Mapping social-ecological systems: Identifying 'green-loop' and 'red-loop' dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use

Maike Hamann, Reinette Biggs, Belinda Reyers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

160 Scopus citations


We present an approach to identify and map social-ecological systems based on the direct use of ecosystem services by households. This approach builds on the premise that characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use represent integrated expressions of different underlying social-ecological systems. We test the approach in South Africa using national census data on the direct use of six provisioning services (freshwater from a natural source, firewood for cooking, firewood for heating, natural building materials, animal production, and crop production) at two different scales. Based on a cluster analysis, we identify three distinct ecosystem service bundles that represent social-ecological systems characterized by low, medium and high levels of direct ecosystem service use among households. We argue that these correspond to 'green-loop', 'transition' and 'red-loop' systems as defined by Cumming et al. (2014). When mapped, these systems form coherent spatial units that differ from systems identified by additive combinations of separate social and biophysical datasets, the most common method of mapping social-ecological systems to date. The distribution of the systems we identified is mainly determined by social factors, such as household income, gender of the household head, and land tenure, and only partly determined by the supply of natural resources. An understanding of the location and characteristic resource use dynamics of different social-ecological systems allows for policies to be better targeted at the particular sustainability challenges faced in different areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)218-226
Number of pages9
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Z.


  • Ecosystem services
  • Human well-being
  • Land use planning
  • Natural resource management
  • South Africa
  • Sustainability


Dive into the research topics of 'Mapping social-ecological systems: Identifying 'green-loop' and 'red-loop' dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this