HOPE glossary of terms

When referencing the HOPE Glossary of Terms, please cite as follows: Ford-Thompson, A., Hutchinson, J., Graham H. and White P.C.L. 2014, Health of Populations and Ecosystems Glossary of Terms [online] <http://www.york.ac.uk/healthsciences/research/public-health/archive/hope/glossary> [Accessed dd/mm/yy] 

C‌artoons: Tim Bulmer

The HOPE project brings together two different communities of specialists and researchers in public health and ecosystem science. Each community has its own vocabulary and technical terms with discipline-specific meanings. In an attempt to foster clarity and to reduce misunderstandings, we have created a glossary of commonly-used terms from public health and ecosystem science. The terms are presented in alphabetical order, so you can scroll up and down to browse the full list, or you can use the search facility to find definitions for specific terms.


Adjustment in natural or human systems to a new or changing environment.

Human adaptation is the decision-making process and the set of actions undertaken to maintain the capacity to deal with future change or perturbations to a socio-ecological system without undergoing significant changes in function, structural identity, or feedbacks of that system while maintaining the option to develop.

Adapted from MA (2005) and Nelson et al (2007).


The enduring positive or negative feeling about a person, object, or issue.

Petty & Cacioppo (1981).

Biodiversity / Biological diversity

The variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

CBD (1992)

Biological environment

All of the biotic, living factors that act on a human or non-human organism, population, or ecological community and influence its survival and development. Biotic factors include the organisms themselves, their food, and their interactions.

Biological resources

Includes genetic resources, organisms or parts thereof, populations, or any other biotic component of ecosystems with actual or potential use or value for humanity.

CBD (1992)

Biophysical environment

See ‘Natural environment’.

Built environment

Human-created places, which includes our homes, schools, workplaces, parks and recreation areas, business areas and roads; it extends overhead in the form of electric transmission lines, underground in the form of waste disposal sites and subway trains, and across the country in the form of highways. 

Adapted from Srinivasan et al (2003). 

Cultural [ecosystem] service

A nonmaterial benefit from an ecosystem that is experienced directly and personally by humans. Cultural ecosystem services include, for example, spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experience.

Adapted from MA (2005).

Cultural environment

The beliefs and customs of a human community or society to which an individual belongs. For example, an individual’s cultural heritage and the religious practices of their family and friends would be part of their cultural environment.

Ecological integrity

The diversity and quality of ecosystems, sometimes extending to their capacity to adapt to change and provide for the needs of future generations. This is similar to ecosystem integrity, but tends to be used in a more general, non-space-specific sense.

Adapted from IUCN (nd).

Ecological process

An interaction among organisms; ecological processes frequently regulate the dynamics of ecosystems and the structure and dynamics of biological communities.

Mace et al (2012).


A community of plants, animals and smaller organisms that live, feed, reproduce and interact in the same area or environment. Ecosystems have no fixed boundaries; a single lake, a watershed, or an entire region could be considered an ecosystem.

IUCN (2010).

Ecosystem approach

A strategy for the integrated management of land, water, and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use. It recognises that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of many ecosystems.

Adapted from MA (2005).

Ecosystem change

Any variation in the state, outputs, or structure of an ecosystem.

MA (2005).

Ecosystem good

A tangible benefit from ecosystems that people value through experience, use or consumption, the value of which can be expressed in market terms (e.g. food, timber, clean water). This definition specifically excludes the intangible benefits from ecosystems, which cannot be valued in standard markets (e.g. aesthetic value, spiritual enrichment). These intangible benefits are often referred to as ecosystem services. Note, however, that the term ecosystem service is sometimes used in a broader sense to encompass tangible benefits (ecosystem goods) as well as intangible benefits. 

Adapted from UK NEA (2011).

Ecosystem health

The state of an ecosystem and its associated structure and processes in relation to its ability to function normally, in particular regarding its ability to deliver ecosystem services. A healthy ecosystem is one which is stable and sustainable, shows resilience in its structure and function and delivery of ecosystem services in the face of external pressure, and exhibits no obvious signs of distress.

Adapted from Rapport et al (1999).

Ecosystem integrity

The ability of an ecosystem to perform all the essential functions throughout its geographic setting; the integrity concept within a managed system implies maintaining key components and processes throughout time.

Adapted from IUCN (nd).

Ecosystem process

Changes in the stocks or flows of materials in an ecosystem, resulting from interactions among organisms and with their physical-chemical environment. Ecosystem processes include decomposition, production, nutrient cycling, and fluxes of nutrients and energy.

MA (2005); Mace et al (2012).

Ecosystem service(s)

The benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living. Examples of ecosystem services include products such as food and water, regulation of floods, soil erosion and disease outbreaks, and non-material benefits such as recreational and spiritual benefits in natural areas. Some authors make a distinction between ecosystem goods and ecosystem services, with the former being restricted to tangible benefits that have a market price. However, the term ecosystem services is used more commonly to encompass both the tangible and intangible benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems.

Adapted from UK NEA (2011).

Ecosystem stability

A description of the dynamic properties of an ecosystem. An ecosystem is considered stable or robust if it returns to its original state after a perturbation, exhibits low temporal variability, or does not change dramatically in the face of a perturbation.

MA (2005).

Environmental awareness

Knowledge of the impact of human behaviour on the environment.

Kollmuss & Agyeman (2002).

(Pro-)Environmental behaviour

Behaviour that minimises the negative impact of one’s actions on the natural environment.

Adapted from Kollmuss & Agyeman (2002).

Environmental change

Changes in the natural environment, frequently influenced by human activities such as deforestation, fossil fuel consumption, urbanisation, land reclamation, agricultural intensification, freshwater extraction, fisheries over-exploitation and waste production.

Adapted from GECAFS (nd).

Environmental health

The state of the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behaviour not related to environment, as well as behaviour related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.

WHO (2014).

Environmental outcome

The likely or achieved effects of an intervention on the natural environment.


The study of the distribution and determinants of the health of humans, domestic or wild species, and the application of the associated evidence to tackling health problems.  

Draws on Last (1988).

Final ecosystem service

An ecosystem service that directly underpins or gives rise to an ecosystem good.

Mace et al (2012).


The locality or environment in which an organism lives.

Adapted from IUCN (nd).


A state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is multifaceted (enjoying good health is not simply about being physically healthy) and is a positive state (it is more than ‘not being unwell’). See also ecosystem health, environmental health, population health, public health.

WHO (1998).


Health behaviour

A behavioural pattern that affects health. The effects can be positive (e.g. protecting, promoting, maintaining and restoring health) or negative (e.g. damaging health). While the behaviour of organisations often have major consequences for people’s health, research and policy have focused on individual behaviour, and on health-damaging behaviours in particular (e.g. smoking cigarettes and drinking large amounts of alcohol). Many health behaviours – for example, dietary habits, patterns of physical activity and alcohol consumption - may not consciously be seen as health behaviours; they may, instead, be undertaken for other reasons. See also lifestyle.

Health inequality

Differences in health between groups occupying unequal positions in society. Thus, on average, children from poorer backgrounds will have poorer health across shorter lives than those from more advantaged circumstances, and people in richer countries like the UK will enjoy better health than those in resource-poor countries. 

Adapted from Whitehead (1990).

Health inequity

Health inequalities that are considered both unfair and avoidable. Health inequalities between richer and poorer groups in society, and between wealthier countries of north American and Europe and the resource poor countries of Africa are examples of health inequities; they are widely regarded as unfair and avoidable.

Health intervention

A strategy or set of strategies designed to improve health. Health interventions target factors known to influence the risk of ill-health. So an intervention could seek to change the conditions in which people live (by improving people’s housing and access to green space, for example), or it could seek to change the knowledge, perceptions, skills, or behaviour of individuals, groups, or organisations. See also risk factor.

Adapted from Taplin (2012).

Health status

This is a term health researchers often use when referring to people’s health. While it is acknowledged that health is multi-dimensional, researchers often need to rely on single-dimension measures (for example, a measure of mental health or physical functioning). The term ‘health status’ signals that the focus in on a particular dimension; often standard measures are used, for example, life expectancy.

Inter-generational time preference

Time preference is a term used by economists to refer to the degree of concern people have for their own future welfare (e.g. how much they care about their future, compared to their current, health and living standards). Inter-generational time preference refers to the degree of concern people have for the welfare of other people who will be alive in the future.

Frederick (2006).

Intermediate ecosystem service

Ecosystem services that underpin the delivery of ecosystem goods, but are not directly linked to goods and are less often the focus for management.

Adapted from UK NEA (2011).


Human actions, including policies and strategies, to address specific issues, needs, opportunities, or problems. Interventions may be of legal, technical, institutional, economic, and behavioural nature and may operate at various spatial and time scales. See also health intervention.

Adapted from MA (2005).

Life expectancy

The average total lifespan of a person before death. Lifespan – i.e. the average number of years of life – is usually measured by life expectancy at birth.  

ONS (2012).


An identifiable pattern of behaviours woven into our everyday life. The behaviours that make up our lifestyle are often routine and habitual, undertaken without much conscious thought. They include behaviours that influence our health, for example, travel habits (car vs walking), eating habits (take-out pizzas vs homemade meals) etc. Lifestyles also have environmental effects; modern urban lifestyles are much more environmentally damaging than those associated with traditional agrarian communities.

Draws on WHO (1998).

Multi-level interventions

An intervention that addresses at least three levels of the multi-layer system (e.g. the individual, the team of healthcare providers, the healthcare organisation, or the community where the organisation is located).

Taplin (2012).

Natural environment

All of the biotic (living) and naturally occurring abiotic (non-living) factors that act on a human or non-human organism, population, or community and influence its survival and development. Biotic factors include the organisms themselves, their food, and their interactions. Abiotic factors include sunlight, soil, air, water and climate. 

Physical environment

All of the abiotic (non-living) and human-created factors that act on a human or non-human organism, population or community, and influence its survival and development. Abiotic factors include sunlight, soil, air, water and climate; human-created factors include buildings, infrastructure such as roads, and pollution.

Population health

The overall health of a population or society (e.g. life expectancy of the UK population) and its social patterning (e.g. life expectancy of men compared to women, the northern regions of the UK compared to the south). The term therefore refers to the health of groups of individuals, including the distribution of health within the group. See also epidemiology and health inequalities.

Draws on Kindig & Stoddart (2003).

Provisioning [ecosystem] service

An ecosystem process that is utilised by humans to provide marketable products or goods, including, for example, the production of food and fibre, and the provision of clean water.

MA (2005).

Public health

The term is used in two ways. Firstly, it is shorthand for the health of the public. Alternative terms, like population health, similarly refer to people as a group. Secondly, public health refers to ‘what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy’ (IOM, 1988).

IOM (1988).

Quality of life

An assessment of an individual’s physical health, psychological state, level of independence, social relationships, and local environment.

Adapted from Quality of Life Assessment. The WHOQOL Group (1994).

Regulating [ecosystem] service

An ecosystem process that is utilised by humans indirectly to support human activities, for example, the regulation of climate, the regulation of natural hazards and the regulation of disease.

Adapted from MA (2005).

Resilience [Environmental/ Ecosystem/ Ecological]

The ability of an ecosystem to absorb or recover from disturbance without crossing a threshold to a state with different structure or properties. Resilience depends on ecological dynamics as well as the organisational and institutional capacity to understand, manage, and respond to these dynamics.

Adapted from MA (2005); Carpenter et al. 2001.

Resistance [Environmental/ Ecosystem/ Ecological]

The capacity of an ecosystem to withstand the impacts of drivers (i.e. forces that act on it) without displacement from its present state.

MA (2005).

Risk behaviours

Specific forms of behaviour which are proven to be associated with increased susceptibility to a specific disease or ill health. For example, physical inactivity is associated with an increased risk of obesity and cigarette smoking is associated with a greatly increased risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

WHO (1998).

Risk factor

A characteristic of an individual (e.g. their genetic makeup), their behaviour or their environment that is associated with an increased likelihood of an adverse outcome. In the context of health, a risk factor is associated with an increased susceptibility to a specific disease, ill health, or injury. Public health research and policy have focused particularly on risk behaviours.

Draws on WHO (1998).

Social determinants of health

The circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that these circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.

WHO (nd).

Social environment

The surroundings that people have created from and within the natural environment. The social environment encompasses people’s everyday social relationships and the wider cultural environment. It also includes the built environment, at home and in the workplace, as well as transport and communication networks. Looking beyond people’s immediate surroundings, the social environment includes labour markets and the wider social structure (e.g. inequalities related to social class, gender, ethnicity) together with human services (e.g. education, healthcare, welfare).

Draws on Barnett & Casper (2001).

Social-ecological framework

The structures connecting people’s health and health behaviours to the environments in which they live. The environment is represented as a series of inter-connecting ‘layers’, running from the immediate micro-level settings of everyday life (e.g. home and workplace) to macro-level conditions (e.g. employment opportunities, built environment and natural environment).

Adapted from Schneider and Stokols (2009).

Socio-ecological system

An integrative system, comprising the ecosystem, the management of this ecosystem by actors and organisations, and the rules, social norms, and conventions underlying this management.

Adapted from MA (2005).

Supporting [ecosystem] services

Ecosystem processes that are necessary for the production of other ecosystem services, such as primary production, water cycling, soil formation and nutrient cycling.

Adapted from MA (2005) and UK NEA (2011).


A characteristic or state whereby the needs of the present and local population can be met without compromising the ability of future generations or populations in other locations to meet their needs.

MA (2005).

Value Systems

Norms and precepts that guide human judgment and action.

MA (2005).

Virtuous cycle

A situation in which positive effects in one domain or process support positive effects in other domains and processes. The term is used in the context of sustainable development to describe policies that simultaneously benefit the economy, the community and the environment.


A multidimensional concept covering physical, psychological, and social aspects of wellness. It includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g. contentment, happiness), and the absence of negative emotions (e.g. depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfilment, resilience and positive functioning. See also health and quality of life.

Draws on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (nd).