Does citizen science by itself provide an evidence for cultural ecosystem services?

While designing an interdisciplinary PhD research project I am exploring different domains. From one hand I am focusing on the state-of-the-art of citizen science for ecological research and from the other hand I am reading about the conceptual frameworks that have been developed to convey environmental knowledge in policy relevant way. I came across a particular understanding of the interaction between those two domains, which I would like to suggest here.

Considering wide spatio-temporal frames we can assume that the natural environment spawn citizen science activities providing free immaterial “cultural” goods. Therefore, the existence of environmental volunteering activities can be seen as a measure of these supplies from the natural to the social world.

Currently the majority of ecology focused citizen science projects are following a paradigm that is based on the collection and classification of environmental data. Some citizen science projects are even focused on a single taxon (a group of populations of organisms that are considered a unit) or local environment. Few of them have a broader perspective. Therefore, the taxa-focused (taxa is plural of taxon) approach in citizen science can be termed “classical” as the more common. It tends to create knowledge, measuring detecting and collecting data over individual species or natural phenomena. It makes use of the appreciation of nature and tends to spread knowledge, awareness and possibly action that can drive to individual environmental stewardship to support conservation and biodiversity. As outlined in previous studies, volunteering in wildlife recording is motivated by immaterial, cultural gaining and enjoyment of nature as in Hobbs and White (2012) “motivations for participation identified by both organisations and participants themselves centred on learning about their local area or species using their garden, enjoyment of the activities and making a contribution to conservation.” Individual and local knowledge has been networked to achieve broader scientific coverage and understanding. This typical citizen science approach assumes that citizens are observers of nature both in a natural and in an urban environment. In this case the observer and the observed are separated and neatly distinguished. This first approach is the one closely related to the ongoing interest in biological sciences on spatio-temporal population (focused on one specie) dynamics (Sutherland et al. 2013 p.61-62). It can also involve communities’ (sets of co-occurring species) composition.

The policy oriented approach focuses on relations and interactions more than to individual species. It is also directed towards the investigation of the material and immaterial relations between the human species and the natural and cultural environment. A pivotal role is played by the concept of ecosystem services (ES) that have been defined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA 2005 p. v) as follows:

“Ecosystem services are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. These include provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fiber; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.”

The MEA therefore is the attempt to link more tightly science and action. It has been an attempt to express scientific environmental concerns in policy-relevant ways (Carpenter et al. 2009). ES are difficult to express and measure and their influence has always been underestimated since decisions are often based on market values. Following Carpenter we can underline that ”Most decisions are based on market prices, but for many ecosystem services no markets exist, and decision makers have no clear signal for the value of the services. Understanding the true social value of non marketed ecosystem services depends on the ways that services are used by different stakeholders.” Ecosystem services focused research is therefore local grounded and population-targeted. Moreover the difficulty in covering the trade-offs amongst different ESs lead to the conclusion that “We focus on the need for networked, place-based long-term social–ecological research, opportunities to learn from existing programs, and needs for improved monitoring”(Carpenter 2009 p.1309). Social-ecological complex networked and local grounded systems are therefore the analysis units to focus on in order to provide meaningful insights for decision makers. The integration of the social aspect in the ecosystems finds its more challenging and inspiring part when we deal with cultural ecosystem services.

Cultural ES have been described as ”The nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences” (MEA 2005 p.40). The following benefits are listed:”Cultural diversity, Spiritual and religious values, Knowledge systems (traditional and formal), Educational values, Inspiration, Aesthetic values, Social relations, Sense of place, Cultural heritage values, Recreation and ecotourism.” Cultural services as several immaterial goods can be accessed and enjoyed but not properly possessed. Like all the other ecosystem services they can degrade or disappear but will remain detached from the material world. Emblematic is the case of Troy. For centuries Troy remained a place with uncertain location or even uncertain existence, a symbol whose physicality have been rediscovered only in the last two centuries. Nevertheless, its name and its role in western culture remained untouched. Cultural services are therefore immaterial and their enjoyment is more characterized by access than from ownership. Cultural goods are also mentioned in the UK’s national ecosystem assessment (UK NEA 2011) in particular in the chapter devoted to cultural services the need to cover knowledge gaps is stressed and innovative approaches are suggested “in future, their collective and non-monetary value will need to be understood using a range of participatory and deliberative techniques, such as multi-criteria analysis, that require both quantitative and qualitative methods.” (Church et al. 2011 p. 678, Fish et al, 2011). Therefore to better understand ecosystem services we need to use valuation methods that are both inclusive and participative. In the attempt to create an economic evaluation of key cultural benefits Mourato et al. (2010) identified as important elements that increase the knowledge of nature, the improvement of natural capital and consequently stress the importance of outdoor learning with a case study mentioning explicitly citizen science. A key point became the following assertion regarding outdoor learning “benefits are consumed in the form say of the enjoyment of current amenities“ and “future opportunities are investment in human capital.” Similar conclusions are also underlined by Hobbs and White (2012). Learning and enjoying while in a natural or cultural environment are strictly related. A new point of view can be therefore assumed in the relation between citizen science and cultural ecosystem services. Turning around the cause and effect we can infer that citizen science and cultural ecosystem services are strictly related in a way that is usually overlooked.

The enjoyment of nature, the inspiration and the aesthetic enjoyment that have been listed amongst the constituents of cultural ecosystem services and are also among the main constituents of the motivation behind the participation in citizen science projects.

This link between policy designed concepts and individual actions can drive to very fruitful results. Citizen science is therefore strongly related to cultural ecosystem services. While all the other ecosystem services provide physical elements that can be somehow measured valued priced, cultural ecosystem services with their inner emotional nature are the drivers for the enthusiastic lovers of nature that are eager to reiterate their enjoyment, protecting, observing investigating nature and participating to citizen science projects.

It can be an interesting starting point in ecological research and the beginning of the development of citizen science methodologies for social-ecological systems.

Carpenter, S. R., Mooney, H. a, Agard, J., Capistrano, D., Defries, R. S., Díaz, S., Dietz, T., et al. (2009). Science for managing ecosystem services: Beyond the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(5), 1305–12. doi:10.1073/pnas.0808772106

Church, A., Burgess, J., Ravenscroft, N., Bird, W., Blackstock, K., Brady, E., Crang, M., et al. (2011). Cultural Services. UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Technical Report (pp. 633–692). Cambridge: UNEP-WCMC. Retrieved from

Fish, R., Burgess, J., Footitt, A., & Turner, K. (2011). Participatory and deliberative techniques to support the monetary and non- monetary valuation of ecosystem services : An introductory guide. (Defra Project Code: NR0124)

Hobbs, S. J., & White, P. C. L. (2012). Motivations and barriers in relation to community participation in biodiversity recording. Journal for Nature Conservation, 20(6), 364–373. doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2012.08.002

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment(MEA) (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Sutherland, W. J., Freckleton, R. P., Godfray, H. C. J., Beissinger, S. R., Benton, T., Cameron, D. D., Carmel, Y., et al. (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology, (101), 58–67. doi:10.1111/1365-2745.12025

UK National Ecosystem Assessment(UK NEA). (2011). The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.


  1. I find your take on citizen science and ecosystem services extremely interesting! I am working on related questions although from a very different angle and would love to hear more about your work.
    My own look at citizen science projects in the environmental domain seems to suggest that citizen science activities as a measure for ecosystem services require a close look at the very different motivations of citizen science projects. The intentions of participants would have to be filtered out in order to serve as a good measure.
    At a sociological level the increased interest in citizen science seems to express a desire for bottom-up democracy which may not necessarily have a direct relation to the provision of ecosystem services. Specific projects vary in their motivation as well: projects like the fantastic Christmas bird count which has been running for a century are also a cultural service in itself; an increasing number of projects focused on alien invasive species can be seen as a measure of the threat to ecosystems and may thus have an inverse relationship to measured ecosystem services; while biodiversity monitoring projects like OPAL would probably be a good example for a measure of ecosystem services provision. In addition, for all these examples it can be observed that they have of course seen increased participation due to new media, thus the penetration of online media and distribution of ubiquitious computing technologies in general need to be taken into account.

    All very exciting questions! Looking forward to hear more about this and maybe see something published soon?


    1. Thank you Stefan,
      Your insights are converging on the direction I suggested. I just think that maybe it could be better to broaden the analysis to any kind of environmental volunteering. Another element to deeply investigate is the relation between provision of cultural ecosystem services and volunteering action. The time lapse spans all along the life of an individual and it might also cover a wider range. I will publish here some more insights on my way to a better understanding of how to handle and combine efficiently the methodologies to investigate such a relation. As soon as a publication will emerge I will keep you updated.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.