The concept of ecosystem services has emerged as a powerful tool for giving expression to the wide range of direct and indirect benefits that humans derive from nature. Despite the importance of the ecosystem services concept, its current applications have been challenged on a number of fronts. Due to the simplistic assumptions that emphasize the economic evaluation of ecosystem services and erroneous deductions that land use is an indicator of services provided to people, the ecosystem services framework has arguably failed to become an ideal instrument for linking human and natural systems in planning and policy. Perhaps the most troubling issue to date is that many ecosystem services assessments fail to take into account the values, needs, and aspirations of many affected human communities. Thus, they are a result of an undemocratic process that reinforces power asymmetries in society, often resulting in inequitable outcomes in their application at the local scale.
We present a new framework for assessing ecosystem services that is inclusive of a broad range of stakeholders’ values and results in actual quantification of social and ecological processes. We evaluate how a democratized process of assessing ecosystem services will produce a more nuanced representation of diverse values in society and capture heterogeneity in ecosystem structure and function. Finally, we demonstrate how this framework could be operationalized in communities bordering one of the largest conservation areas in the world, Kruger National Park. This region is internationally recognized as biodiversity hotspot, and is officially designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a biosphere reserve. In this place where biodiversity, cultural diversity, and human diversity are all impacted by increasing urbanization, we show how accounting for heterogeneity in human dominated landscapes can transform current observations of biodiversity and the distribution of ecosystem services.