European landscapes reflect not only the continent's diverse climate and geology but also centuries of interaction between man and nature. A new European Environment Agency (EEA) study reviews this interplay, highlighting the main threats to this rich heritage and initiatives to protect it.
Tenth and last in the series of '10 messages for 2010', the EEA's new assessment 'Cultural landscapes and biodiversity heritage' suggests that the concept of 'cultural landscapes' holds a central role in managing ecosystems and the services they provide us.
Cultural landscapes: the combined work of nature and man
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee defines cultural landscapes as geographical areas 'representing the combined work of nature and man'. The concept is particularly relevant in Europe, where large-scale human impacts on land starting in Neolithic times (c. 3000–1100 BC). Hunting, cultivation (of cereals, fruits and other crops) and settlements altered natural ecosystems and shaped Europe’s landscape.
Until the 18th century, European landscapes preserved many remnants and structures of the remote past. Since then, however, enormous technological and social changes have fundamentally altered land use. Transport infrastructure and urbanisation have fragmented habitats, while intensified agriculture has created a much more homogenised landscape, threatening the diversity of habitats, species and genes.
An important element of the 'cultural landscape' concept is recognition that human activities are key drivers of changes in ecosystems — with potentially severe impacts on human wellbeing. But the concept also reflects the idea that human cultures are themselves shaped by their natural surroundings and ascribe huge value to local ecosystems for their spiritual, aesthetic and recreational properties.
Appreciating the Parmigiano-Reggiano, feta, cheddar, gouda…
Of course, in addition to cultural values, ecosystems also provide a lot of goods and services that are economically beneficial. For example, wild relatives of common crops can provide pest and disease resistance, while also increasing yields. Moreover, diverse local produce and traditional lifestyles also attract tourists eager to experience distinctive tastes and traditions. This in turn provides additional employment in rural areas, maintaining local population levels.
Recognising the cultural and economic value of the natural world, it becomes clear that we owe it to our children and subsequent generations to preserve this 'biodiversity heritage'. Correspondingly, initiatives exist to protect European biodiversity heritage at various levels: from the European Landscape Convention to labelling and certification schemes that promote local produce and traditional activities.
Incorporating such instruments and initiatives into regional and local planning and involving local communities will be essential to secure Europe’s biodiversity heritage and maintain multifunctional landscapes.