Towns and Rural Areas in the Alps


Situation and Challenges

The analysis of population, employment and economic trends influencing urbanization processes in the Alps in the second half of the 20th century reveals that the perception of the Alps as an agrarian and tourist region is inadequate. The Alps are part of the European economic area. Integration is occurring via urban and peri-urban zones, where most of the population and jobs are to be found. Although Alpine towns are usually small, they are not reduced to providing services for their hinterlands and their own inhabitants. In addition to their supply function, most towns – independent of their size or economic specialization – feature a minimum of external orientation as tourist destinations, by virtue of their export-oriented industries, or due to their political power. This external orientation means that they produce added value within strategic networks as an essential part of their economy.
Further Readings & Links

BÄTZING (1999)
Structural change in Alpine towns, from central places to the periphery of European metropoles.

Types of Alpine Towns

It is possible to classify the Alpine towns in four dominant types:
  1. Alpine agglomerations: (e.g. Grenoble/F, Salzburg/A, Innsbruck/A, Bolzano/I, Trento/I, Maribor/Sl).
    These are regional capitals and as such they are political centres for larger territorial units. They are part of the European city system of medium level importance, and are integrated into international networks. Such centres also have a supply function for their Alpine hinterland.
Grenoble is with 158'000 inhabitants the largest city in the Alps (Source: Eric Vazzoler / ZEITENSPIEGEL).
  1. Edge cities in peri-Alpine metropolitan areas: (e.g. Thun/CH, Como/I, Bad Tölz/D as urbanized commuter belts for Berne, Milan, Munich).
    They offer residential and leisure qualities as well as additional economic specialization in some cases. When parts of the Alpine boarder become associated with peri-Alpine centres, they are integrated indirectly into the networks of these metropolitan regions.
  2. Industrial and territory urban regions: (e.g. Vorarlberg/A, Stiria/A/Sl, Veneto/I, Brig-Visp/CH).
    The manufacturing industry developed late in the Alps. Elsewhere in Europe, it is now regressing, so that in the Alps, it receives greater recognition. These industries are often highly specialized, integrated into global network and partly seen as models of endogenous regional development. Manufacturing and tourism often coexist in these locations.

  3. Towns with a dominant supply function (e.g. Aosta/I, Müzzuschlag/A, Gap/F).
    These kinds of towns are usually located in the centre of sparsely populated regions. Their supply function is far more important than their international network function, but external orientation increases through in-migration as a result of quality of life and greater attractiveness for tourism. The distance and the lack of connections to long distance traffic routes can be a benefit, because there is no competition, which gives these towns the monopoly to serve the large rural hinterland.

CIPRA (2004)
An issue of CIPRA Info dealing specifically with towns in the Alps.

An issue of equiterre Info focussing on towns, rural areas and the areas in between.

Roles and Functions of Alpine Towns

The Slovenian town Idrija successfully managed a structural change from mining to high-tech industries, without loosing economic and political power (Source: Lukas Koch / ZEITENSPIEGEL).
Towns must always provide both internal functions and functions for their hinterlands in varying proportions, depending on the type of town and region. To minimize the risk of losing economic and political power, urban strategies must seek to preserve both functions. The current loss of influence of rural areas as well as of small and medium-size towns makes this conclusion even more important.

The hinterlands are, in particular for small and medium-size towns in the mountains, a major reason for the existence of a town. In contrast to this, the mountain environment is first of all a complementary and locational advantage for peri-Alpine agglomerations. Hence, smaller towns must maintain close relationships with their hinterlands and need to move towards adjustment to the urban qualities of towns outside the Alps, while maintaining a strategy that builds on uniqueness.

CIPRA Resolution (2005)
Resolution of the CIPRA about the responsibility of Alpine towns for the future of the Alps.

Relationships Between Towns and Rural Areas

Clear borders diminish. Where do rural areas begin, where do towns end? Dornbrin in Western Austria (Source: Frank Schultze / ZEITENSPIEGEL).
Towns are usually associated with concepts such as employment, inventiveness, power and responsibility; rural areas with agriculture, landscape, recreation, tourism, or "dozy place". But the relationships between towns and the countryside have severely changed. As boarders vanish, also concepts get confused: where does the town end and where does the rural area begin? And rural area does not just mean slow rural area: there are also dynamic urban hinterlands, agglomerations, successful tourist regions besides quiet areas and isolated valleys with a strong out-migration flow. However, it thus becomes harder to distinguish between towns and rural areas? The traditional schemes are no longer adequate to comprehend this complex situation and the fast dynamics of transformation happening inside and outside the Alpine bow. The traditional frame that represented towns and rural areas as two opposed extremities has vanished. With this transformation, even a form of identity has been lost that we should find again in a new division of roles between towns and the countryside.

In this approach where boarders and concepts get confused, it is necessary to redefine the relationship between towns and rural areas and to find new forms of cooperation, accepting the constant transformations as an opportunity and not viewing them as a threat. Thus, the theme of the governance becomes more and more important. It is a big challenge to clarify what the roles and the responsibilities are and who should assume them. Inside the Alps, towns posses the main economic, social and cultural potentials: they are therefore the ones that should move and give impulses in this direction. Important potentials of the Alpine territory are to be found in the landscape, in the culture and in the force of local innovation. Even though the boarders between towns and rural areas are getting more and more indistinct, towns can and should display the value added they generate through the landscape and the surrounding areas in a more self-confident way.
Main Menu To top Continue

This article highlights the framework conditions that influence the change processes that currently take place concerning the role of Alpine towns.

CIPRA (2005)
An issue of CIPRA Info dealing specifically with the polarity between rural and urban areas in the Alps.