In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Land Uses and Their Changes in the European Alps

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Global Change Impacts on Landscape and Ecosystem Dynamics

Environmental Science Historical Land Uses and Their Changes in the European Alps
Ulrike Tappeiner, Erich Tasser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0114


The Alps are the highest and largest mountain range in Europe. They extend from the Ligurian Sea to the Pannonian Basin in an arc 744 miles (1,200 km) long and between 93 and 155 miles (150–250 km) wide. The settlement history of this large European landscape is closely linked to the settlement of Europe as a whole, whereby the inner Alpine region was not permanently settled until around 4500 BCE because of topographical and climatic disadvantages. Dense forest cover initially made it difficult to use large grazing areas, but transhumance gradually developed in the Alpine region when the animals spent their summers high up in the mountains and their winters in the valleys. At about the same time, the Alpine self-sufficiency economy of arable farming and livestock breeding was added, which made permanent settlement possible. However, the most intensive settlement and land reclamation advance took place in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, industrialization reached the Alpine region a little delayed, and globalization in the middle of the 20th century. This also led to a fundamental change in society. The previous agricultural society was replaced by the service society of the 20th century. Developments since the late 1950s have taken place against the background of developments in the European Union (EU) as a whole, above all the Common Agricultural Policy and the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), but these developments were and still are influenced by additional agreements specific to the Alps, such as the Alpine Convention, the Alpine Protection Commission (CIPRA), and the Alpine Working Community (Arge Alp). All these factors mean that historical and current development of land use in the Alpine region has been and is always linked to developments in Europe. Many studies on land use in the Alpine region should therefore be seen in this context. Moreover, past land use often has long-lasting legacy effects on ecosystems and their development. Therefore, in this article we deal not only with historical land use but also with current and future developments and their impacts on ecosystem functions and services.

General Overviews

The history of land use in the Alpine region and its manifold effects is a research field that can be discussed in many different ways, from the perspectives of botany, cartography, geology, mineralogy, meteorology and glaciology, ethnology, humanities, cultural sciences, and history. For the Alpine region, there are a few standard works that give a broad overview of developments. Bätzing 2015 describes how the Alps emerged as a living and economic space, and how in the 19th and 20th centuries that space changed through tourism, industry, urban growth, traffic, and the collapse of mountain agriculture, and the author presents an overview of the current situation and the problems in the Alps. On more than 100 pan-Alpine maps and accompanying texts, Tappeiner, et al. 2008 offers detailed information about the current state and then-recent developments in the Alps in environmental, social, and economic terms, broken down to municipal level. Cernusca, et al. 1999 focuses on an analysis of ecological structures and processes in the context of agricultural land-use changes, scaling from the leaf to the landscape level.

  • Bätzing, W. 2015. Die Alpen—Geschichte und Zukunft einer europäischen Kulturlandschaft /The Alps—History and Future of a European Cultural Landscape. Munich, Germany: C. H. Beck.

    The book portrays the Alps as a unique but vulnerable cultural landscape undergoing fundamental changes in the European and global context.

  • Cernusca, A., U. Tappeiner, and N. Bayfield. 1999. ECOMONT—concept and results. Berlin: Blackwell.

    The authors present the ecological effects of land-use changes in European terrestrial mountain ecosystems.

  • Tappeiner, U., A. Borsdorf, and E. Tasser. 2008. Mapping the Alps. Heidelberg, Germany: Spektrum.

    The book contains more than one hundred pan-Alpine maps on social, economic, and environmental aspects and their development over the previous thirty years.

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