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The Alps

Mar 01, 2018
Image caption:
© Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Jugend und Familie 1996

The Alps as region of Europe

As defined in the Alpine Convention, the region of the Alps is home to some 13 million people. The 190.912 contained within the Alpine arc comprise the territory of seven countries, 83 regions (NUTS 3) and about 6,200 communities. With their unique combination of natural and cultural history, the Alps have become a living space, an economic area and a recreational playground of eminent importance at the heart of the European continent.

Diversity of the Alps

The Alps are a region of cultural and linguistic diversity. The languages and language groups of the Alps include Slav languages, the Rhaeto-Romanic language group comprising the minority languages Romansch, Ladin and Friulian, the German language group with Alemannic and Bavarian and also the Walser dialect, which is still spoken in a few areas, and the Romance language group with French and Italian. Some of these languages and dialects have survived only in small enclaves and are gradually dying out because the younger members of those societies no longer speak them. A number of projects have been launched to encourage the use of these languages and dialects to save them from extinction; they are now being taught at school again, and there are radio programmes, newspapers and so on.

Action and restraint in the Alps

The future of the Alpine space is being seen more and more in terms of sustainable development, with equal attention afforded to the twin aspects of protection and use. Sustainable development is a form of "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". (Brundtland Commission 1987) Sustainable development is an anthropocentric concept that includes both ecological and sociocultural elements. 

Sustainability always involves the question of use, although use is not a prerequisite for sustainability. Indeed a significant aspect of sustainable development can be the decision to abandon land that was previously in use, i.e. a policy of restraint, of release into a process of natural development. The concept of sustainability needs to be defined and implemented at different levels. For the Alpine space as an overall region, specific models and concepts are just as important as individual measures.

Action and restraint both have an economic and an ecological component, with action relating primarily to use and management, and restraint to protection. Action and restraint are inseparable elements in any concept or discussion relating to sustainability. In addition, they are always to be interpreted in the double sense of the words:

  • action in the sense of production, i.e. preserving the Alpine region as an independent economic space to meet the needs of the resident population through sustainable development; 
  • action in the sense of preservation, i.e. shaping and managing the cultural landscape in order to preserve the Alpine region as a living space based on diversity;  
  • restraint in the sense of a necessity, i.e. the need to refrain from making unsustainable use of the Alpine space 
  • restraint in the sense of an opportunity, i.e. the chance to permit a greater role to be played by the forces of natural development without anthropogenic interference. 

In the European context, the Alps are ideally suited to serve as a model for a regional concept of a sustainable economy. The goal of any concept of sustainable development is to support economically and ecologically meaningful cycles as the core of a sustainable economy. To that extent the Alpine space is predestined to play a pioneer role in sustainable development in Europe. In view of the specific character of an ecologically sensitive mountain region like the Alps, any mistakes made with regard to land use have faster and more dire repercussions than in lowland areas. They require greater care at the level of prevention and faster reactions in terms of repair. 

The Alps can also play a pioneer role in the creation of a convincing design for a sustainable economy. Experience with economic activity adapted to the needs of the natural environment has been preserved longer in the Alpine space, so that the measures required for sustainable development can often be introduced more easily.

In addition, economic activity adapted to the needs of the natural environment also contributes to the management and preservation of the cultural landscape. Sustainability cannot always mean the same thing; a densely populated region is different from a quiet rural area, and a tourist centre is not comparable with a depopulated mountain region. Sustainable development must therefore always take account of the specific character of the natural and cultural spaces involved. 

The population

It is also necessary to take into account the variations in population density within the Alpine arc. In terms of average density, the Alps - with 60 inhabitants per square kilometre - cannot be classified as a densely populated area, but the regional differences are considerable. Above all it should be remembered that 60 inhabitants per square kilometre is the average figure relating to the whole of the Alpine region and that the area of permanent settlement in such a mountainous environment is naturally much smaller. If the area of permanent settlement is taken as the basis for population density, the figure is four times as high and is comparable with the most densely populated regions in the world.

States/ Population density per square kilometre 

Switzerland 205
Liechtenstein 231
Austria 103
Slovenia 102
Germany 231
France 121
Italy 203
Netherlands 498
Canada 4


In terms of population distribution, the Alpine region is undergoing a process of urban growth and rural exodus. Rapid growth is to be observed in both the main urban centres and the low-altitude locations in the mountain valleys, while the small communities in the mountains proper are shrinking at a growing rate. Population growth in the mountains is only to be found in a small number of communities where tourism is a main source of income for the local people.

Present development

The reciprocal processes of increasing urbanisation and rural exodus in the Alpine space can be observed at several levels. Within the Alps as a whole we can distinguish between the booming Central Alps and the increasingly depopulated Southwest Alps, within the individual regions between the local centres, which can be large towns or cities or successful tourist resorts, and their underdeveloped hinterland, and at the local level between the built-up areas down in the main valleys and the abandoned side valleys and mountain slopes.

This complexity means that the problems vary from region to region, and that the criteria for sustainable development must be adapted accordingly in the individual case.

The Alps represent a region of great diversity in terms of landscape and the flora and fauna. This diversity is a product of geological, morphological and climatic factors on the one hand and thousands of years of human activity on the other. Natural and near-natural landscapes are becoming increasingly rare, as are traditional cultural landscapes. Within society, however, there is a growing desire for the preservation or restoration of such living spaces. In addition to sociocultural factors, there are also economic reasons for this reappraisal of land use in mountain areas. It is important for the future of the mountain farming community, for example, to avoid the conventional large-farm structures of the flat areas and to focus on niche products with high standards of quality and the appropriate labels. A committed effort is required for the development and promotion of ecolabels for products and services that satisfy the requirements of sustainability.

Sensitive Alps

The Alpine region is subjected to a variety of ecological impacts of internal and external origin. The economic functions of the Alpine space are also largely determined externally. In future, the polluter-pays principle must be applied to make non-sustainable activities unattractive and preserve the special potential of the mountain areas. Also, the pollution must be paid for regardless of whether it is caused by traffic in transit from outside of the Alpine space or by a polluter in the mountain region itself. Cross-border environmental problems are growing, and so is the degree of international integration. For that reason alone, a sustainable development strategy is one that avoids an isolated response in the Alpine space or by individual regions. Integration within Europe, however, does not mean that the decision on the future of the Alps will be taken outside of the Alpine space, all the more so as the Alpine Convention gives the countries of the Alps an opportunity to promote regionalisation.

In terms of the economy, society and the cultural landscape, structural change in the Alpine space has shifted the balance between action and restraint to the detriment of biological and landscape diversity. Where biodiversity and landscape variety are at risk, a basic condition of sustainable development can no longer be said to have been satisfied. New conditions of use require new limits to use. In this context, restraint is the willingness to forgo non-sustainable use.

Structural change is an opportunity to experiment with various forms of restraint and to promote the natural character of areas of land. The goal must be a network of areas of varying intensity of use. We must also seek to overcome the traditional reluctance to take land out of production. Only if we do justice to these various criteria and aspects, will it be possible to pursue a policy of sustainable development in the Alps.