In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Systematic Conservation Planning

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Reason for Planning: Nature in Pieces
  • The Dynamic Field of Systematic Conservation Planning
  • Identifying New Places for Conservation
  • Connecting the Fragments
  • Anthropocene
  • People as Partners and Problems
  • Virtual Conservation: Maps versus Action
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The Perils of Making Maps
  • More Applications

Ecology Systematic Conservation Planning
Robert Fritz Baldwin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0204


The high rate of biodiversity loss due to human activities constitutes a sixth major extinction and is driven largely by habitat loss and fragmentation. An antidote is to carefully restitch the fabric by systematically prioritizing where new locations for conservation should be and building habitat corridors. Edward O. Wilson in his popular book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (see Wilson 2016, cited under The Reason for Planning: Nature in Pieces), argued that we need to manage as much as half of the planet for biodiversity and ecosystem services, bold thinking that has been followed with policy initiatives such as the 30 percent by 2030 initiatives in the United States and Europe. While the relative benefits of focusing on establishment of new protected areas versus improving the habitat quality in the human-dominated matrix are debated, we have better than ever tools and theoretical constructs to map where conservation investments should be made. Also increasing is the realization that a future in which biodiversity, including patterns and processes of change, is protected is impossible without the well-being of humans. Systematic conservation planning began as a field focused mainly on finding and setting aside combinations of places to protect biodiversity, and it has evolved to be inclusive of social, cultural, and economic conditions. Systematic conservation planning has its roots in biogeography, planning, and landscape ecology, which are rooted historically in European and Asian approaches to mapping landscapes. A field that began as an effort to understand the spatial patterns in nature, such as Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s 1807 Essay on the Geography of Plants and N. A. Solnetsev’s 1948 exploration of Russian landscape features (urotshistshe), evolved over time to piecing back together nature’s parts. “Systematic Conservation Planning” in Nature (see Margules and Pressey 2000, cited under the Dynamic Field of Systematic Conservation Planning), urged systematically assessing the biological value of every area for its ability to represent ecological pattern and process in relation to its degree of threat and, hence, level of priority. Concurrently massive, global geospatial data gathering projects made mapping biodiversity at multiple scales more plausible. Numerous pieces of software for processing the complex tasks involved became available. Systematic conservation planning was critiqued as being tone deaf to human needs, which, in the poorer parts of the planet, often coincide with those of biodiversity. Today it’s far more intersectional, weighing combined ecological, social, and cultural factors.

General Overviews

Dinerstein, et al. 2022 describes the current problems for conservation and defines an overarching system to solve both problems of biodiversity loss and climate change. The authors' Global Safety Net is a dynamic mapping tool that points to about 35 percent of the globe that is needed to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services. Goals and methods of systematic conservation planning are presented in Margules and Pressey 2000 (cited under the Dynamic Field of Systematic Conservation Planning) and Groves, et al. 2002. Kukkala and Moilanen 2013 reviews the diaspora of studies in order to clarify the meaning of core concepts and terms. Applications of methods to different conservation projects include Trombulak and Baldwin 2010 and Hilty, et al. 2012. Habitat connectivity is reviewed in Crooks and Sanjayan 2006 and Dickson, et al. 2018.

  • Crooks, K. R., and M. Sanjayan, eds. 2006. Connectivity conservation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a still-relevant compendium of chapters covering the basic problems and some analytical approaches for habitat connectivity. The Theobald chapter on graph theory, for example, is a great example of the kind of basic review herein.

  • Dickson, B. G., C. M. Albano, R. Anantharaman, et al. 2018. Circuit-theory applications to connectivity science and conservation. Conservation Biology 33.2: 239–249.

    DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13230

    Reviews the development and application of the idea that movement of plant and animal populations through the landscape over time can be modeled as analogous to electrical circuits. After the untimely passing of the theory’s primary author, the article attempts to provide a comprehensive look at the impact of this cross-cutting idea on the field as a whole and on real and “durable” conservation projects.

  • Dinerstein, E., A. R. Joshi, C. Vynne, et al. 2022. A “global safety net” to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize Earth’s climate. Science Advances 6.

    DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abb2824

    Think globally and act locally is the theme of such studies that analyze vast data sets of biodiversity and ecosystem services to point the way to global sustainability but lack the fine-grained detail to be considered an actionable, local plan. Within this 35.1 percent of the planet needed to sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services, localized conservation planning can select the specific places and management regimes to meet those goals.

  • Groves, C., D. Jensen, L. L. Valutis, et al. 2002. Planning for biodiversity conservation: Putting conservation science into practice. Bioscience 52.6: 499–512.

    DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0499:PFBCPC]2.0.CO;2

    Presents a seven-step framework for selecting areas for conservation based on ecoregional patterns and information from multiple scales and ecological systems. Covers the basic ideas of conserved areas representing species, communities, and ecosystems across a range of environmental regimes, moving beyond the historical norm of site and species-based conservation. This system served as the basis for planning at the Nature Conservancy.

  • Hilty, J. A., C. C. Chester, and M. S. Cross, eds. 2012. Climate and conservation: Landscape and seascape science, planning, and action. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    A total of twenty-two chapters are included mainly with examples of applying climate conservation to systematic conservation planning in different regions of the world, including freshwater, seascape, polar, and montane landscapes.

  • Kukkala, A., and A. Moilanen. 2013. Core concepts of spatial prioritisation in systematic conservation planning. Biological Reviews 88.2: 443–464.

    DOI: 10.1111/brv.12008

    This review considers papers and projects in systematic conservation planning that have resulted in a number of different terms and uses of terminology. Seeks to clarify the sometimes conflicting use of terms and explain various theories and methodologies.

  • Moilanen, A., K. A. Wilson, and H. P. Possingham, eds. 2009. Spatial conservation prioritization: Quantitative methods and computational tools. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive book covering methods and concepts, still relevant for its clear explanation of methodologies such as Marxan and Zonation. Also helpful are chapters on the process models for the social process of conservation planning, prioritizing sites for restoration, mathematical models, and climate change.

  • Trombulak, S. C., and R. F. Baldwin, eds. 2010. Landscape-scale conservation planning. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Science+Business Media.

    Spatial conservation planning is messy due to the interface with the public and real policy constraints, as well as the difficulty of including all systems. This book is a review of an actual transboundary conservation project in the United States and Canada, with a “Lessons Learned” approach. Of interest as well are the chapters on governance, expert opinion, and seabirds.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.