Predominantly rural areas cover over 52% of the territory in the European Union and involve approximately 23% of its population [1
]. Its agrarian landscapes hold cultural, ethnological and environmental values. This has also been considered in the recent Cork Declaration on Rural Development and Agriculture, which recognizes new roles for agriculture and rural areas to better face emerging challenges and societal demands in terms of the provision of public goods, environmental sustainability, and improved quality of life for both rural and urban inhabitants [2
However, in the context of globalization and urbanized societies, rural areas are vulnerable to financial and environmental crises. Due to the increasing scarcity in public resources, innovative agricultural practices are needed to create viable and sustainable rural and periurban areas, embracing and making explicit the ecosystem services and benefits provided by it. The financial crisis, begun in 2007–2008, has had a significant impact on public expenditure (the decline of social spending is below average in some Mediterranean European countries such as Greece, Portugal or Italy). Following OECD projections, public spending on health and long-term care services for the older population might need to almost double from on average 7% in 2009 to 13% in 2050 across the OECD [3
]. Thus, rural areas are particularly vulnerable to the decline in public services and social support, as these areas are characterized by a depopulation pattern, aging of rural communities and geographical isolation due to the specific settlement of the population and the difficulty in organizing effective services for the local inhabitants [4
]. Mediterranean systems, such as agroecosystems, can be considered complex adaptive social-ecological systems in which the relationships between humans and nature have created the socio-cultural and ecological conditions to deliver a diverse flow of ecosystem services [5
]. In this way, the social-ecological system framework recognizes that biophysical and social systems are interdependent [6
], being a suitable framework for exploring sustainability through the study of complex relationships established between ecosystem services and the factors that generate and influence the provision, governance and use of ecosystem services [8
The ecosystem services approach was popularized by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) in the early 2000s [9
] and has become one of the strongest arguments promoting nature conservation because of humans’ dependence on it [10
] through its direct and indirect repercussion on economic, cultural, ethnological and environmental values. In this sense, agroecosystems are the source of the most essential landscape services demanded by both urban and rural populations, such as provisioning ecosystem services (e.g., food from farming, forestry and genetic materials), regulating ecosystem services (e.g., climate regulation, water regulation, pollination, soil fertility, mass stabilization and control of erosion rates) and the preservation of cultural ecosystem services (e.g., cultural heritage, recreation and spiritual interactions with nature) [11
]. Following economic theory, many ecosystem services delivered by landscapes have a public good character—i.e., they are accessible (non-rival) and can be enjoyed jointly by society (non-excludable)—at the same time, they are not tradable in conventional markets and are invisible to institutions regulating and maintaining their use [15
]. The current human transformation of land cover has led to the loss and abandonment of most intangible ecosystem services, especially those involved in the regulation of ecological processes (regulating ecosystem services) or those related to spiritual enrichment, culture or local identity (cultural ecosystem services) [16
]. Farming intensification has been promoted, in the most productive areas, for the maximization of provisioning ecosystem services with market prices [18
]. This conversion threatens sustainable landscapes and the ability of an agroecosystem to provide a diverse flow of services [18
]; thus, these public goods cannot be taken for granted [15
]. At this point, rural areas and their ecosystem services are vulnerable to global change consequences and to the predominant land use planning trends [21
To promote landscape sustainability, the ecosystem service approach has focused on the argument of how human wellbeing depends on nature [9
]. As stated by [23
], there is a growing body of literature that demonstrates how contact with nature positively impacts human wellbeing not only in terms of extractive products (e.g., food, freshwater, timber). In spite of the mainstream of the ecosystem service approach and its repercussions at international forums, the explicit connections between ecosystem services and human wellbeing have been infrequently studied and have rarely been incorporated effectively into environmental and land-use planning policies. Some work has been done on how ecosystems regulate infectious diseases or extreme natural events [24
] through the ecohealth perspective (http://www.ecohealth.net/
); however, it is notable how there has been no impact on the most intangible components of wellbeing, such as mental health, freedom of action and election and having good social relationships [25
At this point, innovative solutions are needed to maintain the provision of public services and manage ecosystem services in both rural and periurban areas. Better understanding, valuation and promotion of the ecosystem services supplied by agrarian landscapes are needed, in addition to using public funds effectively and efficiently [27
In this light, social farming (SF; also called care farming or green care) could be considered an example of transition management and social innovation in rural and periurban areas [28
]. SF emerged over the last decade from social and health sciences in the search for a synergy between promoting landscape multi-functionality (maintaining extensive agriculture in rural landscapes) and community-based social and health care. SF involves all kinds of interactions and activities with natural environments, such as agroecosystems and farming land, including plants and/or animals. These interventions are conducted in order to promote the quality of life of a given group of users (people with diverse disabilities, children, young people, elders, offenders, refugees, people from trafficking, people suffering long-term unemployment, gender violence victims, etc.) with established and well defined wellbeing objectives (to reach physical, psychological, emotional, social, educational benefits, etc.) [29
]. It involves a different understanding and use of rural space and the rhythm of nature and promotes social services in many different areas, including rehabilitation, care, therapy, lifelong education, employment support, and women’s empowerment, which contribute to social inclusion, to the reinforcement of social protection nets and to the quality of life of rural and periurban inhabitants [30
]. SF also works on how community-based management with a bottom-up approach could furnish social services and build non-formal regulating institutions.
The main goal of this study is to explore the capacity of SF to create viable and sustainable rural and periurban areas according to a social-ecological perspective, embracing and making explicit the ecosystem services and benefits provided by it. To do so, we cover three specific objectives. First, we analyse the role of local communities and non-formal institutions under SF practices in order to present alternative governance situations that could apply for ecosystem service management (objective 1). Later, we analyse the target stakeholders of SF practices and the way that they become involved (objective 2) and examine the explicit connection between ecosystem services and benefits provided by areas agrarian landscapes under SF practices and human wellbeing components (objective 3) (Figure 1
). To address objectives 1 and 2, we illustrate four empirical cases in which SF is being conducted in Mediterranean countries (Italy and Spain). In objective 3, a literature review is performed.
2. Materials and Methods
We use social-ecological framework components to analyse the complex relationships between biophysical and social systems [6
] in agricultural areas conducting SF. In other words, we conceptually identify and characterize the governance system (objective 1), the system’s users (referring to all branches of stakeholders involved in SF; objective 2) and the supplied services (ecosystem services and the social services co-produced as a result of biophysical and governance dynamics and social needs; objective 3) (Figure 1
To support the conceptual arguments at objectives 1 and 2, we selected and described four cases of local SF initiatives. The case studies used describe two SF projects developed in a specific area involving different rural initiatives (Era Valley and Turin area in Italy) and two SF projects related to specific initiatives (Orti ETICI, Italy and L’Olivera Cooperative, Lleida, Spain). In detail, the Era Valley SF experience (Pisa, Tuscany, Italy) is an important and advanced case in Italy, where there is a network of citizens, farms and other private actors aiming to provide innovative social services for diverse target groups. The case of civic food in the Turin area (Piedmont, Italy) was developed as a network of approximately 35 farms and 15 social cooperatives organized around the city of Turin and provides social services, job inclusion and innovative services for the local population. As specific projects of SF, first we describe Orti ETICI (San Piero a Grado, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy), organized on 3.5 hectares of public land belonging to Pisa University, where horticulture production is linked to the inclusion and wellbeing of less empowered people. Second, we present the case of L’Olivera Cooperative (Vallbona de les Monges, Catalonia, Spain), an agricultural cooperative working for social integration that is currently both a social centre for adults with mental disabilities and a farm. These cases were selected because they are representatives of SF conducted in the Mediterranean region, where the rural system has faced many difficulties in maintaining its traditional farming style and ecosystem services and where the existence of rural communities is increasingly challenging. Within the general framework of the rural transition that is taking place in Europe, these cases are particularly relevant because they can be recognized amongst the most structured experiences of SF, where rural activities have moved away from the ethics of profit towards the provision of social services for the community.
The design of a long-term study is particularly relevant for promoting SF at different geographical levels, ranging from local, national to European. In this regard, since 2004, we have explored and studied SF in several areas while investigating the pathway development of SF in various Italian and European regions [28
]. During this time, the method that we most often used was based on participatory action [32
], focusing on social services and SF in rural areas. In this research, data gathering was both quantitative (e.g., number of projects, type of agriculture production and its surface) and qualitative (e.g., the viewpoints of the various stakeholders, the common steps in building a common framework, and the identification of influential political stakeholders). Thus, the learning cycle was repeated and adapted in several case studies [33
]. Therefore, information and data about the case studies presented here were collected mainly from our research group within this long-term study using different data-gathering tools (Table 1
). In particular, the data presented in the manuscript have been systematized following different descriptive fields in order to facilitate consultation. The information compiled is related to the following: (a) SF activity start date; (b) location of the area and type of landscape where activities are performed; (c) type of agricultural production; (d) forerunners (the pioneering or innovation brokers who have promoted and developed the activity); (e) stakeholders groups (the group of actors with a stake on SF); (f) governance systems (the systems for governing ecosystem and social services developed within different SF initiatives); (g) services supply (the ecosystem and social services supplied); (h) human wellbeing (the benefits produced for humans through the use of agricultural and rural resources within different SF initiatives); and (i) aspects of innovation (the innovative models developed to manage agricultural and rural resources and produce ecosystem and social services).
For objective 3, a compilation of SF benefits was created following a literature review. For this compilation, we reviewed published papers (peer-reviewed) that were indexed in the ISI Web of Science (https://www.accesowok.fecyt.es/
) and were on the topic of SF (using the following existing terminology: SF, care farming, green care and therapeutic horticulture, among others). We also reviewed papers focused on ecosystem services and health benefits from interactions with natural environments and home gardens. This literature review is not a systematic analysis of all publications regarding SF but provides an overview of the positive impacts of SF on landscape management and governance, users, ecosystem services and benefits for wellbeing.
In the current financial and environmental crises in which public services are scarce, particularly in rural areas and agrarian landscapes, sustainability is threatened. However, hybrid governance models, such as those provided by SF experiences, could be created where state and community work together to co-produce social services. In fact, as observed in the case studies, by linking economic actors, local communities and public bodies, SF could offer innovative solutions to maintain the provision of social and ecosystem services in rural and periurban areas that could be explored for new rural development policies for the period 2014–2020 [68
]. Despite some weaknesses that can emerge from the application of SF governance models due to their complexity, SF offers a governance innovation highlighting the significance of bottom-up approaches and mixed possibilities in the governance of agroecosystems to increase their sustainability.
At the same time, this specific management practice and multi-actor involvement can provide a range of other wellbeing and cultural ecosystem services to human communities. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment establishes clear relations between provisioning ecosystem services and the wellbeing components of security—the basic material for a good life and health. Similarly, regulating ecosystem services are also linked to health and security. However, the importance of cultural ecosystem services in terms of health, good social relations, or freedom of choice and action remains almost invisible [9
]. SF offers an example of how human wellbeing is linked to the conservation of agroecosystems through cultural ecosystem services and health benefits. In the future, higher cooperation is needed between SF and ecosystem service science to better understand the explicit connections between nature and human wellbeing, from biophysical systems and ecological processes to the supply of services, institutional dynamics and social needs. In fact, the health, economic, socio-cultural and environmental values associated with multifunctional areas in rural communities should be considered as effective arguments for their enhancement and sustainable conservation.