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Everything according to plan? A new perspective on Ecosystem Services for land-use planners

According to stereotypes, Germans love their orderliness and systems, and these must be planned diligently. Regional and urban planning is no exception – but faced with challenges like global climate change, planners are increasingly required to come up with green infrastructure and sustainable urban development solutions. Thus, considering the concept of Ecosystem services (ES) becomes almost inevitable: They do not only provide services like drinking water but also contribute to the quality of life and human well-being. Nevertheless, regional and city planning processes still need comprehensive approaches to integrate ES as the complex links between ES, governance and human well-being are still being researched.  

Gray et al. (2022) worked on two case studies in Rostock and Munich to obtain approaches that foster the integration of the ES concept into urban and regional planning processes. They investigate firstly who is responsible for this integration, and secondly shed a light on governing human well-being through ES. For this, they conducted a total of 19 semi-structured qualitative interviews that are interpreted from an actor-centered institutionalism perspective. This heuristic assumes an influence of actors rather than control by the institutional framework they act in, thus helping to analyze the various forms of interactions between actors with different capabilities or in certain institutional contexts. Both case studies illustrate an urban core of economic importance in their respective German Federal States, Munich in the south of Germany, and Rostock in the north. Smaller towns adjacent to the case studies were added to gain a regional planning perspective of the regions (Bad Doberan for Rostock and Dachau for Munich).  

While interviewees in both case studies confirmed the planning process to include all relevant (and specified by law) actors, the authors point out that none of the named actor institutions is appointed to be responsible for the integration of ES. If even, participants ascribed this responsibility to environmental-oriented actors like environmental associations. Implementing this approach could open up the possibility of integrating ES into landscape planning, but Gray et al. hesitate: While this might integrate environmental concerns, these concerns would need to be weighed against all other interests in land-use in cross-sectoral land-use planning. But ES’s promotion of environmental concerns in combination with their contribution to human well-being makes a cross-sectoral human well-being perspective necessary. This way, responsibility shifts from landscape planning towards city regional planning. Nevertheless, Gray et al. point out that the institutional structures of specifically oriented planning processes so far cannot encompass holistic approaches like ES. Here, the authors stress the importance of politics and society ultimately deciding what to focus on in the planning process.

Furthermore, the complexity of dealing with multiple values addressed at ES and the connected actors requires a multi-level governance approach with participatory and adaptive processes. According to Gray et al., this would make an institutional change of perspective necessary that fosters an effective science-policy interface. This is accentuated by the case study, revealing late participation of actors as an issue in effective contribution to the planning processes which impacts the assertiveness of an actor. Several factors for strengthening an actor’s assertiveness are mentioned: Strong networks in local politics, experience in planning processes, gained competence and experience, or working in associations. Emphasizing local-level institutions while complementing them with top-down structures could potentially pave the way to integrating ES into the planning system.

In the end, it might boil down to what extent human well-being is being prioritized in planning processes instead of equating it with economic stability. By aspiring to focus on human well-being, not only Germany could foster an effective cross-sectoral planning process that helps create a more sustainable way of living.

This work presents an outcome of the ÖSKKIP research project. ÖSKKIP was a joined research project and interdisciplinary cooperation among the HafenCity University Hamburg, ifuplan Munich, and Leibniz Universität Hannover. Konrad Gray, lead author, is now a PhD candidate associated with Leuphana University’s social-ecological institute.

If you want to learn more about the details of the study, click here.


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