The Most Important Current Research Questions in Urban Ecosystem Services

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We tend to take nature’s ecological systems – or ecosystems – for granted, but they provide critically valuable services to society and to urban areas. They create a sense of place and recreational opportunities, contributing to quality of life by enhancing human physical and psychological health. This is particularly true for cities, where economic productivity, fiscal soundness, community life, and governance are tied to natural surroundings in distinct, unique and generally under-appreciated ways. Because the urbanized world depends on ecosystem services – both inside and outside of city boundaries – investing in the provision of ecosystem services will often be more cost-effective than response actions, such as treatment, restoration, and disaster response. Given the importance of urban ecosystem benefits to surrounding populations, we might expect that ecosystem services would play a prominent role in the formulation of urban policies, plans, and laws. However, with rare exception, they do not. Many cities are experiencing declines of the ecosystems that sustain them. Metropolitan areas are losing open space, farmland, and environmentally sensitive lands.

As America, and indeed the rest of the world, becomes increasingly urbanized, these issues are of the first importance in seeking to improve quality of life. The scholarship in the area, though, has been fragmented by discipline. Much remains to be done. First and foremost, we must identify the pressing research needs. This article brings together the collective insights of scholars and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines – lawyers and urban planners to ecologists and economists. Taking a comprehensive and wide-ranging view of the field, we identify the most important research questions that should shape the future of scholarship on urban ecosystem services. In doing so, we seek to help shape the trajectory of research across multiple disciplines in this growing and critical area.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Ecosystem services, Environmental law