Ecosystem Services and Ecological Risks of Land Resource

Research Progress on Ecological Risk Assessment based on Multifunctional Landscape

  • LIN Dayi 1 ,
  • LIU Fangyu 1 ,
  • ZHANG Jiping 2 ,
  • HAO Haiguang , 1, * ,
  • ZHANG Qiang , 1, *
  • 1. Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Beijing 100012, China
  • 2. Beijing Municipal Research Institute of Environmental Protection, Beijing 100037, China
*: HAO Haiguang, E-mail:;
ZHANG Qiang, E-mail:

LIN Dayi, E-mail:

Received date: 2020-10-19

  Accepted date: 2020-12-21

  Online published: 2021-05-30

Supported by

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(41701601)

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(41701209)

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(41871196)

The Scientific Research Project in Altay Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China(2019-529)


The unreasonable utilization and trade-offs of the multifunctional landscape is one of the important causes leading to ecological risk. Quantifying the relationship, heterogeneous process and driving mechanism between landscape function and human well-being can provide a scientific basis for achieving a win-win situation of regional development and ecological protection, and it is also an important issue for relevant scientific research. In this paper, we reviewed the current state of knowledge regarding landscape function and ecological risk, identified the feedback mechanisms among landscape change, landscape function, human well-being and ecological risk, constructed the ecological risk assessment framework based on landscape functions, and sorted out the key scientific issues and research trends. The interconnections between the multifunctional landscape, human well-being, and ecological risk comprise an important scientific issue in ecological risk assessment. However, there is a lack of understanding of the spatial-temporal characteristics of landscape function trade-offs, and there is also a lack of systematic and standardized methods for the identification and comprehensive evaluation of landscape functions. Exploring ecological risk management and the methodologies that integrate the two processes of nature and humanity is an inevitable trend for future research. Coupling landscape structure, function and process into ecological risk assessment, as well as focusing on the combination of human well-being, landscape function trade-off and ecological risk control policy design are important issues to be studied.

Cite this article

LIN Dayi , LIU Fangyu , ZHANG Jiping , HAO Haiguang , ZHANG Qiang . Research Progress on Ecological Risk Assessment based on Multifunctional Landscape[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2021 , 12(2) : 260 -267 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2021.02.012

1 Introduction

The landscape is a surficial complex composed of either part or all of the natural, semi-natural, and artificial ecosystems. It has a variety of values and functions in ecology, economy, society, culture and aesthetics (Lü et al., 2013; Peng et al., 2015; Fu and Yu, 2016; Fu, 2018). The element composition, structure and ecological process of a landscape determine the many functions of that landscape (Tang and Ding, 2014). Landscape multi-functionality means that the landscape provides multiple functions simultaneously, and the different functions interact with each other, which is an internal attribute of the multifunctional landscape (Peng et al., 2015; Liu and Fu, 2019). Ecosystem and landscape are hierarchically related, with the former being the basic element of the latter, and ecosystem services and landscape functions are homologous (Lü et al., 2013). Based on the studies of many researchers, Kienast et al. (2009) summarized the four functions of landscape as: production function, regulation function, habitat function and information function. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2003) divided ecosystem services into four categories of supply service, regulatory service, cultural service and support service; and these two connotations are similar and corresponding. Landscape functions are closely related to human well-being and connect human society to the natural system (Lü et al., 2013; Fu, 2018). Human preferences and trade- offs of landscape functions cause conflicts of landscape functions, influence human well-being and threaten ecological security (Peng et al., 2015; Fu and Yu, 2016). Determining how to achieve a win-win situation between socio-economic development and ecological protection, and how to maximize the comprehensive benefits of landscape multi-functionality are two hot and difficult issues in current theoretical research and policy formulation (Zheng et al., 2013; Li et al., 2015; Dai et al., 2016; Fu and Yu, 2016). Although significant progress has been made in the evaluation and dynamic pattern analysis of landscape multi-functionality, the evaluation approach currently lacks a unified framework. Research on the interrelationships among landscape functions and spatial patterns and ecological processes has been lagging for a long time, and the lack of research on the trade-offs and driving mechanisms of landscape multi-functionality restricts management practices and policy design (Peng et al., 2015; Fu and Yu, 2016; Xiao et al., 2016).
With the rapid development of society and urbanization during the past few years, the huge demand for development and construction has changed the land use and landscape pattern. Complex natural processes and human activities have brought forth ecological risks, threatening the harmony of the man-land relationship (Cao et al., 2018). Ecological risk assessment is an important indicator for regional resource development and ecological construction, and it can be used to assess the adverse impact of human activities on the environment. With the continuous expansion of the scope and intensity of human activities, ecological risk assessment has become an essential means of macro- ecological management, and it has also become one of the hot research fields of integrated ecosystem management. Although China has achieved remarkable results in ecological conservation in recent years, the deterioration of the environment has not been fundamentally contained, which indicates that the state of ecological security remains in a grim situation (Fu and Yu, 2016). Despite the large number of studies that have been carried out (Kapustka et al., 2001; Dudhagara et al., 2016; Ouyang et al., 2016), and because of the complexity of ecosystem, traditional methods of ecological risk assessment cannot give consideration to multiple protection objects in a system. It is difficult to focus on the role and performance of protection objects and attributes of the ecosystem in the complex system, which seriously restricts the research and practice of ecological risk management policies (Kapustka et al., 2001; Dudhagara et al., 2016). Man and nature are the community of shared life. From the perspective of a man-land coupling system, exploring multi-functional landscape utilization and ecological risk regulation is not only a practical need for ensuring ecological security, but also an inevitable requirement for promoting the development of ecological civilization in China (Hunka et al., 2015; Kang et al., 2016).
Focusing on the main line of landscape, landscape multi-functionality, human well-being, and ecological risk, this article (1) analyzes ecological risk based on landscape multi-functionality and its impact on residents' well-being, (2) expounds the interrelation and regulation mechanism among landscape multi-functionality, ecological risk and human well-being, and (3) builds an ecological risk assessment framework based on landscape multi-functionality and its key scientific problems. On this basis, the relevant literature has been surveyed to clarify current research developments and the directions that need to be further studied, so as to provide new scientific evidence and methods for promoting the sustainable utilization of resources and regional sustainable development in China.

2 Framework of ecological risk assessment based on landscape functions

The landscape is a surficial complex that constitutes a region, and its pattern and process interact with each other to realize multiple landscape functions. Ensuring the integrity of landscape multi-functionality becomes the basic guarantee for regional ecological sustainable development (Lü et al., 2013). Landscape function and landscape service are synonyms, which can be effectively linked to the issues (Liu and Fu, 2019), such as landscape pattern, ecosystem service, ecosystem value, and decision-making. To some extent, the process of ecological management takes the form of balancing multiple landscape functions (Zheng et al., 2013; Fu and Yu, 2016; Fu, 2018). Studies on ecological risk based on ecosystem services have been carried out gradually (Han et al., 2015), but the few studies that are available are still at the theoretical stage of using ecosystem services as the terminus of ecological risk assessment. Both ecosystem services and landscape functions pay greater attention to the relationship between human society and ecosystem. Among them, ecosystem services emphasize the functional relationships among ecosystem components and separate the relationship between the spatial structure and the pattern of landscape elements. In contrast, landscape functions/ services pay more attention to the relationship and importance of landscape spatial pattern and scale, which are conducive to understanding the impact of human activities on the landscape, and it is also easier for the decision-makers to make landscape planning decisions (Liu and Yu 2013). Landscape multi-functionality is an important indicator for guiding ecological restoration, ecological risk control and land management decision-making. The study of human well-being and ecological risk assessment from the perspective of landscape multi-functionality can provide a new way to promote the intersection of geography and ecology (Lü et al., 2013).
The composition, structure, pattern and process of the landscape can reflect the natural attributes of the ecosystem, while landscape multi-functionality highlights its social attributes. The multifunctional landscape has significant regional differences, and scale effects must be considered in research on landscape pattern, function and process (Liu and Yu, 2013). Li et al. (2015) believe that landscape multi-functionality at different scales has diverse manifestations, such as climate regulation and precipitation regulation at the global and national scales, and river flood regulation and pest regulation at the district and county scales. Humans have different needs for different ecosystems. Preferences and trade-offs of humans for landscape functions have caused changes in the supply and demand structure of landscape functions at different temporal and spatial scales. This is an important reason for the generation of provincial ecological risks (Lü et al., 2013; Fu and Yu, 2016). Owing to the serious imbalance between the demands of human interests and the supply of landscape functions, a higher level of ecological risk is triggered. There are separate forms of feedback between landscape multi-functionality and human well-being, which is a multi-scale correlation (Hains-Young and Potschin, 2010). The formation of ecological risks will be returning to affect and threaten human well-being.
In general, ecological risk assessment based on landscape multi-functionality includes four key topics: landscape, landscape multi-functionality, human well-being, and ecological risk. It is necessary to balance the use of landscape function and coordinate the relationship between landscape multi-functionality and human needs. The succession and restoration of ecosystems restrict the utilization of landscape multi-functionality, while the balance between landscape management and optimal regulation also weighs the landscape multi-functionality. Management and control are carried out with the minimum regional ecological risk, optimal residents’ well-being, and maximum landscape multi-functionality as the criteria, and the goal is to optimize the landscape pattern to promote the sustainable development of landscape functions and human well-being. The key scientific issues can be summarized in four aspects, namely, (1) the comprehensive evaluation of landscape multi-functions, (2) the human factors in the formation of ecological risks, (3) the feedback relationship between landscape multifunction changes and ecological risks, and (4) the relationship between landscape multi-functionality and human well-being. While focusing on these four aspects and the coupling process based on the relationship between man and land, this article collects and synthesizes the relevant literature, summarizes the existing research progress and issues that still need more in-depth research, and proposes the emphasis and direction of ecological risk assessment based on landscape multi-functionality (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 The framework of ecological risk assessment based on multifunctional landscape

3 Key scientific issues of ecological risk assessment based on landscape functions

3.1 Evaluation of landscape multifunction

The concept of landscape function derives from ecosystem function, which refers to the ability of products and servicesclosely related to human well-being to be provided by the landscape (Tang and Ding, 2014). Compared with ecosystem services, landscape services can better reflect the interrelationship between landscape patterns and processes, help integrate multiple disciplines and research methods, and help local stakeholders directly participate in landscape management (Liu et al., 2016). Landscape multi-functionality is a derivative concept and inherent characteristic of the multifunctional landscape, and it reflects the inherent attributes of the multifunctional landscape. Meanwhile, the multifunctional landscape is the external appearance of landscape multi-functionality (Peng et al., 2015). Landscape function is the basic element of the multifunctional landscape, and the multifunctional landscape reflects the integrated effect of all landscape functions or services. Ecosystem services are the research focus of landscape functions. Because of their homology with landscape multi-functionality, the diversity of ecosystem services becomes the material basis of landscape multi-functionality (Lü et al., 2013; Peng et al., 2015; Liu et al., 2016). Landscape multi-functionality builds a bridge between nature and society for ecosystem and landscape management, as well as a suitable platform for spatially integrating or analyzing the impact of multiple environmental stress factors on the landscape, which can facilitate the analysis of trade-offs, synergy and conflicts between landscape functions, and promote the effective dissemination of research results to decision-makers and the public (Fig. 2) At present, the evaluation of landscape multi-functionality and the classification of regional types are hot fields that domestic researchers focus on, and the number of relevant research cases continue to grow (Peng et al., 2015). Evaluation methods for the comprehensive functions of landscape include the use of unified measurement units such as currency, the use of an indicator system for separate accounting, and the use of models (de Groot et al., 2010). However, current research has failed to highlight the differences in the importance of different landscape functions in specific areas, and lacks a unified framework for landscape multifunctionality evaluation. The in-depth study of landscape multi-functionality evaluation models and methods has become an important issue facing the current quantitative research on the multifunctional landscape.
Fig. 2 The interrelationships among the related concepts of landscape function
There are numerous methods for the quantitative mapping of landscape functions (Tang and Ding, 2014; Peng et al., 2015). The quantitative identification of hot areas of a multifunctional landscape based on GIS spatial overlay analysis has become a basic research paradigm for multifunctional landscape spatial identification, but the corresponding multifunctional conflict area is less involved in spatial identification (Liu et al., 2016). It remains difficult to integrate it into the planning and management of the multifunctional landscape (Lü et al., 2013; Peng et al., 2015; Liu et al., 2016). Strengthening the understanding of the concept and classification system of landscape functions, the analysis of landscape multifunctional trade-off mechanisms and scenario simulation are the important directions for future research development (Peng et al., 2015).

3.2 Trade-offs of landscape functions

As an important foundation of landscape multi-functionality, ecosystem service assessment and its policy application have become critical approaches and hotspots for coping with global sustainability challenges. The understanding and scientific application of landscape multi-functionality depends to a large extent on the deepening of research on ecosystem services (Burkhard et al., 2012). Research on the trade-offs of landscape functions mainly relies on the trade- offs of ecosystem services (Qian et al., 2018). Rodríguez et al. (2006) classified ecosystem service trade-offs into four basic categories: spatial trade-offs, temporal trade-offs, reversible trade-offs, and trade-offs among ecosystem services. Since ecosystems and landscapes are hierarchically related, the trade-offs of ecosystem services and the trade-offs of landscape functions have the same homology (Lü et al., 2013). Existing research on ecosystem services mostly focuses on the value estimation of ecosystem services (Kareiva et al., 2011; Xie et al., 2015; Cao et al., 2016), ecosystem function trade-offs (Cao et al., 2016; Fu and Yu, 2016), human well-being relations (Vemuri and Costanza, 2006; Engelbrecht, 2009), and policy design for ecological compensation (Zhang and Liu, 2006; Felipe-Lucia et al., 2015). However, the transformation of ecosystem service functions from awareness to management practice is confronted with severe challenges such as quantitative measurement, trade-offs of multiple services or functions, multi-scale correlation of service functions, and the combination of ecosystem service functions and policy design (Zheng et al., 2013; Fu, 2018).
Research on the trade-offs of landscape functions has attracted enough attention that it has become a hotspot of current research. However, due to the complex trade-offs and synergy between the landscape functions of different ecosystems, the mechanisms of the connections and interactions between the landscape functions are still unclear, the formation process of the trade-offs and synergy is also not clear, and the scale effects of landscape multi-functionality and synergy are not emphasized, so basically the study of the trade-off of landscape multifunction still needs to be strengthened (Fu and Yu, 2016).
At present, there are still many qualitative studies being conducted on ecosystem service trade-off and synergy analysis, and root mean square error and the production possibility boundary are new indicators for quantifying trade-off (Wong et al., 2015). In the future, it will be necessary to strengthen the studies on the non-linear characteristics of interactions between landscape functions, to attach importance to the study of the temporal and spatial heterogeneity of trade-off and synergy, to reveal the multi-scale correlation and dynamic changes of trade-offs and synergy between regions caused by different policies and incentives, and to improve the research methods of trade-off and synergy analysis of landscape multi-functionality (MA, 2005).

3.3 Relationship between the multifunctional landscape and ecological processes

Regional ecological risk assessment is an important research field for current ecological environmental management (Yin et al., 2009). In terms of research direction, it mainly focuses on pollution, natural disasters and the ecological risks of development activities (Fu and Xu, 2001). In terms of evaluation methods, the relative risk model (RRM) based on factor weights (Zhao et al., 2013), the hierarchical dynamic framework method (Burkhard et al., 2012) and the procedure for ecological tiered assessment of risks (PETA) (Moraes and Molander, 2004) are the most widely used. Such research in China mostly focuses on static ecological risks of natural disasters (Xu et al., 2011) or landscape ecological risks represented by landscape pattern indexes (Kareiva et al., 2011; Burkhard et al., 2012). Insufficient attention has been paid to changes in ecosystem structure, pattern, and function, which makes it difficult to quantify the response of ecological risks to resource development (Sun et al., 2009). It remains a great challenge to effectively connect the ecological process of landscape and improve accuracy and application (Peng et al., 2015), so it is necessary to change the research perspective to reveal the mechanisms of ecological risk formation.
One important direction of current research is the introduction of ecosystem services into ecological risk assessment (Galic et al., 2012). Compared with the regional ecological risk assessment that focuses on the comprehensive overlap of multiple risks, landscape ecological risk assessment emphasizes the impact of landscape patterns on ecological processes or functions, but the lack of research on dynamics, scales and uncertainties restricts the accuracy of landscape ecological risk assessment results. The multi- objective oriented landscape ecological risk not only includes the direct loss to human society, but also pays more attention to the measurement of ecological losses among different levels of systems and the evaluation of the potential impact of these ecological losses on human well-being (Peng et al., 2015). Taking ecosystem services as the terminus of ecological risk assessment can be closely linked to the various structures and processes of the ecosystem, laying a good foundation for subsequent assessment, communication and management (MA, 2005; Burkhard et al., 2012).
The current ecological risk assessment strategies based on ecosystem services can be divided into two categories. One is the risk assessment for a specific ecosystem service function (Faber and van Wensem, 2012); while the other is the comprehensive risk assessment for a variety of ecosystem services or functions (Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010; Kang et al., 2016). Most of these studies are retrospective and static evaluations, and the evaluation framework is still in the discussion stage.

3.4 Relationship between landscape multifunctionality and human well-being

Human well-being is the fundamental starting point for research on landscape ecosystem services. Realizing the coordinated development of ecosystem services and human well-being is one of the primary purposes of ecosystem service management. A full understanding of the relationship between landscape multi-functionality and human well-being is an essential foundation for promoting a win-win situation between economic and social development and ecological protection. Efficient landscape multi-functionality can effectively improve regional human well-being (Liu and Fu, 2019). Ecosystem services, the material basis for landscape multi-functionality, are the various benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems (Liu et al., 2018b). With the continuing growth of human material and spiritual needs, the direct and indirect effects of excessive consumption and intervention on landscape functions have been significantly increased. The degradation of landscape multi-functionality endangers the well-being of contemporary human society and also affects the benefits from the ecosystem for subsequent generations (Zhao et al., 2018).
Researchers have conducted various explorations of the relationships between ecosystem services and human well-being, especially on the relationship between ecosystem services supply and consumption and the relationship between ecosystem services and human subjective well- being (Vemuri and Costanza, 2006; Xie et al., 2008; Engelbrecht, 2009). However, there is a lack of systematic research on the mechanism of the impact of landscape multi-functionality changes on human well-being at different scales. Although researchers have fully elucidated the dependence of human well-being on ecosystem services at the global and national scales (Goldstein et al., 2012), our understanding of the policy basis for poverty eradication, improvement of human well-being and ecosystem conservation on a regional scale remains deficient, so regional scale research needs to be strengthened (Peng et al., 2015). At present, there is a lack of systematic research methods for assessing the relationship between regional and large-scale human well-being, as well as a classification framework of ecosystem services connecting multiple levels of human well- being (Kremen, 2005).
The production, utilization and loss of ecosystem services are closely associated with human society and human well-being. The supply and demand for ecosystem services are highly heterogeneous in time and space (Hein et al., 2006). Natural factors determine the basis for the spatial distribution of ecosystem services, while human factors indirectly lead to the spatial differences in the supply and demand for ecosystem services (Liu et al., 2018a; Zhao et al., 2018). Most of the existing research describes the influence of an ecosystem service on human well-being by studying the increase or decrease of that ecosystem service (Xie et al., 2008; Wang and Lu, 2009), but it is impossible to determine the beneficiaries and spatial locations of ecosystem services (Wang et al., 2013). Determining how to balance the utilization of landscape multi-functionality, promote sustainable development between landscape multi-functionality and human well-being, and reduce ecological risks are important directions of multidisciplinary comprehensive research (Carreño et al., 2012).

4 Discussion

The regional integration of landscape function is the foundation of regional ecosystem management, and the regional integration methods of landscape function are the focus of much current research. Although researchers have preliminarily constructed a cascading framework of ecosystem structure, ecosystem services, and human well-being (Dai et al., 2016), the approaches and methods for achieving regional integration and comprehensive trade-offs of ecosystem services are still unclear, while landscape multi-functionality provides a new research perspective.
It is an inevitable trend to study the coupling and integration of human and natural systems (Xie et al., 2008; Hains-Young and Potschin, 2010), and the exploration of ecological risk management that integrates landscape multifunction and human well-being will be the focus of future research. Daily et al. (2009) pointed out that multidisciplinary research integrating natural capital and social practice is still in its infancy. Fu and Yu (2016) indicated that the comprehensive model of the regional ecosystem will be one of the major focuses of future research in China, and one of the key issues will be to explore the co-evolutionary relationship between the social and humanistic processes and the structure, processes and functions of the ecosystem. The main ways of coupling them include multi-objective decision-making models, system dynamics models, equilibrium optimization models and integrated ecological economic models (Schmolke et al., 2010; Peng et al., 2017; Peng et al., 2018). At present, the key scientific problems in theory and technology are: 1) The lack of systematic methods for and inadequate understanding of the measurement and formation of landscape functions. 2) The lack of understanding of the trade-offs and driving mechanisms of the multiple functions of landscapes with different natural and humanistic gradients makes current theoretical research and policy formulation face serious challenges. 3) The lack of systematic research on the multi-objective trade-offs and synergy, multi- scale association and changes of landscape multi-functions at different temporal and spatial scales. 4) Due to the unclear spatiotemporal coupling mechanism between landscape multi-functions and the multi-level well-being of regional residents, and the lack of clarity in the causal relationship among landscape multi-functionality, ecological risk, and residents' well-being, it is difficult to quantify regional ecological risk based on landscape multifunction and changes in human well-being. 5) The lack of multidisciplinary research and regional integration methods based on landscape multifunctional management has become one of the major obstacles in current research.

5 Conclusions

In summary, studies on the impact of human activities on the environment remain at the stage of quantitative simulation and prediction in the process of integrating nature and humanity at the local, national, regional, and global scales. Coupling landscape structure, functions, and processes to ecological risk assessment, and focusing on the combination of human well-being, landscape multifunction trade-off decision-making, and risk management policy design is an important direction for future research. The regional integration, simulation and optimization of complex man-land relationships and sustainable development systems are the main research trends and focus areas. Coupling landscape functions and ecological risk assessment provides a scientific basis for advancing the field of ecological risk management and the optimization of space of the national land, which is necessary to strengthen relevant theories and practices.
In this paper, we discussed the key scientific issues of ecological risk assessment based on the multifunctional landscape, and in conclusion we propose the following future research directions. 1) Strengthen the research on the process mechanisms, dynamic monitoring and model simulation of landscape functions, and establish a systematic methodology. 2) Enhance the research on the trade-offs and mechanisms of landscape functions, and pay attention to the scale effect of the trade-offs among landscape functions. 3) Establish a quantitative method for assessing the relationship between landscape multi-functionality and human well-being. 4) Strengthen research on the regional integration, simulation and optimization of complex man-land systems and sustainable development systems.
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