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1 February 2008 Regional Development and Cultural Landscape Change in the Alps: The Challenge of Polarization
Jonathan Mitchley
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Regional Development and Cultural Landscape Change in the Alps: The Challenge of Polarization, edited by Wolfgang Pfefferkorn, Hans-Rudolf Egli, and Antonio Massarutto. Geographica Bernensia, Series G “Basic Research.” Berne, Switzerland: University of Berne, 2005. 212 pp. CHF27. ISBN 3-906151-84-0.

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This neatly presented A5 format volume reports results of the European Commission's 5th Framework Research Programme project REGALP. Although this series is mostly published in German, the volume under review is in English—and, on the whole, very good English, which suggests that the editors have a broader international audience in mind. The book carries 2 subtitles: one on the cover, reading “The Challenge of Polarization,” and one on the inside front cover, “From Analysis and Scenarios to Policy Recommendations.” These 2 subtitles flag up the authors' main concerns, which are polarization in the Alps, on the one hand; and interdisciplinary research, including scenario analysis, with a view to providing policy-relevant outputs and finding solutions to the problem, on the other.

Mountains are complex and fascinating places, and this is a complex and fascinating story of 8 pilot regions in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany and Slovenia. The Alps, as described here, are characterized by a complex, small-scale mosaic of different development types. Over the past 30 years there has been a polarization between prosperous areas (alpine cities, conurbations and major tourist areas) and less favored areas (periurban and peripheral areas). Due largely to upgrading of transport infrastructures, especially roads, the Alps have become closely connected to the surrounding lowlands. Big cities exert a strong influence on adjacent alpine regions, leading to suburbanization, increased dependency, and loss of local identities. Recent changes in the Alpine cultural landscape, as elsewhere, have been characterized both by intensive land development and by extensification, marginalization and abandonment.

The authors argue that, while landscape-oriented policies are theoretically in tune with sustainable development, in reality their influence is modest due to deficiencies in implementation and coordination. For example, preservation of Alpine agricultural landscape may be considered a major policy impact in the Alps. Direct payments for farmers cultivating less favored areas, along with agri-environment measures, are designed to safeguard agricultural incomes and support the maintenance of environmentally sound extensive small-scale alpine agriculture. However, agricultural policy remains contradictory, innovative approaches fail to take hold, and policies reflect the prevailing conservative connotations of cultural landscape concepts. By contrast, spatial planning and regional development policy instruments are widely promoting the balanced and endogenous development of mountain areas—but this, too, suffers from insufficiency and implementation deficiencies. Transport policies have strong but ambiguous impacts on regional development and cultural landscapes. As a result, cultural landscapes urgently need policy integration.

REGALP used scenarios as a basis for deliberating on regional development and cultural landscape issues. An “inertial” scenario—I would call this a business as usual scenario—was based upon current trends and policies not specifically focusing on sustainability, while the “towards sustainability” scenario was, unsurprisingly, based upon a greater consideration of sustainability policies. The authors are careful to point out that it was their intention not to suggest any “perfect pink” scenario at this point; both of the applied scenarios forecast a growing gap between prosperous centers and marginalized peripheral areas over the next 15 years to 2020. The key to policy relevance in this work, then, is to identify the shifts in policy required to nudge the future away from business as usual towards sustainability.

The authors followed a top–down analysis of the potential future of Alpine regions under the 2 scenarios, with workshops held in the pilot regions. In the workshops, regional stakeholders detailed their hopes and fears with regard to the future in terms of perceived threats and challenges, such as loss of diversity in the cultural landscape, inexorable forest regrowth, expanding urban sprawl, increasing external dependency of marginal villages, and the weak development of regional economies. Both scientists and stakeholders underlined the need for policy measures and projects to mitigate, if not combat, further polarization and create a more sustainable future for the less favored areas in the Alps.

The work concludes by defining 4 key directions towards sustainability in the Alps: (1) an emphasis on spatial balance, (2) integration of development and conservation approaches, (3) enhancement of intersectoral cooperation and regional governance, and (4) dissemination of an Alpine cultural landscape concept to a wide audience of stakeholders and policy-makers. None of these recommendations is new; indeed, these findings essentially underline and repeat those of many other projects in the uplands, including BioScene (Mitchley et al 2006). What seems to be innovative here is the integrated research concept that underlies and permeates the whole project, and, especially, the very good practice example of including regional stakeholders from the general public as well as policy-makers, not just as a bolt-on at the end of the project for dissemination, but throughout the project.

The value of policy-relevant research is not confined to policy recommendations generated by a project, but lies, to a substantial degree, in the diffusion of these recommendations into the policy process, and, ideally, to the heart of it. This is an increasingly important, albeit difficult and challenging aspect of academic research (Lowe and Phillipson 2006). It is not possible to judge from this volume whether the researchers of REGALP have come any closer to this science-into-policy grail than have others. There are clear signs of good practice and innovation to aid this process, such as stakeholder workshops, a conference of the regions, school projects, radio and TV broadcasts, and newspaper articles. However, rather scant information is given, for example, on the nature and identity of the stakeholders, as well as when exactly and in what capacity they were involved. Who were the REGALP stakeholders? Did they contribute to the project formulation? If so, how? What did they contribute to the results and to the recommendations? What did they think of the project? Indeed, some short commentaries on the project experience by members of the regional stakeholder groups, both the general public and policy-makers, would have been enlightening (and a further innovation). I would also like to know how REGALP interacted with other mountain projects funded by the European Commission, such as GLOCHAMORE, GLORIA and TRANSHUMOUNT. And did the authors work with mountain research and policy organizations such as Euromontana in Brussels or the Centre for Mountain Studies in Perth, Scotland? And, if so, what were the experiences? Finally, what kind of relationship was forged with the European Commission itself?

Criticism may be made of the limited citation of relevant scientific literature, especially from the refereed journals. This makes the work appear to have been carried out in an academic research vacuum, which it obviously was not. For example, Chapter 6 (“Scenarios”) contains no reference to the wide literature on scenario analysis in environmental research (eg Peterson et al 2003). Equally, in the cursory treatment of the nature of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research (p 17), there is no reference to the paper on interdisciplinary research in the FW5 programme (Bruce et al 2004). There are minor criticisms that I could level at the presentation in terms of the scant space given to important and complicated maps, conceptual diagrams, and tables. As I presume there were no space restrictions in a volume of this kind, why cram several valuable diagrams on one page when they could be spread over a whole page or even a double page in the case of complex GIS maps (eg Figures 2–4)?

Even though my criticisms have rather piled up at the end, my overall reaction to this volume is favorable. Integrated research is difficult and not always popular, for a variety of reasons (eg Campbell 2005). It is good to see a volume such as this providing examples of good practice in interdisciplinary research, as well as practical and policy-relevant outputs towards sustainable development in the Alps.



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Jonathan Mitchley "Regional Development and Cultural Landscape Change in the Alps: The Challenge of Polarization," Mountain Research and Development 28(1), 88-89, (1 February 2008).
Published: 1 February 2008
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