Uncovering the hidden value of urban rivers: Study reveals community perceptions of ecosystem services

The case of the Zamora and Malacatos rivers in Loja, Ecuador

Guest blog post by Natalia Alvarado-Arias, Vinicio Moya-Almeida, Francisco Cabrera-Torres, and Andrea Medina-Enríquez

Urban rivers play a crucial role in providing ecosystem services that contribute to the social well-being and quality of life of urban inhabitants. However, rapid urbanization has led to the progressive degradation of these rivers, affecting their capacity to deliver these services and generating significant socioecological impacts. A groundbreaking study conducted in the Zamora and Malacatos Rivers in Loja, Ecuador, performed a participatory mapping of the non-monetary social values (both positive and negative) and their associated ecosystem services. This research, published in the journal One Ecosystem, aimed to understand community perceptions and preferences in the context of degraded landscapes, using a complementary analysis approach to traditional methods.

Oblique aerial photographs of the research area captured with unmanned aerial vehicles (2021). Left: Malacatos River. Right: Zamora River

The methodology employed in this study involved data collection and analysis using ArcGIS Survey123 Connect (ESRI 2020), a digital survey tool that facilitated easy data collection from participants. Additionally, The Social Values for Ecosystem Services (SolVES 4.0) tool was utilized, integrating participatory survey data and environmental data to assess and map the social values associated with ecosystem services. This combination of technological tools allowed for comprehensive analysis and visual representation of the results.

The study findings revealed that the most relevant social values encompassed learning, aesthetics, therapy, displeasure, deficient and inaccessible infrastructure, and the threat of flooding. Different spatial patterns were identified for each of these social values, with the horizontal distance to green areas emerging as a significant environmental variable contributing to these patterns.

Spatial distribution of positive social values.

These findings enhance our understanding of the social values and preferences associated with ecosystem services in urban river contexts. Furthermore, they provide valuable insights for identifying areas of opportunity and conflict, informing community planning, and enabling effective management of the urban landscape. The significance of this study lies in its novel approach, considering non-monetary social values, and its application in a city in the Global South, where previous research has predominantly focused on the Global North.

The degradation of urban rivers and the resulting socioecological impacts are a growing concern worldwide. Rivers play a vital role in providing natural resources, species habitats, freshwater supply, and flood control, while also satisfying the social, spiritual, and recreational needs of local communities. However, the processes of rapid urbanization have transformed river ecosystems into monofunctional channels and open sewers, negatively impacting the quality of life of residents.

Spatial distribution of negative social values.

This study emphasizes the importance of considering social values and community preferences when assessing and managing urban rivers. By doing so, opportunities and conflicts can be identified, and management strategies can be developed that are socially accepted and supported. Active community participation is crucial in this process as it allows for the addressing of traditional viewpoints and power asymmetries in planning.

The study employed a participatory and community-based approach, utilizing surveys and digital mapping tools such as ArcGIS Survey123 Connect (ESRI 2020) and The Social Values for Ecosystem Services (SolVES 4.0) to collect and analyze data from multiple social actors. This integration of technological tools and participatory methods allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of the social values and ecosystem services associated with urban rivers.

An urban river. Photo by alcides OTA used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

In summary, this groundbreaking study highlights the importance of urban rivers as providers of ecosystem services and their role in the quality of life of urban communities. By understanding and valuing the social and cultural aspects of river ecosystems, effective management strategies can be developed to promote the restoration and conservation of these critical natural resources. Active community participation is essential in achieving sustainable management of urban rivers and ensuring a prosperous future for future generations.

Research article:

Alvarado-Arias N, Moya-Almeida V, Cabrera-Torres F, Medina-Enríquez A (2023) Evaluation and mapping of the positive and negative social values for the urban river ecosystem. One Ecosystem 8: e101122. https://doi.org/10.3897/oneeco.8.e101122

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