1 Introduction

Nature’s benefits to humans, (termed ecosystem services; ES) are intimately linked to our survival (Isbell et al., 2017). ES provide us with our fundamental basic needs (e.g. fuel, food, and water; provisioning services) and help maintain the environment we need to thrive (e.g. maintaining the quality of air and soil, providing flood control; regulating services). ES also provide us with the ability to develop our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing; providing space for recreation, spiritual and aesthetic appreciation of nature (cultural services).

The worlds’ population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, with over 70% predicted to live in urban areas. Increased global interconnectivity (i.e. through trade networks and global supply chains) has allowed urban populations to indirectly access remote ecosystems to benefit from their services. Meanwhile, there are growing calls for humanity to ‘reconnect’ with nature which may be in the form of material, experiential, emotional or philosophical connections (Ives et al., 2018). Better understanding how we access and connect with nature, will allow us to become a more sustainable society.

Cumming et al. (2014) highlighted theoretical differences between how rural and urban people access ES. In rural areas, people are thought to have relatively direct relationships with local ecosystems (e.g. growing food on a subsistence farm) – termed ‘green-loop’ systems. By contrast, within urban areas, people often rely upon indirect access to distant ecosystems (e.g. obtaining food from hundreds of miles away via a value chain) – termed ‘red-loop’ systems. However, this rather simplistic viewpoint, whilst useful, does not apply to all ES and modes of access (e.g. an urban resident may access a local park to recreate whilst a rural resident may also access supplies through value chains) and leaves many questions unanswered. For example, ‘When do nature’s benefits flow into a city?’ and ‘When do urban residents flow out to access services?’ (see Fig. 15.1).

Fig. 15.1
figure 1

Ecosystem services flows can be broken down into two components: the movement of natural goods (green) and the movement of people to access them (blue)

In this chapter, we explore the nuances of this issue by breaking down ES flows into two components: the movement of natural goods and the movement of beneficiaries (people) to access them – and how this differs between rural and urban areas for provisioning, regulating and cultural ES in turn.

2 Provisioning Services

2.1 Movement of Natural Goods for Provisioning Services

Provisioning ES (such as food) can flow from one region to another across the globe. The nature and direction of the flow are usually determined by demand, which is the product of people’s needs, choices, and the value placed on those services. However, demand and the value chains to supply this demand can vary substantially between cultural and socio-economic groups; for example, between the Global North and the Global South (Horner & Nadvi, 2018).

Within the cities of the Global North, there is a seemingly ever-increasing demand for provisioning ES, making these urban areas focal points for wider environmental impact. This, in part, is driven by the fact that in the Global North the majority of the population are urbanites. Urban areas in the Global North rely heavily on rural ecosystems for the supply of natural products, which flow into cities via supply chains (Taguchi & Santini, 2019). However, within many countries of the Global North, rural areas are connected to similar national and international supply chains. Thus, goods produced within a rural location may not necessarily be used nearby as they may be processed elsewhere and enter the national supply chain, becoming disconnected from the community of origin (Ilbery et al., 2004). For example, salad grown in rural Kent, UK, might be shipped over 100 miles to be packed, prior to distribution nation-wide across rural and urban areas alike. Similarly, rural and urban people across the Global North rely heavily on international products – e.g. the vast majority of UK imports of plywood in 2017 came from China (37%) and Brazil (18%) (Forest Research, 2018). Thus, natural goods may flow similar distances towards both urban and rural beneficiaries within the Global North – even when those goods are produced locally.

The movement of natural goods across the Global South show some similarities to that observed in the Global North, yet there are notable differences – particularly in rural areas. As in the Global North, urban areas across the Global South are centres of demand and heavily reliant on distant ecosystems to supply natural goods (Cumming et al., 2014). This demand is partly supplied by surrounding rural area; e.g. charcoal demand in Dar es Salaam Tanzania is sourced from surrounding rural areas, with increases in demand met with a widening sphere of influence (Ahrends et al., 2010). Remaining urban demand for natural goods in the Global South is often met via international supply chains (Gereffi & Lee, 2012). By contrast, rural areas within the Global South are often more reliant on local ecosystems than urban areas in the Global South, or urban and rural areas in the Global North. For example in northern Ghana, many rural residents obtain bushmeat from local forests (Boafo et al., 2014). However, this rural-urban distinction is complex and varies across different products, often reliant on infrastructure and market access. For example, in West Africa, countries import (e.g. from Thailand or Vietnam) ~40% of rice the needed to meet demand in both rural and urban areas (Tondel et al., 2020).

2.2 Flow of Beneficiaries to Provisioning Services

As in red-loop, green-loop theory (Cumming et al., 2014), urban residents often access provisioning services indirectly due to the low availability of provisioning services resulting from intensive urban land uses. However, urban areas often have good infrastructure enabling the transport of ES directly to (or relatively close to) beneficiaries’ doorsteps. This adds another dimension in urban-rural duality which differs between the Global North and South.

In the Global South, many urban residents do not need to travel to access water because facilities are in place to pipe water directly to their homes. By contrast, more rural people need to travel considerable distances to get water from water bodies or public water facilities (Kummu et al., 2011). In the Global North, most urban and rural residents are connected to a household water supply.

Urban residents in the Global North are often closer to food stores and consequently travel shorter distance to obtain food than people in rural areas, who are often required to drive to access the nearest store (Pinard et al., 2016). By contrast, many rural people in the Global South access food more locally than their urban counterparts, for example due to small farms sizes, poverty and lack of infrastructure (Szabo, 2016).

Fuel is obtained from nearby ecosystems by many low-income households in both rural and urban areas, mostly in countries across the Global South (e.g. fuelwood, charcoal, crop residues, and animal dung). For example, in Argentina, Cardoso et al. (2013) found the search distance for fuelwood was greater in rural areas (>4 km) where people have to travel to nearby forests, compared to urban areas (<4 km) where people have access to trees in urban green spaces. Although, people within the Global North rely on nature less for fuel than their Southern counterparts due to the availability of fossil fuels, of those that do, many urban residents have easier access to (shop-bought) fuelwood than rural residents (Smith & Morton, 2009).

3 Regulating Services

3.1 Movement of Natural Goods for Regulating Services

The concepts of ‘red-loop’ and ‘green-loop’ systems (Cumming et al., 2014) fails to capture the complex nature of regulating services. Unlike provisioning or cultural ES, regulating services are often silent or invisible processes, in which their significance only become evident when a disruption to these services occurs. Regulating services do not provide a flow of material goods like provisioning services. Instead they prevent, moderate or structure natural processes, allowing ecosystems to flourish. Thus, regulating services are less well understood in terms of how scientists can accurately monitor the scale and development of these services.

Additionally, regulating services are often not bound to a specific area as they can contribute more towards aspects of global ecosystem function (e.g. climate regulation) than local ecosystem function. For instance, carbon sequestration, in which excess CO2 is absorbed by vegetation, is provided by forests globally. As a result, there is no significant difference in the flow of carbon regulation services between urban and rural areas. Similarly, flood regulation services provided by upstream ecosystems benefit downstream areas based on location rather than levels of building development (i.e. rural vs urban). That said, many regulating services provide both global and local benefits (such as pollination, flood and air quality mitigation services), demonstrating the complexities of regulating services and the difficulty in deciphering benefits received by urban or rural areas.

Therefore, the most pressing question becomes not how urban or rural communities receive benefits from regulating services, but rather how anthropogenic pressures disrupt these regulating services. The benefits provided by regulating services become more apparent when they are damaged or disrupted, as the loss of these benefits can severely affect ecosystem function. Once a regulating service has been damaged or disrupted, it is extremely difficult to restore. For example, across many parts of Africa vulnerability to climate change and desertification is expected to intensify due to human malpractices of deforestation and land degradation. Increased pressure from both local and global communities have disrupted natural climate regulation leading to increased flooding, droughts, soil erosion and a rise in vector borne diseases such as malaria (Wangai et al., 2016). However, scientific advancements have enabled technical solutions to offset the anthropogenic disruption of ES. For instance, carbon capture and sequestration can severely reduce green gas emissions, which in turn offsets the anthropogenic effect on climate regulation. Yet, some regulating services are not so easily substituted by present technology, and/or cannot be applied in areas like the global south without substantial financial aid (Fitter, 2013).

Historically, humanity has failed to understand the importance of regulating services and the benefits they provide, both in rural and urban areas, until these services were damaged and the distribution of benefits disrupted. In future, technical advancements may help restore and enhance regulating services, particularly as mitigating the impacts of climate change becomes more important.

3.2 Flow of Beneficiaries to Regulating Services

Evidence of movements of people to access regulating services is mixed and case-study specific. This stems in part from the less tangible and unbounded nature of regulating services, the complexity of decision-making surrounding mobility and difficulty in disentangling movement for provisioning services from the underlying regulating service. It depends upon the regulating service in question (i.e. larger-scale climate and flood regulation vs. local-scale air quality and temperature regulation), the duration and spatial scale of movement required, and people’s willingness and capacity to move, which is mediated by a range of socio-economic, cultural and political factors.

Again, perhaps more pertinent than movement to access regulating services is movement in response to a loss or deterioration in regulating services. These movements can be out of necessity (i.e. temporary migration during flooding or drought; Deshingkar, 2006) or choice (for a more comfortable life).

Out-migration from cities to suburban or rural areas in search of a more favourable local climate and/or air quality has been well documented around the world and is often evidenced by higher property prices in the urban fringe. For example, air pollution has been statistically linked to increased out-migration and decreased in-migration, predominantly of educated professionals, from cities in China (Chen et al., 2017). Heat stress can also elicit migration; 25% of survey respondents across several cities of South-East Asia reported being ‘very likely’ to migrate to cooler climes to escape the heat (Zander et al., 2019).

Movement to escape an unfavourable climate is not just confined to urban areas. Mueller et al. (2014) showed in rural Pakistan heat stress significantly increases out-of-village migration, particularly of men, whilst temperature variation had a significant effect on migration in Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay but not in other South American countries studied (Thiede et al., 2016). In the 1990’s, growing awareness of climate change led to predictions that deteriorating climatic conditions would render many livelihoods untenable, prompting mass waves of ‘climate refugees’. Yet this has not been proven and the assumption of a linear ‘push’ relationship between climate change and migration has since been hotly contested. As such, there are no generalisable conclusions regarding the links between environmental change and mobility because responses to environmental change are highly heterogeneous and dependent on people’s vulnerability and capacity to move.

Finally, movements to access regulating services need not be so drastic and long-term, they can also be for short-term recreational purposes. Consider people flocking to parks or the coast on a hot summer day to access the temperature regulation provided by shade or the sea. In these cases, both urban and rural inhabitants travel varied distances, often determined by individual socio-economic factors, to access the regulating service (e.g. to a local or distant greenspace).

4 Cultural Services

4.1 Movement of Natural Goods for Cultural Services

Cultural ES can flow from the providing ecosystem to beneficiaries via sensorial perception (e.g. line-of-sight) or knowledge systems (e.g. the internet). For example, line of sight to natural spaces can represent a flow of sense of place and landscape (Daniel et al., 2012). In an urban context these non-travel flows are often limited to views to relatively few urban green spaces (Lin et al., 2017). In contrast, rural areas tend to be in more immediate proximity to a range of culturally valued ecosystems, which offers higher potential sensorial flow of cultural ES to beneficiaries (Swetnam et al., 2017).

Flow of cultural ES from ecosystems to beneficiaries can occur without beneficiaries seeing or travelling to the ecosystem to obtain the service. Cultural ES may also flow to beneficiaries via knowledge systems as is the case with existence value. Existence value (i.e. the benefit people gain because they value the knowledge of its mere existence) flows from an ecosystem to beneficiaries via both modern (e.g. the internet) and traditional (e.g. word of mouth) knowledge systems (Gee & Burkhard, 2010). Rural areas tend to have less developed information and communications technologies therefore they may have a slower flow of existence value ES (Salemink et al., 2017).

4.2 Flow of Beneficiaries to Cultural Services

People living in rural areas have more direct access to nature than those who live in urban areas as they are often physically closer. They may be able to access natural spaces easily on their own land or very near where they live. Therefore, there is often little cost in terms of time or money for rural inhabitants to access natural spaces (Rodrigue, 2017). Rural residents also have greater opportunities to enjoy nature through activities such as foraging, gardening, and wildlife watching (Fish et al., 2016). These practices can result in a product, but the process of getting them can translate into benefits such as connection to nature, place, and people they have shared the experience with (Fish et al., 2016).

Conversely, urban residents are less likely to live close to natural spaces and so often must make a specific trip to access the benefits of spending time in nature (Žlender & Ward Thompson, 2017). This trip does not necessarily have to be large, and could involve spending time relatively locally, e.g. in urban green space. However, access to urban green space can depend on socio-economic status. Urban areas with more green space (both public and private) are more expensive to live in and this excludes potential beneficiaries who cannot afford to live there, reducing their access to green space and the associated benefits (Wolch et al., 2014). Alternatively, people could leave the urban area completely to access nature in rural areas, although this incurs a greater travel cost in terms of time and money (Mayer & Woltering, 2018).

Whilst proximity and access opportunities are factors in how much time people spend in green space, people’s level of connection to nature, both in rural and urban areas, also plays a part. Lin et al. (2014) showed that living close to an urban green space did not necessarily mean people spent time there. Nature orientation, or connection, was a much stronger factor in predicting whether people spent time in urban green space. Those who reported a greater connection to nature spent longer in their own private gardens, urban green spaces and would travel further to spend time nature (Lin et al., 2014). Therefore, people must have some level of connection to nature to want to spend time there and gain the associated benefits (Martin et al., 2020).

5 Conclusion

Breaking down ES flows into two components (i.e. the movement of natural goods and the flow of beneficiaries) highlights that each of the three categories of ES (provisioning, regulating and cultural) can show substantial differences across the rural-urban spectrum. As the global urban population grows, these differences in ES flows may become increasingly important, and inequalities in these flows might lead to some sectors of society becoming disconnected with nature (Ives et al., 2018). Here, we have illustrated the differences in ES flows by contrasting rural and urban areas, dispelling some of the broad generalisations resulting from red-loop, green-loop theory (Cumming et al., 2014). However, we acknowledge that ES are often spatially and temporally distinct, and largely unique to the individual. Thus, future work must continue to disaggregate ES to beneficiaries with increasing resolution. Similarly, the ongoing expansion of urban areas results in a continuous spectrum and that the rural/urban categories we use here are somewhat arbitrary. As such, we finish by highlighting that the large and expanding global peri-urban zones where ES flows are not well understood. In peri-urban areas, ES flows might be predicted to be intermediary between those observed in rural and urban areas, but further research into this is urgently required.