Landscape Development in the Alps


Spatial Development and Landscape Change in the Alps in the Last 30 Years

"The spatial structure of the Alps is characterised by a complex, small-scale mosaic of different development types. Over the past 30 years, there has been a significant polarisation between prosperous areas (Alpine cities and agglomerations as well as major tourism areas) and less favoured areas (periurban and peripheral areas) in the Alps. Furthermore, the Alpine space is closely connected to the surrounding areas. Nearby metropolitan areas such as Lyon, Turin, Milan, Vienna and Munich exert a strong influence on adjacent Alpine regions, causing suburbanisation and the loss of functions by smaller inner-Alpine cities.

Changes in the Alpine cultural landscape have been characterised by high land consumption for development on the one hand, and extensification of land use and marginalisation on the other. In urban agglomerations where many demands on land use have to be met, as well as in tourist centres, new infrastructures and settlement development have imposed a heavy strain on landscapes and on sensitive mountain ecosystems. A polarisation trend can also be observed in agricultural land use: While favoured agricultural sites have been used at high intensity and simultaneously had to compete against settlement development, less favoured sites have lain fallow or been re-forested."

Mont Aiguilles in Le Trièves (France), 2003 (Source: CEMAGREF)
Le Trièves in 2020? (Source: CEMAGREF)
Further Readings & Links
The aim of GLORIA is to establish and maintain a world-wide long-term observation network in Alpine environments.
Official Website of the Swiss Federal Office of Environment on landscape and landscape changes.

Alpine landscapes in 2020

We can assume that the gap between prosperous central areas and marginalised peripheral areas will grow larger over the next few years, and that nearby metropolitan areas will gain more and more influence on the Alps. If the polarisation trend continues, the Alps of 2020 be characterised by intensification of land use on the one hand and abandonment and reforestation on the other hand. This is indicated by four main features of the future Alpine cultural landscape:
  • Intensively used areas in valley floors, subject to permanent land use conflicts,
  • Extensive dormitory suburbs
  • New wilderness areas of agricultural abandonment and depopulation
  • Carefully maintained Alpine scenery for tourism purposes.

FAVRY et. al. (2004)
How will landscapes in the Alps look like in 2020?

The role of landscape oriented policies

As regards public policies, six main approaches of dealing with the interrelationship between regional development and cultural landscape can be distinguished. In the sustainable development debate, landscape issues play a relatively subordinate role. A general diagnosis of policy evaluation suggests that landscape-oriented policies are highly in tune with sustainable development aims, but the coherence of public action is impaired by deficiencies in implementation and co-ordination. While the effects of landscape-oriented policies are difficult to evaluate, they must not be over-estimated within the global economic framework.

Preservation of Alpine agricultural landscapes may be considered a major policy impact in the Alps. Several instruments such as compensation payments for less favoured areas as well as agri-environmental measures are especially important for the Alpine space, since they safeguard agricultural incomes and support the maintenance of an extensive, environmentally sound and small-scale Alpine agriculture. However, agricultural policy remains contradictory, innovative approaches remain too weak, and policies reflect the prevailingly conservative connotation of cultural landscape concepts.

Public policies such as spatial planning and regional development instruments are widely promoting the balanced and endogenous development of mountain areas, but often this remains insufficient and exhibits a large number of implementation deficiencies, whereas transport policies have very strong but ambivalent impacts on regional development and cultural landscapes.

Research on Alpine landscapes

The development of Alpine landscapes has been in the focus of several research programmes and initiatives. The two most important and most recent ones are the Swiss National Research Programme (NRP) 48 "Landscapes and Habitats of the Alps" and the Austrian Cultural Landscape Research Programme 1995-2006.

Both programmes include a wide range of projects, reports and other publications, which can be looked up and partly downloaded from the programme websites.

National Research Programme (NRP) 48 Landscapes and habitats of the Alps

An attractive, sustainable Alpine area is of paramount importance to the societies not only of Switzerland but of all of Europe. The NRP 48 supports the discussion on the future of this habitat, and the active shaping of processes that enable a sustainable use of this valuable resource. The key research areas are:
  • I Processes of perception
  • II Processes of change
  • III Designing goals in landscape evolution
  • IV Land use and adding values
  • V Virtual representation
For more information, see

Austrian Cultural Landscape Research Programme 1995-2006

Problems like the uncontrolled spread of settlements, depopulation of disadvantaged regions, increasing traffic volume, competing user interests in a confined space combined with environmental problems such as soil and groundwater contamination, the progressing extinction of plant and animal species were the starting point of the research programme. Between 1995 and 2006 more than 500 scientists of more than 170 institutions and 40 disciplines have been working in the 70 interdisciplinary projects of this research programme initiated by the Federal Ministry of Science jointly with other ministries and the Austrian federal states. The overall programme budget was 17 Million Euro.

One of the key elements of this programme was the development of new methods for inter- and transdisciplinary co-operation. All details (aims, projects, results etc.) can be found under:
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NRP 48
The Swiss National Research Programme 48 "Landscapes and Habitats of the Alps" resarched Landscape Change from various perspectives. This link will take you to four publications on the main findings of this research project.