Assessing urban recreation ecosystem services through the use of geocache visitation and preference data: a case-study from an urbanised island environment

Area characterisation: 

The island state of Malta is situated in the Central Mediterranean Sea at 96 km south of Sicily and almost 300 km east of Tunisia. With a surface area of around 316km2, the archipelago consists of three inhabited islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) and several uninhabited islets. The first evidence of human settlement in the Malta dates back to around 7000 BP (Patton 1996), and the landscapes of the Islands have been moulded over millennia by human exploitation, resource use and the geoclimatic conditions but which harbour considerable biodiversity (Schembri 1997). Today agricultural land cover occupies around 51% of the territory, whilst built-up, industrial and urban areas occupy more than 30% of the Maltese Islands (M.E.P.A. 2010). Malta has a population density of 1,346 persons per km2 (N.S.O. 2014), the highest in the European Union, and a growing tourism industry which in 2016 surpassed 1.6 million tourists (N.S.O. 2017).

Recent research within the area of study has indicated the important role of ecosystems for the delivery of the key ecosystem services, and that semi-natural and agricultural habitats are associated with a high ecosystem service capacity within this island environment. However, the actual use of ecosystem services (flow) was higher in small green urban and peri-urban areas. Coastal habitats were associated with cultural ecosystem services, in the form of habitats of conservation value (ecosystem service capacity) and aesthetic value (ecosystem service flow), but green urban areas and urban environments were also identified by survey respondents as having a high aesthetic value and for the provision of recreational ecosystem services (Balzan et al. in press).


This national case-study assesses the use of Geocaching data to assess recreational ecosystem service delivery in the small island state of Malta. More specifically, the objectives of the study are to assess:

  1. the influence of the ecosystem type, distribution and accessibility on recreational ecosystem services delivery, and
  2. on the actual use (flow) of this ecosystem service measured using both geocache visitation data and questionnaires with geocachers that allow for a better understanding of their motivation determining ecosystem service flow.
Lessons learned: 

This study has used spatial geocaching data in order to assess the capacity and flow of urban recreational services, whilst also using data generated from questionnaires with geocachers to develop an understanding of the motivations that are likely to influence ecosystem service flows. Geocaching was seen as an opportunity to experience nature, spend time with family and friends, and to get physical exercise. Results from the analysis of geocache spatial data indicate that most caches are located in urban land use categories, with the highest cache densities being recorded in green urban areas and semi-natural ecosystems. Ecosystem service flow was positively associated with accessibility of the geocache, areas of high landscape value and proximity to the coastal environment. These results are discussed in further detail as they provide evidence of the importance of developing spatial indicators that rely on an improved understanding of the quantitative and qualitative relationships between ecosystems and ecosystem service capacity and flow, leading to human well-being. Finally, these results provide evidence of relevance for landscape and urban planning which promotes the availability of green infrastructure in urban areas for their important contribution of these to human well-being.