Ecosystem services (ES) concepts and approaches have become more appealing to practice, such as municipal/urban planning, environmental policies and governance to address sustainable development. Inclusion of this concept in the planning or policy discourses is the first step for further implementation on the ground. Using China’s capital, Beijing, as the case study, this article analyzes how ES (or similar concepts) have permeated China’s urban development history since 1949 when the New China was established and how this has to be with China’s urban green space development. The results show: (1) There were no explicit references to “ecosystem services” per se, but overlapping concepts such as “functions”, “values” and “benefits” can be found in planning documents and, importantly, the lack of the concept per se has not affected the detailed services that emerged in all plans. (2) Among the three ES sections, only cultural services run from the beginning to end although the included services kept changing. Other sections show considerable variation and less continuity – the focal services of each stage changed over time. (3) Through the ES lens, some general patterns regarding China’s urban development can be found such as regulation services gradually become valued for their own sake. The patterns found in Chinese planning documents are then compared with some western regions. This study reveals limitations of the past and opportunities for the future to inform urban development decision-making. Adaptation of old and incorporating new ES concepts can improve the quality of plans and foster cities’ ability to learn from past patterns for future sustainability.