joint workshop

Clearly, there is a need to explore how ecosystem services is being used, the extent to which the historic environment should be taken into account by those who employ the approach, the potential of ecosystem services for the historic environment sector itself, and the challenges posed by its application.

In response to this, Historic England organised a workshop in June 2016, with support from the Valuing Nature Network, which aimed to bring ecosystem services experts together with representatives of the heritage sector. Delegates were asked to consider five questions:

  • what are the opportunities for integrating the historic environment into ecosystem services?
  • what are the obstacles to this integration?
  • what do you think are the priorities for research?
  • how can the historic environment be used in the practical application of ecosystem services?
  •  at what scale do you think an integrated approach is most effective? National, regional, landscape, site – or all of these?

The presentations at the event covered a wide range of projects. Indeed, the benefits of engaging with the ecosystem services approach were highlighted by many speakers: as a way of structuring community engagement and recording what people value and how; as a means of identifying areas of mutual interest; and as a way of putting people at the centre of both the history and the future of the environment.

Archive postcard of landsacape at Sefton Park
Sefton Park, Liverpool. Parks help to regulate temperature and air quality (regulatory services) in urban areas; they also contribute to health and well-being (provisioning and cultural services). © Historic England

At the event, Dr Vince Holyoak (Historic England) introduced the challenges and Dr Robert Fish (University of Kent and Valuing Nature Network) provided some background on cultural ecosystem services. Dr Patricia Rice (Natural England) explained how ecosystem services lay behind the development of National Character Areas and the importance of recognising the interconnectivity of people, natural systems and landscapes.

This was echoed by other speakers, including Dr Rice’s colleague Andy Wharton who looked at two local projects which used Natural Character Areas, participatory GIS and landscape ‘apps’ to work with local people on the mapping of their cultural landscapes. This helped to improve the future management of these places.

Looking at an urban context, Dr Erini Saratsi (University of Kent and Valuing Nature Network) highlighted the ecosystem services provided by green spaces in towns and cities. Reflecting on a brief placement with Historic England through the Valuing Nature Programme, she challenged us to scrutinise what we in the heritage sector really mean when we talk about ‘cultural value’.

Examples of collaboration between historic and natural environment experts were highlighted in several talks.

Dr Stewart Clarke (National Trust) presented the National Trust Spirit of Place approach, which recognises the importance of integrating the cultural, the natural, the tangible and the intangible if site management is to be successful.

Tim Yarnell (Forestry Commission) looked at the importance of understanding the historic character of places and how sensitive to change their special qualities were. He used as an example his experience of collaborative work with Historic England on woodland expansion.

The benefit of collaboration was a theme picked up by Jonathan Porter (Countryscape and Ecosytems Knowledge Network) who emphasised the importance of Historic Landscape Characterisation in bringing many of these different threads together.

Following this, Emily Hathaway (Worcestershire County Council) and Dr Jeremy Lake (Historic England) discussed collaborative work in Worcestershire that looked at settlement patterns and changing landscape use .

The importance of understanding the cultural and historical context of places was emphasised by Dr Anthony Firth (Fjordr Marine and Historic Environment Consulting) who explored the challenges of doing such work in the marine environment.

A policy perspective was offered by Jill Bullen (Natural Resources Wales), who looked at how the historic environment is playing a role in delivering key objectives for the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales, in the wake of two recent Acts of the Welsh Assembly, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016.

Discussion sessions were wide-ranging, but issues surrounding communication and integration were persistent themes. It was recognised that better contact between sectors, with improved clarity of terminology, was essential if awareness of the role of human agency in the environment was to be raised.

Some opportunities were highlighted by Worcestershire County Council’s collaborative work with ecological colleagues. This identified a close correlation between particular historic landscape features and key species. It was crucial to understand the relationship between the historic environment and the natural habitats it created.

Many of the challenges identified by participants centred on the barriers created by mutually exclusive technical language and by ‘silo’ thinking. There was general consensus, though, that in order to address many of the challenges we need practical examples of the integration of the historic environment into ecosystem services approaches.

Historic England is currently gathering information on how heritage is being incorporated within ecosystem services and whether there might be opportunities to improve this.


A modern elevated view of Sefton Park
An elevated view of Sefton Park, Liverpool. © Historic England
Hannah Fluck


Dr Hannah Fluck FSA is Environmental Impacts Historic Environment Intelligence Officer with Historic England.
Hannah has an academic interest in Pleistocene archaeology and over a decade’s experience as a local government archaeologist in Hampshire and Oxfordshire. Hannah joined Historic England in 2015, and works on flooding, coastal change and ecosystem services; she is the author of Historic England’s report on climate change adaptation.
Hannah is keen to be made aware of projects where heritage could be included within ecosystem services.

Further Reading

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment.

The Scottish Natural Heritage working paper ‘Cultural ecosystem services – towards a common framework for developing policy and practice in Scotland’ (October 2015).

The Ecosystems Knowledge Network available at: Ecosystems Knowledge Network. Issue 12 (Spring 2016) is devoted to cultural services and includes an article by Jeremy Lake of Historic England, which explores some of the opportunities for the historic environment to be more fully integrated with those using ecosystem services.

Heritage Counts.

Draft report from the Your Place Matters Project (Worcestershire County Council and Historic England).

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