Neighbourhoods as ecosystems


1 The Ecosystem Approach

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) describes the Ecosystem Approach to sustainable development as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way”. This approach, which was adopted by the CBD in 2000, has a broad scope that goes beyond ecosystems themselves to encompass social, cultural and economic factors that are fully interdependent with biodiversity and ecosystem services. Now, in line with the strategic plan of the CBD, the UK Biodiversity Partnership places greater emphasis on landscape-scale approaches.  These focus on the social structures of human settlement in towns and villages to maintain the integrity of natural resource systems and less on narrower protected site approaches or on recovering target species (Fig 1).

Fig 1

Ecosystem approach

The Ecosystem Approach is actually a managerial methodology to aid decision making which will help to achieve cultural sustainability.  It has been adopted by the CBD as the fundamental tool for delivery of the Convention’s primary objectives and is strongly endorsed by the UK government and the European Union.

The Ecosystem Approach can help to achieve integration of the three goals of sustainability:

  • sustainable use of natural resources;
  • equitable sharing of the benefits derived from their use;
  • conservation of natural resources, based on fully functioning ecosystems

It seeks to integrate and manage the demands on ecosystem services so that essential needs for human well-being can be met indefinitely, and benefits provided for all, without deterioration (Fig 2).

Fig 2

Ecosystem services and well being

The Ecosystem Approach emerged as a focus of discussion for those concerned with the management of biodiversity and natural resources in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly amongst commentators in North America. At that time the limitations of traditional approaches to resource management were being recognized. It was argued that a new focus was required to achieve robust and sustainable outcomes, involving integrated management at a landscape-scale with more decentralized decision making and public participation. Much of the recent interest in the Ecosystem Approach can, however, be traced to the influence of the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), which in 1995 adopted it as the ‘primary framework’ for action (IUCN, 2004). Under the convention, the approach is the basis for considering all the cultural goods and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems (Secretariat of the Convention for Biological Diversity, 2000).

According to the CBD, the Ecosystem Approach embodies a core set of management principles (Table 1).

Table 1: The Principles of the Ecosystem Approach

Adopted by The Conference Of The Parties to the Convention On Biological Diversity at its Fifth Meeting, Nairobi, 15-26 May 2000. Decision V/6, Annex 1. CBD COP-5 Decision 6 UNEP/CBD/COP/5/23

1. The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choice.

2. Management should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.

3. Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.

4. Recognising potential gains from management, there is usually a need to understand and manage the ecosystem in an economic context. Any such ecosystem-management programme should:

a. Reduce those market distortions that adversely affect biological diversity;

b. Align incentives to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use;

c. Internalise costs and benefits in the given ecosystem to the extent feasible.

5. Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the Ecosystem Approach.

6. Ecosystems must be managed within the limits of their functioning.

7. The Ecosystem Approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales.

8. Recognising the varying temporal scales and lag-effects that characterise ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term.

9. Management must recognise that change is inevitable.

10. The Ecosystem Approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity.

11. The Ecosystem Approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.

12. The Ecosystem Approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.

These principles seek, for example, to promote an integrated approach to management that operates across both natural and social systems and between different ecosystems. An understanding of the way in which natural and social systems are coupled is seen as particularly important because, it is argued, management decisions have to be seen in their economic and social context. The principles proposed by the CBD accommodate the conservation and sustainable use of resources, and the sharing of benefits derived from natural resources. However, while management strategies are essentially a matter of societal choice, the principles proposed under the CBD recognise that decisions have to be grounded on a scientific understanding of biophysical limits.

2  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

The Ecosystem Approach to environmental management was boosted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA).  This was a global appraisal called for by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000. Initiated in 2001, the objective of the MA was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action plans needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. The MA has involved the work of more than a thousand experts worldwide. Their findings, contained in five technical volumes and six synthesis reports, provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide (such as clean water, food, forest products, flood control, and natural resources) and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable flows of resources through Earth’s ecological system to the human societal system (Fig 3).  

Fig 3

Ecology society

The following five paragraphs summarises the main findings of the MA.

 Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.

The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.

The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for services can be partially met under some scenarios considered by the MA, but will involve significant changes in policies, institutions and practices that are not currently under way. Many options exist to conserve or enhance specific ecosystem services in ways that reduce negative trade-offs, or that provide positive synergies with other ecosystem services.

The bottom line of the MA findings is that human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, the assessment shows that with appropriate actions it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway; time is rapidly running out.

3 Planning and recording tools

We know that the Ecosystem Approach is not solely biodiversity-based but also reconciles social and economic goals of living sustainably within a unifying action planning system linking culture and ecology.  This management system channels resources from government to a variety of stakeholders. Operational strategies for the Ecosystem Approach therefore not only have to deal with the workings of protected nature sites, but also include an understanding of neighbourhoods to address the local community problems linked to sustainable behaviours and environmental poverty. Tackling these problems is facilitated by a broad ecological approach to managing local inputs to meet co-produced operational outcomes for living sustainably. Long term continuity of management is essential, and local operational plans at neighbourhood level are necessary to avoid the loss of purpose and direction when policies change or key players in the community move on.

Management processes are strategic, financial and operational in nature. Therefore the key to success in applying the Ecosystem Approach to sustainability is planning to align these processes across various levels as well as across business functions of the various funding agencies and departments. Sound business results come only from the perfect execution and tracking of plans, making it imperative to connect the entire set of management processes of the Ecosystem Approach in a seamless system from strategies to operations with feedback loops between processes.

A robust and flexible planning and recording system is necessary to apply the Ecosystem Approach to all kinds of sustainable places.  It has to follow the universal management logic applicable to running a neighbourhood action plan, e.g. for reducing crime, or a corporate enterprise.  At a community level it has to address the production of community assets, such as sports centres, and plan the actions to rectify neighbourhood incivilities such as graffiti, litter and vandalism.  As a system it has to connect corporate strategic targets to measurable local operational objectives. The barriers to reaching these objectives are addressed by projects, which schedule the work to be done, the resources required and records what was achieved. There are feedback reporting loops from outcomes using performance indicators to measure managerial success in reaching the objectives (Fig 4).

Fig 4

  LEAP 2[1]_0.pdf

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