Landscape: In brief

The Swiss care deeply about their landscape. Its beauty and diversity should continue to ensure a high quality of life and locational appeal in the future. This will take further efforts and focus on developing the quality aspects of the Swiss landscape. Despite improvements and a reduction in per capita consumption of space, it remains under pressure. For all to benefit from inward urban development, as is the objective, attractive green spaces must also be conserved and upgraded in urban areas.

1. Living space requirements, mobility and recreational activities (drivers)  

The landscape reflects geophysical, social and economic development. Landscapes are shaped, in particular, by:

  • the natural features as a result of geological, climatic and biological processes
  • settlement and infrastructure development,
  • the ways in which land is used by agriculture and forestry.

Population growth, economic growth and the increased need for living space, mobility and economic and commercial infrastructure are the driving forces behind the expansion of settlement areas. The increasingly widespread spatial separation between work, home and recreational activities is a further factor driving urban sprawl. In view of these developments, the landscape remains under pressure. The expansion of renewable energy adds to this.

Climate change and the adaptation measures that it necessitates will impact even more heavily on the landscape in the future. Retreating glaciers will leave their clear mark high in the mountains, while the risk of rock falls and slides is increasing, and the vegetation covering the slopes will change. Green spaces such as gardens, parks and woods are becoming increasingly essential in settlement areas to adapt to climate change as these help counter the formation of urban heat islands and also to drain heavy rainfall.

2. Settlement growth, expansion of the transport infrastructure, structural change in agriculture (pressures) 

Swiss landscapes have been undergoing marked change for decades. In Switzerland, settlement areas are growing steadily. They are expanding mainly in the catchment areas of cities and urban agglomerations, in the Central Plateau and in flat valleys. Overall, they have increased by almost a third (+776 km2) between 1985 and 2018, although the pace has slowed somewhat in the last decade. The settlement area is now growing less rapidly than the population. This could indicate the first successes of inward urban development.

There are some spatial disparities. Growth rates are still at 10% or above mainly in some rural regions. One reason is that the settlement area used per capita continues to increase in these regions. As a result, urban sprawl continues.

Another important driver of urban sprawl is the expansion of the transport infrastructure. From 1985 to 2018, the transport area increased from 825 to 955 km2. For recreation, sports and tourism, facilities such as tourist transport systems, ski slopes, restaurants, car parks, cycling trails are also built outside settlement areas. In mountain regions, in particular, winter sports activities are moving to previously untouched higher altitudes, while greater emphasis is placed on summer tourism.

Energy production facilities and transmission lines are also prominent features of the landscape. The Energy Strategy 2050 and the need to build new facilities for the use of renewable energy will have a major impact on landscape change in the years to come.

The expansion of buildings, roads and leisure facilities takes place, for the most part, at the expense of farmland, which has declined in recent decades. Ecologically valuable structures such as hedges, individual trees and stone mounds in flat locations (which are particularly suited to cultivation) are especially under pressure.

The rationalisation of agriculture results in the more intensive use of the remaining land. In low-lying areas, agricultural use is tending to become more varied, yet intensive farming continues to have a negative impact on structural and biological diversity. Particularly in mountainous regions on the southern flank of the Alps, many high-lying summer pastures are abandoned and thus gradually turns into forests.

In addition, agricultural buildings and facilities require more space, for example due to the trend towards large barns, broad access roads and turning circles.

3. Diverse landscapes, changes to cultivated land, urban sprawl, landscape fragmentation (state)   

Switzerland has a rich stock of extremely varied landscapes, some of which are natural and cultural landscapes of international significance: the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch region (BE/VS), Monte San Giorgio (TI), the Sardona Tectonic Arena (GL) and the ancient beech forests in the valleys of Lodano, Busai and Soladino (TI) and on the Bettlachstock (SO) are the four sites in Switzerland that have been classified as World Heritage Sites. Switzerland’s World Heritage Sites also include landscapes, namely the terraced vineyard of Lavaux and the Rhaetian Railway line in the Albula/Bernina region.

Housing, work, transport and recreational facilities take up around 8% of Switzerland’s national territory. Of these settlement areas, residential areas make up the largest share at around 35%, followed by traffic areas at 30%. The rest consists of uninhabited building complexes, industrial and commercial areas, recreational facilities and green spaces, construction sites and industrial wasteland.

Also thanks to inward urban development, land consumption per person has fallen, from 412m2 to 396m2. At the same time, however, satellite measurements show that green spaces in settlement areas have decreased by an average of around 1% every year since 2017.

Despite the slight reduction, settlement growth remains a driver of increasing urban sprawl, the unregulated growth of settlements in undeveloped areas. The appearance of the landscape is being increasingly transformed from an open landscape to a heavily developed and engineered one.

As a result of new transport facilities, fragmentation also continues to increase, although the rate has slowed in comparison with the 1980s and 1990s. The Central Plateau is the area most fragmented by transport routes, with more than half of all Switzerland’s road links located there.

Almost two thirds of the settlement areas are sealed, amounting to approximately 5% of Switzerland’s territory (2,081 km2). Soil sealing has recently gathered pace again (in 2009–2018 compared with 1997–2009).

Between 1985 and 2018, agricultural areas including summering areas decreased throughout Switzerland by 1,143 square kilometres or 7% of the country’s territory. On the Central Plateau and in the valley floors, agricultural land usually makes way for settlements, while shrubbery and forest emerge on the mountain slopes.

Since 1985, the area of buildings outside of building zones has increased by almost 60 hectares per year. Counter to the UZL environmental objectives for agriculture and the aims of the Swiss Landscape Concept (SLC), agricultural buildings and facilities frequently do not blend sufficiently well into their surroundings.

As the use of alpine pastures is declining, forest areas are growing, especially in high-altitude areas. Today, they cover a good 32% of the country's surface.

The intensification and one-sided rationalisation of agriculture are causing the continuing loss of valuable elements that are of high ecological value and play an important role in shaping the landscape. In the case of watercourses, however, the situation has improved since the revision of the Water Protection Act (2011). The restoration of water bodies and the accompanying site-appropriate cultivation and expansion of the space provided for them make them more attractive to the public and offer better conditions for biodiversity. This has a positive effect on the landscape experience.

According to a representative survey in 2020, many such changes have been noticed by the general public, although those in settlement areas are seen by a larger proportion of individuals than the shifting appearance of water bodies or farming lands. It has also been found that urban communes and agglomerations are changing more than other regions. Interestingly, there is no agreement on how these changes should be viewed, with many (32%) finding denser settlement areas a good thing, although many others (41%) also take a negative view.

4. Recreational value, experience of nature, attractiveness of location, lack of connectivity (impact)  

An attractive landscape makes people feel good, whether they live or work there, or go there to relax. The importance of the landscape as a place for recreation was thrown into particularly sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an increase in visitors to green spaces, rivers and lakes within settlements and nearby recreation areas, and rural tourist destinations proved popular, with very high traffic levels in some cases.

High-quality living and working environments that are in harmony with nature not only allow people to experience the outdoors and engage in recreational activity but also help to reduce heat, retain water and promote biodiversity.

The public would like to see a variety of landscapes that are typical of their particular regions. These are hugely valuable in terms of leisure activities, tourism and as places to live. A quiet location with a lovely view adds an immediate premium to property prices. On the other hand, studies show that negative factors in a housing location, such as a view of power installations or noise, impact on what prospective residents are willing to pay.

The increasing fragmentation of the generally diminishing area available to near-natural habitats for plants and animals means that their populations are being divided into small isolated groups. A few years of high mortality or low reproductive success could be sufficient to wipe such populations out entirely.

In the mountain region, the agricultural areas – and especially alpine farming areas – are shrinking as meadows and pastures that are no longer used are becoming overgrown with bushes. In the long term, this development leads to the loss of the species communities associated with these landscapes and of landscape diversity. However, biodiversity can increase in the short term and the original vegetation of the natural landscape becomes re-established in the forest. 

The acceleration of such changes increases the pressure on landscape quality. A high level of building activity, buildings that are not very adapted to local environments and extensive monoculture areas adversely affect the character, beauty and diversity of a landscape. As a result, landscapes lose their typical local and regional characteristics, undermining the key services provided by the landscape (recreation and health, identification and confidence, aesthetic pleasure and attractiveness of a location). 

5. Quality settlements and outstanding landscapes (responses)    

Sustainable landscape development is a joint responsibility of the Confederation, cantons and communes. It requires coherent cooperation at all levels of government, coordinated collaboration on policies affecting spatial planning and intensive dialogue.

The Swiss Landscape Concept (SLC) updated in 2020 provides the basis of coherent landscape policy. The federal government, cantons and communes work towards its objectives as part of their own landscape-related policies in fields such as energy, transport, spatial planning and agriculture. Another element of the SLC's vision is to raise awareness of the importance of the landscape and to strengthen operational competences in the way in which it is managed.

As a result of the revised Spatial Planning Act, which came into force in 2014, the cantons must implement inward urban development. The federal Agglomeration Policy requires the Confederation, cantons and communes to promote the quality of life and environment in Switzerland. Agglomerations should be characterised by densification achieved with buildings and facilities of a high standard, as well as clear limits to their outward spread.

In the framework of agricultural policy, the federal government offers landscape quality and biodiversity grants to help conserve regional, site-adapted land management practices that are typical of the regions of Switzerland, such as terraced crop cultivation and wooded pastures.

The Swiss parliament ratified the European Landscape Convention in September 2012. This convention of the European Council, which came into force in Switzerland in 2013, provides an important basis for landscape policy at European and national levels.

The 162 sites described in the Federal Inventory of Landscapes and Natural Monuments of National Importance (ILNM) are under special federal protection. They reflect the diversity of landscapes that have been transformed to varying degrees by man, thus reflecting the richness of the natural, settlement and farming history of the Swiss landscape and are to be preserved. The revised ordinance on the ILNM came into force on 1 June 2017 and ensures greater legal and planning security in managing Switzerland’s valuable natural and cultural heritage.

Switzerland's mire landscapes are among the country's most beautiful and ecologically valuable landscapes. They are well protected by law (Mire Landscapes Ordinance). However, the quality of mire biotopes continues to deteriorate.

At the end of 2007 the federal government created the parks of national importance label to promote regions that protect their natural and cultural treasures while supporting local business growth and quality of life for the public. Alongside the Swiss National Park in the Engadine, established in 1914, this instrument has since led to the successful creation of 17 parks. Two more will join them soon.

Other important landscape-related instruments include the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy and the Forest Policy 2020.

Further information


Last modification 20.12.2022

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