Use of the ecosystem services concept in landscape management in the Netherlands


  • Joke van Wensem

    Corresponding author
    1. Soil Protection Technical Committee (TCB), PO Box 30947, 2500 GX The Hague, the Netherlands
    • Soil Protection Technical Committee (TCB), PO Box 30947, 2500 GX The Hague, the Netherlands
    Search for more papers by this author


Increasing reference to the ecosystem services (ES) concept is made in publications on the need to use natural resources sustainably, to protect and enhance biodiversity, and to alleviate poverty in developing countries. To examine the significance of the concept in densely populated industrialized countries, this case study investigates its use in several sustainable landscape management projects in the Netherlands. Guidance by the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB) for local and regional policy and management serves as a reference. The projects studied show that the ES concept is seen as a tool for enhancing biodiversity, creating more sustainable regional development plans, supporting better spatial-planning decisions on soil sealing, and, most importantly, for getting the involvement of much broader stakeholder groups—not just to make better decisions, but also to attract more funding for the plans. Not only does the Netherlands have a high demand for various ecosystem services and a desire for multifunctional land use, it also has a long tradition of consensus-seeking. As a result, “Dutch practice” is complex and involves many different stakeholders. Because of increasing recognition of the role ecosystem services play in enhancing the visibility of natural resources in decision making, the ES concept seems to be gaining a foothold. However, the number of projects is still limited, and neither the use of the methods nor the results are monitored. So far, this has made it impossible to say whether the approach leads to more sustainable decisions—in other words, to the better protection and management of natural resources. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2013; 9: 237–242. © 2013 SETAC


Since the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Hassan et al. 2005), the ecosystem services (ES) concept has gained increasing interest in environmental research and policy making. Among its many uses, it helps communicate the need to use natural resources sustainably, protect and enhance biodiversity, and alleviate poverty in developing countries.

Daily et al. (2009) give an overall scheme for how ES should be included in decision making (Figure 1). Ecosystems are influenced by decisions that can alter the provision and value of services. On the basis of changes in ES flows and values, institutions use incentives to persuade decision makers to maintain or improve ecosystems and the provision of ES. The ways in which decisions influence ecosystems, and changes in ecosystems influence the provision of ES (right hand side of Figure 1), are addressed in the natural sciences domain. The valuation of ES, the monitoring and incentives to influence decision making (left hand side of Figure 1) are addressed in the socio-economic domain.

Figure 1.

Overall scheme for how to include ecosystem services in decision making. Decisions influence ecosystems, which may alter the provision of services and the value of these services. Based on changes in ecosystem services flows and values, institutions use incentives to influence decision makers to maintain or improve ecosystems and ecosystem service provision. Modified from Daily et al. (2009).

Daily et al. (2009) concluded “In practice, however, we have not yet developed the scientific basis, nor the policy and finance mechanisms, for incorporating natural capital into resource- and land-use decisions on a large scale.” In a proposal for a blueprint for ES assessments, Seppelt et al. (2011) state that the demand for ES instruments is increasing at a greater pace than scientists are able to provide robust information on the relationships between ecosystem functioning and ES. This means that the right-hand side of Figure 1 seems less well-developed than the left-hand side. Nevertheless, politicians expect answers from environmental managers and scientists; this is illustrated by a letter from the US Congress to the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Forest Service, in which the Congress asks for a joint report on how the values of ES can be included in decision making on the management of federal land. The primary purpose of this report would be to enhance the management of ES across agencies by formally addressing the values early in the decision making process to that all parties understand the tradeoffs (US Congress 2012).

The enthusiasm with which the ES concept has been embraced by policy makers reflects an urgent need for new ways to achieve sustainable development and green growth (OECD 2011). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Hassan et al. 2005) focused on large-scale ecosystem degradation; since then, considerable attention has been paid to developing countries in which large-scale ecosystems are under threat and in which there is a need for poverty alleviation. However, what might the ES concept mean for environmental policy in densely populated industrialized countries that have lost many of their ecosystem qualities and services? In such countries, there is considerable competition between different kinds of land uses, and, if societal needs are to be met, land must be used for multiple purposes. This leads to complex decision making, particularly at regional and local levels.

Partly on the basis of a report by the Dutch Soil Protection Technical Committee (TCB 2012), this article describes the actual and potential use of the ES concept in the sustainable management of landscapes in the Netherlands. Developments in international science and policy are used as a reference. Much of the information presented in this article is documented only in Dutch in the so-called gray literature. Please contact the author for additional information.


Dictionaries define the word “landscape” as “the land forms of a region in the aggregate” or “the portion of territory that can be viewed at one time from one place.” This article uses the term landscape to signify a management “unit” that consists of a regional system that encompasses soil and water, and also the organisms—including humans—living in it. This might be an appropriate spatial scale to use when considering citizens' needs for ES provision in densely populated areas.

Here, our definition of “landscape management” comprises spatial planning and design, and all measures necessary to maintaining the landscape. Landscape management is driven by a complex of governance levels, ranging from international to neighborhood level; even individual citizens can influence landscapes.

One of the major challenges inherent to achieving sustainable development and green growth is the protection and maintenance of the natural resources on which we heavily depend for our well-being and welfare, but which are not always included or valuated properly in decision making. As a landscape comprises different ecosystems, it may contain a wide range of natural resources.

The use of the ES concept in landscape management is advocated to protect and enhance natural resources—in other words, to maintain healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. Although these objectives are interlinked, each is distinct from the other, even if policy makers refer to them interchangeably according to context and audience. Where “healthy ecosystems” refers to the functioning of ecosystems, and is associated with environmental quality, “biodiversity” is a structural aspect of ecosystems, and is often associated with nature conservation. Both are conditional for the sustainable provision of natural resources.

The natural resources provided by landscapes can be made visible by the ES concept, e.g., as food, clean water, air quality, and recreation. Most of the ES are associated with specific kinds of land use (such as agriculture or forestry) or landscape elements (such as watercourses or hedgerows). Management tends to target a single ES provided by the particular land use or landscape element, leading to tradeoffs between ES. Often, management also leads to uniformity in the landscape, which at a regional scale may lead to complete loss of specific ES. The fact that most land is privately owned, and that landowners have a right to optimize certain ES to maximize profitability, is an important cause in creating tradeoffs and ultimately uniformity in the landscape.

Landscape management should strengthen the position of natural resources: the ES concept provides the imagery and valuation landscape managers need in their decision making on natural resources. In addition, and if necessary, the concept of “service providing units” might provide a spatial dimension to ES (Kontogianni et al. 2010).


  • 1.The use (optimization) of an ecosystem service should not lead to its exhaustion or destruction locally.
  • 2.In optimizing a specific ecosystem service, other services should as far as possible remain intact.
  • 3.The recovery capacity of the ecosystem should remain intact; this means that the services temporarily less available or absent, possibly for a protracted period, must be able to return.
  • 4.The rate of recovery should be commensurate with the rate at which the optimization of an ecosystem service is being changed, e.g. from agriculture to nature. A recovery period of centuries is too long where the changes took place over 30 years, for example.
  • 5.All ES must have the requisite space; this limits the scale on which optimizing of certain services can occur.
  • 6.The exploitation of the ecosystem goods and services must not harm its surroundings, e.g. other contiguous ecosystems.

Although basic scientific guidelines have been given for the management of natural resources through the ES concept (see Box 1) (TCB 2003; EFSA 2010), they need to be operationalized before they can be of practical use to decision makers such as landscape managers. In other words, their application in decision making has to be ensured. For this purpose, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB) is still working on guidelines for including natural resources in decision making at various levels. One of the reports includes a stepwise approach to including natural resources in decision making at the levels of local and regional policy and management, a relevant scale for landscapes (TEEB 2012).

The TEEB approach starts with a list of questions common to all planning decisions:

  • 1.What does nature provide us at the local level?
  • 2.How valuable is this?
  • 3.How do we evaluate these ES or value them in monetary terms?
  • 4.Who is affected by changes in services?
  • 5.How might those affected by these changes alter their behavior?

To investigate these questions, the approach then includes the following steps (referred to here as TEEB steps):

  • Step 1: Specify and agree on the problem

  • Step 2: Identify which ES are relevant to the decision

  • Step 3: Define the information needs and select appropriate methods

  • Step 4: Assess the changes that are expected in the flow of ES

  • Step 5: Identify and assess policy options

  • Step 6: Assess distributional impacts of policy options


Over the past decade, experience has accumulated in the inclusion of natural resources in Dutch landscape management through the use of the ES concept. A number of these national projects are described below. Where possible, all are placed in the context of the TEEB steps for including natural resources in decision making (see above). Even though they may be suitable for broader application, most of these projects have been developed by government institutes or have been commissioned by governments for national use, and have not been reported in the international literature.

Stakeholder support of and funding for landscape management

The question behind the first TEEB step (specify and agree on the problem) is whether policy makers and stakeholders have the same perception of the issue at stake. This makes it necessary to conduct a thorough stakeholder analysis. A way to identify stakeholders is provided by the ES relevant to the decision, which is TEEB step 2. First the ES delivered by the landscape or landscape elements under decision can be analyzed, and then the stakeholders of these ES.

An illustration of this method is given in Table 1; it is derived from Hendriks et al. (2010), whose study analyzed the ES provided by forests, woodlands, and smaller areas with trees and bushes (all indicated by “wood”). The same exercise was done for grasslands and reed lands (not shown). This analysis was carried out for larger nature conservation bodies, and aimed to identify stakeholders who would be interested in investing in specific ES. Hendriks et al. (2010) thus used the relevant ES to identify stakeholders.

Table 1. Examples of ecosystem services provided by “wood” (forests, woodlands, and smaller woody areas), and respective providers, buyers, stakeholders, and spatial conditions for these ecosystem services (Hendriks et al. 2010)
Ecosystem serviceProviderBuyerStakeholderSpatial condition
• Carbon sequestration• Forest managers• National government• National government• Sufficient area for substantial sequestration
  • European Union• Industry 
   • Citizens 
• Living and working in a green environment• Forest managers• Citizens• Project developers• Ratio built up and green area
 • Municipalities• Companies• Health insurance companies• Spatial cohesion
• Trails in forests• Forest managers• Walkers• Recreation businesses• Size of forest and/or recreation area
  • Runners• Sports clothing businesses• Location compared to city
   • Contractors 

The purpose of TEEB step 1 is to identify stakeholders to create support for decision making. Identifying stakeholders is also necessary to attract or increase funding for landscape projects that will enhance natural resources. Goldman et al. (2008) found that, relative to traditional approaches such as setting aside land through the purchase of property rights, biodiversity conservation projects that used ES approaches were able to attract more than 4 times the funding, due largely to greater corporate sponsorship and the use of a wider variety of finance tools.

To identify a broad spectrum of stakeholders for support and funding of landscape projects, a Dutch consortium consisting of national government departments, research institutes, and consultants developed the “discover, agree and develop” approach (known in Dutch as Triple-O) (IenM 2012). The approach is based on experiences in 3 pilot projects. As the name suggests, it consists of 3 steps: discovering the unrecognized benefits of natural resources in a region, agreeing with multiple stakeholders on the additional value of these natural resources and accommodating their different interests, and jointly developing business cases for sustainably exploiting and managing the benefits of these natural resources. In this approach, natural resources are visualized by ES. Triple-O focuses on the local governance, societal, and economical processes necessary to achieving sustainable regional development; it comprises TEEB steps 1, 2, 5, and 6.

To attract funding for green–blue infrastructure, the Dutch governmental biodiversity program commissioned the development of a practical approach called “doing business with landscape services” (Steingröver et al. 2011). Written for providers, buyers, and stakeholders of ES, the resulting guideline aims to extend and improve the green–blue infrastructure (hedgerows, parks, waterways) in areas that are not eligible for subsidies from agri-environment schemes. The guideline explains how providers of the ES delivered by green–blue infrastructure on their land can identify buyers and stakeholders for purposes of raising funding for constructing, planting, and maintaining green–blue infrastructure.

In the Netherlands, the involvement of stakeholders with regard to sustainable land use and ES is relatively institutionalized. To achieve more sustainable land management in the agricultural sector, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation established several communities of practice (CoP). Although these do not apply the ES concept directly, they aim to enhance ES in agricultural soils, for example by enhancing agrobiodiversity through noninversion tillage (PN-NKG 2012). Likewise, the Learning Network on Functional AgroBiodiversity (ELN-FAB 2012) operates as a CoP at European level.

Similarly, the Dutch initiative for “conscious soil use” can be seen as a variant of a CoP. Focusing on external integration, this initiative has gained the support of more than 50 societal organizations, and is represented by 13 soil “ambassadors” recruited from these organizations (CSUI 2012). In 2011, a CoP on Ecosystem Services was established under the umbrella of the applied research program for sustainable development of the subsurface (SKB 2012), to provide a platform for end-users (stakeholders), scientists, and national, regional, or local policy makers to discuss and exchange information on the use of the ES concept in practice (Brils and Van der Meulen 2010).

Identification of relevant ecosystem services

TEEB step 2—identification of the ES that are relevant to the decision—is often based on general knowledge about which ES are being provided by a specific kind of land use (thus, under average conditions, agricultural land might provide food, fiber, fuel, water regulation, and some C sequestration, but not habitat for many species, recreation, and pollination). The connection between land use and ES provision was used to identify relevant ES in a Dutch decision support instrument for soil sealing (covering soils with impervious materials, such as roads and buildings) in rural areas. In this decision support instrument, the relevance of an ES for a certain land use type is indicated by a default value between 0 and 5, the values being based on expert judgment and literature. The impact of soil sealing is expressed as the loss of ES provision caused by the loss of specific land-use types in the plan area. As it was recognized that the provision of ES may deviate locally from the results of an expert-judgment exercise, the method allows for deviation of default values and for additional stakeholder input for ES that are not easily connected to land-use types (Huijsmans et al. 2011) (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Schematic overview of a decision support instrument for soil sealing in rural areas. The amount and location of the sealing in the rural development plan is the starting point. The most relevant flows of ecosystem services in the planning area are selected and an evaluation is made of the effects of sealing on these services. These effects are weighed in the plan idea that may lead to changes of the plan or mitigation of the effects. Modified from Huijsmans et al. (2011).

The method was based on the idea (Burkhard et al. 2009) of connecting ES to the land-cover classification used for the European CORINE program (EEA 1994), which comprises over 40 types of land cover, ranging from highly manmade ecosystems (e.g., continuous urban fabric) to natural ones (e.g., estuaries). The classification presents the capacity of each land-cover type to provide individual ES. Thus, although continuous urban fabric has no capacity to provide ES (besides supporting buildings), estuaries can provide a wide range of ES, such as food, flood protection, and water purification. As the system is based on initial expert evaluations, it should be seen as a series of research hypotheses that are to be tested (Burkhard et al. 2009).

Identifying relevant ES by making a connection with land use or land-cover type indicates the potential for ES provisioning. As actual ES delivery may be affected by location and land and water quality, Rutgers et al. (2012) developed a method for assessing the quantitative aspects of ES provision by soils at arable farms. The method is based on stakeholder expectations (i.e., what they expect the land to provide), expert judgment (to identify indicators), and the Dutch Soil Monitoring Network (to derive reference values for these indicators).

Changes in the flow of ecosystem services

Environmental assessment methods are used to investigate the state of ecosystems and changes in the flow of ES (TEEB step 4). The ES concept was used in site-specific ecological risk assessment for the Krimpenerwaard, a 12 000-ha polder (i.e., reclaimed area) in the Netherlands, in which approximately 5000 ditches had been filled with various waste materials. Addressing specific goals for land use in terms of ES defined by local stakeholders, the assessment focused on 3 criteria: ecological risks for agriculture, nature conservation and development, and recreation (Faber 2006). The approach taken in this project inspired a protocol for site-specific ecological risk assessment that was later published by the Netherlands Standards Institute (NEN 2010). In addition, Faber and Van Wensem (2012) elaborated on the use of the ES concept for application in site-specific ecological risk assessment for soils.

Implementation of ES in existing projects and networks

In the province of Zeeland, a consortium involving 14 governmental, scientific and business partners took an experimental approach to improving the use of the soil, subsoil and landscape in economic and societal projects for sustainable regional development (Smit and Verzandvoort 2012a, 2012b). Per project, the ES provided by the soil, subsoil, and landscape were made visible and concrete. One major conclusion was that it is important from the point of view of end-users and stakeholders to use 2 techniques to visualize the role of soil, subsoil and landscape in ES provision: 1) by using images for ES, and 2) by mapping ES at appropriate landscape scales. Project participants felt that the key to fulfilling the sustainability of each project lay in the implementation of measures to maintain ES provision (so-called “services on return”). It was concluded that greater benefits would be derived from integrating ES thinking into existing networks and projects than from setting up projects exclusively to enhance ES thinking. All TEEB steps were involved in this experiment.

Societal cost–benefit analyses

In the past decade, a number of societal cost–benefit analyses have been carried out in the Netherlands to investigate local, regional, and national development scenarios. The cases included analyses of the societal costs and benefits (Koetse and Rietveld 2010, and references therein):

  • The greening of a neighborhood

  • Creating green areas near a city

  • Extending green recreation areas

  • Better management of peat meadow areas

  • Green–blue landscape elements and

  • Landscape quality

In general, the analyses show that much greater societal benefits are produced by investments in creating and maintaining landscape elements that provide ES than by the alternative scenario, autonomous development. The analytical methods used in SCBA are still under discussion, especially with regard to how one should value ES or “nature” (where the focus is on the use of monetary values) against the use of nature scores, such as the “ecological quality area” (Sijtsma et al. 2010; De Blaai and Verburg 2011).

Policy developments

The Dutch government facilitates the use of ES in landscape management by initiating and supporting pilot experiments and by publishing guidance documents. Some examples are presented in this article. At the request of the Dutch government, the Soil Protection Technical Committee published an advisory report on the use of the ES concept in decision making in land use and land management. The Committee stressed the value of the ES concept in interpreting and valuing ecosystems, in including natural resources in decision making and monitoring, in increasing synergy between different policy fields, and in identifying stakeholders. The committee recommended that the ES concept be used to support decision making under the upcoming Integrated Environment Act (TCB 2012).


In densely populated, highly industrialized countries, there is considerable competition between different kinds of land use, and the fulfillment of various societal needs requires the use of land for multiple purposes. The complexity of decision making on natural resources is compounded by the fact that much land is privately owned. The Dutch case studies show that various parties view the ES concept as a tool for enhancing biodiversity, creating more sustainable regional development plans, supporting better spatial-planning decisions with respect to soil sealing, and, most importantly, for involving much broader stakeholder groups not only in making better decisions but also in attracting greater funding for the plans.

As the TEEB steps were designed for local and regional authorities, they follow a top-down approach in which the authorities have the initiative. Because of 3 factors—a high demand for a variety of ES, a desire for multifunctional land use, and a tradition of seeking consensus—“Dutch practice” is a complex phenomenon that involves many different stakeholders. The initiatives described above were often driven by consortia composed of parties from divergent backgrounds, such as local, regional, and national authorities, plus businesses, NGOs, and citizens and citizen groups—all supported by consultants and scientists.

This Dutch phenomenon is described by the concept of “the energetic society,” in which broad stakeholder involvement in decision making is seen as the driver of sustainable development (Hajer 2011). The energetic society is composed of a large group of actors who participate actively in the debate on sustainability. Although the effect of the broad stakeholder involvement may be overshadowed by differences in values, and although sustainable decisions are not guaranteed, the energetic society concept inspires many regional and local projects, in which the ES concept serves as a language and tool for communicating, identifying stakeholders, valuating natural resources, and finding funding. The key to most of these projects is the collaboration between local or regional authorities, businesses, NGOs, and citizens or citizen groups.

Regardless of a plan's initiator or initiators, the Dutch projects show that 2 TEEB steps—“specifying and agreeing on the problem” and “identifying which ES are relevant to the decision”—cannot be taken consecutively, as the stakeholders that need to be consulted about the problem are identified by the relevant ES services. The Zeeland project stressed that it was important to make visible the role that landscapes play in ES provisioning, of which many stakeholders were unaware. If necessary, maps should be used for the purpose.

The facilitating role of the ES in increasing the visibility of natural resources in decision making therefore seems to be gaining a foothold in the Netherlands, though the number of projects is still limited, and the wider use of methods—e.g., enhancing green–blue veining or decision support for sealing—is not monitored.

For this reason, it is not yet possible to say whether this approach results in more sustainable decisions—in other words, whether it leads to the better protection and management of natural resources. The lesson from the Zeeland project is important: for the stakeholders, the achievement of sustainability in the project lay in the implementation of the “services on return” that need to be provided to ecosystems to maintain the desired ES. It was recommended that this be included more explicitly in the TEEB steps.

On the basis of this Dutch case study, it can be concluded that the ES concept is also useful in highly industrialized, densely populated countries. The focus in these projects seems to lie on governance, particularly with regard to networks and stakeholder involvement. One reason why environmental assessments attract little attention in the projects may be that the use of the ES concept in governance is considered by the project participants as a “new” development, whereas environmental assessments are considered to be business as usual. Regardless of the perception of relative importance of these 2 elements in decision making, the present environmental assessments should at least be extended with information on changes in ES flows. In this way, ES would be better integrated into decision making.


This paper is one of 8 articles generated from the SETAC Special Symposium: Ecosystem Services, from Policy to Practice (15–16 February 2012, Brussels, Belgium). The symposium aimed to give a broad overview of the application of the ecosystem services concept in environmental assessment and management, against the background of the implementation of the European environmental policies such as the biodiversity agenda, agricultural policy, and the water framework directive.


The author acknowledges the Soil Protection Technical Committee (TCB) and Lorraine Maltby (Sheffield University) for their inspiration and support; and Jack Faber (Wageningen University and Research Centre), Jaap Tuinstra (TCB), and 2 anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts.