1 Introduction

We live in a time when there is an urgent need to respond to two interrelated global environmental challenges – climate change and biodiversity loss – which are both closely linked to human activities (IPBES, 2019; IPCC, 2021). This requires new ways of thinking about the multiple interdependencies between people and nature, and about how to address them simultaneously (Díaz et al., 2015).

Over the course of the last decade, within the broader field of socio-ecological research, new concepts aimed at addressing environmental challenges, as well as at improving the ecological and socio-economic balance and human well-being, have gained importance (IUCN, 2016). These concepts have been typically framed within socio-ecological systems and often rely on transdisciplinary approaches to bridge differences in perspectives and methodologies for addressing human–nature relationships (Ostrom, 2009). The scientific literature has gradually moved from narrow, reductionist viewpoints towards more comprehensive types of environmental questioning, valuing, and problem-solving (Pascual et al., 2017; Díaz et al., 2018). While such novel paradigms may open new ways to conceptualize human–nature interactions and may be useful to advance scientific ideas in general, they may also easily lead to uncertainties. This may raise questions about their “usefulness” and “representativeness” or about whether they are “complicating things”, especially within broader practitioner and stakeholder groups.

In this chapter we selected three concepts for review, namely Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), Green Infrastructure (GI), and Nature’s Contribution to People (NCP). We believe these concepts have left a lasting mark on socio-ecological research over recent years and, thus, maybe of interest to a broad readership in approaching this field of study (IUCN, 2016; Díaz et al., 2018). They all have emerged relatively recently under the overarching framework of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and are often closely interrelated and complementary. However, the three notions propose different views and emphasize distinct approaches to conceptualize human–nature interactions. The intent of this chapter is not to exhaustively discuss each concept in detail, but rather to provide a brief overview of recent advances in the field of socio-ecological research and of the different approaches upon which nature-based concepts are based and, thus, to contribute to making the interactions between humans and nature more tangible for a broader audience.

2 Nature-Based Solutions as the Overarching Framework

Nature-based Solutions play a central role in understanding the nexus between the natural environment, society, and human well-being, and they are often considered as an umbrella term for a broader set of ecosystem-based approaches (Welden et al., 2021). Nature-based Solutions were introduced in the early 2000s as an important step towards a paradigm change that saw people move from being beneficiaries of nature to having a potentially active role in protecting, managing, and restoring ecosystems (IUCN, 2016). ‘Working with nature’ is increasingly seen as a promising way to address some important societal challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, while also improving ecosystem resilience and providing multiple environmental benefits (Girardin et al., 2021). Recently, the concept of NbS has also gained a substantial amount of international support, mainly thanks to an active promotion campaign led by the European Union and its Research and Innovation Policy (i.e., through the H2020 program) and to the release of different thematic reports, such as those from the British Ecological Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, 2020; Stafford et al., 2021). Moreover, because of their inherently interdisciplinary and complementary nature, NbS also represent a flexible framework for working at the science–practice–policy interface because they cover the strategic, spatial planning, and performance dimensions of human–nature relationships (Fig. 1.1). Indeed, nature-based approaches are key elements for proactive climate change mitigation and adaptation actions that can be applied across scientific fields and innovation sectors. In the following sections we address one exemplar concept from each of these implementation dimensions, namely:

  • EbA as a strategic concept.

  • GI as a spatial planning concept.

  • NCP as a performance concept.

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

The relationship between Nature-based Solutions and existing key concepts in addressing human–nature interactions. Abbreviations in the figure: NBS Nature-based Solutions. EbA Ecosystem-based Adaptation, GI Green Infrastructure, BI Blue Infrastructure, ES Ecosystem Services, NCP Nature’s Contributions to People

2.1 Ecosystem-Based Adaptation

The first concept that we outline here is EbA. It was first introduced at the fourteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2008 as a new strategic approach for effective climate change adaptation planning. Since then, there have been various interpretations of EbA. Common to all of them is the rationale of helping nature to help people to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change (Pauleit et al., 2017). As such, EbA emphasizes the importance of ecological and natural solutions in strategically addressing societally relevant environmental challenges at the human–nature interface (Lo, 2016).

Since 2008, EbA measures have been implemented in many fields of study, mainly with the aim of reducing disaster risks and the overall vulnerability of communities in the context of a changing climate. For example, healthy ecosystems, such as intact mountain forests, can protect roads and other infrastructure from erosion and landslides, but they can also form physical barriers against extreme weather events such as heatwaves and storm surges, while simultaneously providing a variety of ecological co-benefits that are crucial for human well-being, such as clean water and raw materials (Munang et al., 2013). Hence, EbA are characterized by the proactive use of multiple benefits provided by biodiversity-rich ecosystems as part of a broader strategy that simultaneously addresses crucial sustainable development goals, climate change adaptation, and biodiversity targets (Pauleit et al., 2017).

Although the concept has gained increased international awareness and a significant number of positive examples of its implementation are readily available, many stakeholders still struggle to fully exploit the potential of available EbA options. This is largely due to a lack of transferable and user-friendly strategies as well as methods and instruments for mainstreaming the concept into key planning and decision-making processes. Hence, there is a need for more dialogue, knowledge products and context-specific case studies that provide guidance for advising stakeholders and policy-makers but also provide technical backstops that facilitate and guarantee the practical implementation of EbA measures.

2.2 Green Infrastructure

Since 2013, the European Commission has officially defined GI as “a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services” (European Commission, 2013). This definition is based on the idea of consciously integrating the protection and the enhancement of natural processes into spatial planning and territorial development. As a general concept, however, GI dates back to the 1990s when it was introduced to overcome the different rationales and interests in the scientific, policy, and planning communities dealing with urban environments (Hansen et al., 2021).

In fact, GI is particularly relevant for policy because it is action-oriented, tangible, and brings together the efforts of scientists and practitioners in demonstrating how healthy and multi-functional natural areas represent a winning setting for the simultaneous provision of ecological, economic, and social benefits. Moreover, GI provides valid alternatives to the widely used anthropogenic “grey” infrastructure that fulfils only one function at the time, such as drainage or shade. Natural solutions are often multifunctional, meaning that they are “able to perform several functions and provide several benefits on the same spatial area” (EEA, 2017). These functions may be environmental (e.g., conservation of biodiversity or adaptation to climate change), social (e.g., provision of green space or shade in summer), and economic (e.g., supply of jobs and development of business opportunities). For example, while a drainage pipe only transports rainwater, a swale also offers water quality treatment using natural processes, buffers peak flows, provides habitat, and makes the neighborhood more appealing. Likewise, a riverwalk can provide habitat for many species, regulate the speed of the river flow, and create space and opportunities for businesses, social activities, low-emission transport like cycling, and others.

As such, GI networks cover the spatial development dimension of human–nature interactions and can be woven into planning and policy processes at several spatial scales, from the neighborhood to the city and the broader landscape level. Hence, the GI concept can guide a shared understanding about how to manage nature in both urban and peri-urban settings, while still accounting for the complex processes that occur at the science–policy–practice interface.

2.3 Nature’s Contributions to People

The concept of NCP was first coined by (Díaz et al., 2018) as part of the Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services process to improve the interface between science and policy on issues related to biodiversity and ecosystem services. It is defined as all the contributions, both positive and negative, of living nature (i.e., diversity of organisms, ecosystems, and their associated ecological and evolutionary processes) to the quality of life for people. As such, it covers the performance dimension of working with nature by directly building upon the ecosystem services approach (Daily, 1997). However, it proposes a more inclusive view that also specifically accounts for the diversity of values and perspectives that may arise from indigenous stakeholder groups and local communities (Kadykalo et al., 2019). For example, in studies using the concept of ecosystem services alone there has been often a relatively narrow focus on provisioning (mainly food production) and/or supporting and regulating services (i.e. carbon sequestration or biodiversity-mediated services) and little emphasis on less-readily defined cultural services, such as those arising from a relationship with nature, that go beyond the pure benefits provided (Ellis et al., 2019). Over the last decade, this has led to lively debates within academia on the inclusiveness of the ecosystem services framework, which is mainly criticized for its focus on an instrumental/economic perspective of human–nature relationships (Díaz et al., 2015).

Although both the NCP and ecosystem services concepts are integrated with each other and are not mutually exclusive, the scientific community is still divided about which conceptual approach to use for a better engagement with stakeholders and local decision-makers (Kenter, 2018). From an operational perspective, both concepts have been successfully applied and tested in different contexts, regions, and settings (Chaplin-Kramer et al., 2019; Schirpke et al., 2019). Thus, the prioritization of one over the other should be context- and target-driven rather than purely dependent on a conceptual viewpoint (Peterson et al., 2018). In fact, cohesion in addressing societal challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, will be essential to mobilize support for scientific activities and to secure the commitment of stakeholders, policymakers, and the wider community.

The performance dimension that both concepts cover is crucial in this context, because they provide the measurable indications (i.e., through indicator maps) needed to identify conservation intervention areas and, thus, actively guide implementation measures. Indeed, providing tangible information is essential for a comprehensive assessment, that includes social, economic, and ecological perspectives.

3 Integrating Concepts for More Comprehensive Environmental Problem-Solving

The strengths of the EbA, GI, and NCP concepts presented here lie in their interdisciplinarity and complementarity that facilitates their operationalization into policy- and decision-making processes. Although the terms and definitions are open to different interpretations, their broad thematic and spatial scope guarantees high flexibility and adaptability to the different needs of stakeholders across a variety of fields and sectors (Fig. 1.2).

Fig. 1.2
figure 2

Graphical representation of the thematic fields and scales of the concepts of Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), Green Infrastructure (GI), and Nature’s Contribution to People (NCP). Dashed and dotted lines indicate that the delineation of concepts within a particular sphere is not rigid and that there are also other ways to interpret and apply the concepts. The light green box refers to the umbrella concept of Nature-based Solutions (NbS)

All three concepts presented here are human-oriented, and the use/role of nature in its broadest sense is considered a valuable option to complement or even replace traditional mono-functional engineering approaches for the protection, management, and restoration of the environment (Pauleit et al., 2017). For example, EbA harnesses the capacity of nature to buffer human communities against disaster risks while also protecting biodiversity at local and regional levels. The approach embraces the concepts of NCP and GI that typically operate at higher spatial levels. In turn, GI is strategically aimed at enhancing the multifunctionality and regional connectivity of ecosystems through focused intervention measures at broader geographic scales, while NCP provides tools for the valuation and measurement of the direct and indirect benefits provided by healthy socio-ecological systems, contributing to sustainable land management and monitoring (Grêt-Regamey et al., 2021).

The diversity of academic and non-academic theories upon which the concepts presented here are based represent both strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the main weaknesses, beside their somewhat vague definitions for the same or closely related topics, lie in how they include governance aspects, such as the active participation of public, private, and civil actors; the way in which they handle potential trade-offs between proposed conservation measures and scale of operationalization; and how they strike the balance between being conceptually and operationally sound. The strengths include the possibility to promote a transdisciplinary and comprehensive understanding of the human and nature paradigm that will to be certainly fundamental to face the urgent environmental challenges of our time (Soga & Gaston, 2021). For the future, there will be a need to further encourage the integration of nature-based concepts into environmental problem-solving by stakeholder and decision-makers, providing clear and consistent definitions, demonstrate synergies between concepts and openly communicate important knowledge gaps and limitations.