The selected municipalities ranged in size from > 300 000 inhabitants to < 30 000 inhabitants (Table 1). The two largest municipalities had a range of employees working with UES, while in medium and small municipalities planning and management of UES were often the responsibility of one or a few individuals. We organized the challenges interviewees perceived to UES implementation in planning and management into four overall discourses with the related three dimensions in PAM (Table 2).
Discourse 1—UES is not prioritized
The interviewees’ descriptions of UES implementation efforts often revolved around notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ values in municipal practice, which generated a range of challenges. It was evident that UES, as opposed to e.g., housing, was generally not considered a core responsibility in the municipal organizations (I1,Footnote 2 I2, I5, I6, I7, IF). An urban planner from one of the large municipalities described several good experiments with UES implementation in urban neighborhoods (I2): “But we have a need for housing. That’s at the top of the agenda, and for the housing we need services, you know: school, mail, roads and accessibility—infrastructure. Only after this, we start getting to these soft values”.Footnote 3 Similarly, an interviewee in a medium-sized municipality (IF) stated: “It’s the core activities first. If we need houses we build houses—after that we might look at other societal responsibilities, but they are not primary”, and an interviewee in a small municipality (I5) said: “we have a goal to increase the population by x, and compared with that these more soft values get scrapped”. In terms of municipal actors, the interviewees often alluded to lack of engagement and understanding of ecosystem functions among local politicians (I7). “It’s still hard to sell anything with nature to the local politicians; they still think it can just be substituted with something else”. One municipality had an ambitious plan to generate UES by connecting rural, peri-urban, and urban ecosystems in a network of green hotspots and corridors, but encountered problems e.g., when applying an integrated landscape approach to stormwater management (I4):
As soon as we hit the perimeter of the city: Bam! We hit a wall of wheat or sugar-beet—of agricultural land where we can’t do anything. It is very tricky—but interesting! (I4).
The municipalities lacked simple tools to communicate adequately and convincingly about UES to politicians (I5, I6), and many mentioned lack of standardized models to work with UES across departments and with external actors (I2, I4, I6, IF). Some called for spatial criteria for new and old developments, or standard values for services generated from urban green spaces (IF):
at this point, what we really need is a compilation of standard values like: an oak-tree on a hard surface in a residential, urban neighborhood provides these and these values when it is this old and this big.
Many interviewees described a lack of recognition of the value of UES and the short-term horizons currently dominating local politics (I2, I4, IF), for example (I4):
Often you see growth and gains only in the short-term perspective, and here it is quite apparent that building quick and paving surfaces is smooth and simple. But if you weigh in these other values… But that’s the whole issue! They are hard to see for politicians or for private developers. They are used to seeing the hard, classical values that are monetary and immediately benefit people. The big issue is how to make people see and understand the complexity in the bigger systems.
It is evident that the inherent values of UES were not recognized by the political level in the municipalities studied. Thus, ‘soft’ UES were under-prioritized compared with ‘hard’ projects such as housing and infrastructure. The lack of a long-term perspective for politicians and private developers to prioritize UES was a central challenge identified in the interviewees’ narratives.
Discourse 2—UES is ad-hoc driven
The problem of priority and the overlooked values of UES also revealed a need to develop a more holistic vision within municipal practice, where UES implementation is often driven by experiments and individual projects. Establishing projects and experiments using UES, for example to manage cloudbursts and heatwaves, seemed to be a prevalent approach to garner interest among actors, free up resources, and create transitions toward UES in both planning and management. According to the interviewees, however, the results often lacked further upscaling or long-term implementation (I1, I2, I4, I5, I7). For example, one interviewee described how flooding of a local area had inspired creation of a multifunctional green area, but also hinted at this being accidental rather than planned (I7):
They had flooding problems and lacked active recreation possibilities, and in this case it became a multifunctional green space without much prior planning for that … after the flood in a nearby town we knew we had a water issue. It’s like a problem occurs, and then we solve it, and there we could see that a new park could be both a stormwater solution, a recreational area and so on.
In small to large municipalities, the threat of cloudbursts offered opportunities for green area mapping and inventories to aid in sustainable stormwater management (I4, I5, I7). Similarly, heat stress led to increased focus on tree planting and shade provision (I1, I4). However, the interviewees also described the flipside of such problem-focused implementation, which was reflected in the lack of interest in the benefits of UES until the problem already existed (I1):
we haven’t had a proper cloudburst here; if we had, we would probably have been in a completely different state when it comes to resources and such
This resulted in a range of practical challenges to working with UES.
The lack of consistent mapping and inventories of UES in the municipalities (I4, I5, I7, IF) has resulted in a lack of systematic implementation (IF):
We wish to be pro-active, but we haven’t been able to do the inventories, so we don’t know what we’re losing. This arose as both an economic challenge—“we haven’t gotten far with green planning, we’ve had a student do a green area inventory, and that’s about it” (I5)—and a pedagogic challenge– we need to be able to easily show other actors the [ecological] chain; if we lose pollination we lose this, and this too. (I7).
The strategists responsible for UES in planning in some cases criticized lack of engagement by other actors, e.g., in one of the smaller municipalities (I6):
What we wrote in the comprehensive plan about ecosystem services has just been lumped in there, it hasn’t been discussed, and then not really understood, it hasn’t been processed.
Some interviewees noted the lack of support in the planning and building legislation, e.g., there are no demands on private developers for securing UES (I1, I2, IF), no consistent implementation directives throughout multiple levels of governance ranging from national to local (I6, I7), and no binding compensation mechanism for UES lost during development (I5, I7, IF).
Discourse 3—UES lacks descriptions and standards
The problem with creating a more holistic thinking was closely related to the need to move beyond ‘business as usual’ in municipal practice. In all municipalities, implementation of UES approaches faced problems when measured against existing practices. For some, it was difficult to distinguish any added value from the UES concept:
we have worked with this for long (IF),
or it was considered a cumbersome add-on task for environmental planners and managers:
we are already jacks-of-all-trades, this new thing just feels like: No, no, no! (I6).
The interviewees described UES implementation as often
drowning in everyday-tasks, administration, and questions from the public (I1, I3),
or in the sheer volume of existing plans and documents governing work by municipal employees (I4). Management staff in particular lacked work descriptions that clearly defined UES as a work responsibility (I4, I5), and simultaneously, ideas in planning frequently did not result in changes in on-the-ground maintenance practices (I1, I3, I4). The interviewees mentioned a lack of good, clear examples to inspire change (I1, I6) and a lack of staff-hours to study and take into account local ecological synergies and trade-offs (I3, I4). Several municipalities had to hire consultants for critical tasks such as mapping UES or for improving qualitative management, but in most cases only had limited funds to do so (I1, I3, I5, I7, IF). One interviewee also pointed out that work and job descriptions rarely mentioned UES, and that referring to UES more explicitly would help employees prioritize the topic (I4). Another criticized the existing quality-assurance systems for private developers, which slowed down change and UES implementation, as the protocols for building and construction are difficult to change. That interviewee declared that new ideas would inevitably come up against existing, slow-moving systems for e.g., ‘how to build a good street’, hampering transition to an UES approach to urban planning (I2).
Discourse 4—Silos are hampering cross-departmental development
The interviewees consistently emphasized the lack of cross-departmental collaboration and the urgent need to establish stable networks to take the next step. According to several interviewees, responsibilities and decisions were not well coordinated between departments, and they described how ‘silos’ of responsibilities, knowledge, and practice had formed within their organizations, making an integrated approach to municipal planning for UES more difficult (I2, I4, IF). Few of the interviewees felt that their defined tasks and responsibilities were easily compatible with taking an integrated UES approach, but requested further involvement and better coordination across departments, for example from legal experts, construction engineers, planners, and green space managers. “We work quite a lot in each our own silo”, according to one member of the focus group (IF). The lack of integration of cross-departmental knowledge seemed to exist both between planning and management departments (e.g., city planning and streets) (I2, I3, I6, IF), and between the different areas of administration where UES should be of relevance (I2, I7, IF). One interviewee described how these divisions resulted in competing, rather than complementary efforts in municipal practice (I2):
In modern planning, you have the areas for themselves: housing, work, sports and leisure, and then also infrastructure, and maybe the green infrastructure. Right now, they all compete for space: when we need more housing, more workspaces, or need more outdoor-recreational areas, it all puts pressure on the green areas. But in city planning, it is apparent at least to me, that it ought to be one big soup.
Other challenges of organizational silos were: staff in other departments failing to see the relevance of UES to their work (I2, I3, I4, IF), and individuals being stuck in their traditional roles and work descriptions even if actively trying to work with UES in a more integrative manner across departments (I4, I5, I6, I7). A common concern among the planners interviewed was the lack of contact especially with engineers responsible for on-the-ground construction in the municipalities. Some interviewees traced the issue to a lack of tools for internal communication on how to improve the provisioning of UES across various fields of expertise and responsibility (I2, I5, I7, IF), and saw a need for staff time to implement changes in the everyday practice of different departments (I3, I4). Interviewees from all municipalities thus described a gap between the more holistic system thinking of UES and the usual departmentalization of areas of responsibility, or silos, in municipal practice.