Landscape: In brief

Switzerland is characterised by diverse landscapes, which are a significant location factor. The continuous, albeit curbed, settlement growth, more intensive land use and more uniform building across Switzerland have led to diminished landscape qualities. Further efforts from the Confederation, cantons and communes are required if Switzerland’s landscapes are to be conserved and even improved.

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

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

  • 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 and mobility 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:

  • The average living space per person rose from 34 m2 to 44 m2 between 1980 and 2012 and has since stabilised at a high level. Overall, therefore, living space continues to grow.
  • The growing demand for mobility can be seen, for example, in the increasing number of passenger cars on the road. These have increased by 29% since 2000, while the population has grown by just 17%.
  • Within passenger transport, leisure travel accounts for almost half of all distances travelled within Switzerland, making it the main driver of demand for transport services

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

In Switzerland, settlement areas are growing steadily. However, their growth has been curbed since the turn of the millennium (9.2% between 1997 and 2009 compared with 13% between 1985 and 1997). In addition, the first partial results of the land-use statistics currently in progress show that settlement areas may be growing more slowly than the population for the first time ever, should the trend be confirmed at the national level.

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. Between 1972 and 2012, Switzerland’s road network grew from around 60,000 km to around 84,000 km.

For recreation, sports and tourism, facilities such as tourist transport systems, ski slopes, restaurants, car parks, cycling trails are also built outside settlement areas.

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 (by 2.3% between 1996 and 2009 and by 3.2% between 1985 and 1997). 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. This also led to a decline in the variety of agricultural land use up until 2009. Since then, the decreasing trend has reversed, with the overall diversity of uses in Switzerland increasing. In the Central Plateau, which has extensive agricultural land, the increase in the diversity of use has a particularly positive effect on the landscape. However, this does not occur to the same extent in all regions. The fact that many high summer pastures, especially in the Southern Alps, are abandoned and thus gradually turn into forests runs counter to the diversity of use.

Light emissions have been increasing globally for years. It has not been possible to observe absolute darkness at night on a single square kilometre of the Swiss Central Plateau since 1996 or in the Jura region since 2008.

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-Bietschhorn region in the cantons of Bern and Valais, Monte San Giorgio in the canton of Ticino and the Sardona Tectonic Arena in the canton of Glarus are the three 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. The mire-rich Pre-Alpine landscape of Entlebuch in Lucerne was added to the list of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in 2001, followed by the Val Müstair Biosphere – Swiss National Park – in 2010.

Settlement areas cover about 3,000 km2 or 7.5% of Switzerland’s territory. Settlements are expanding mainly in the catchment areas of cities and urban agglomerations, in the Central Plateau and in flat valleys. Just over 60% of the settlement areas are sealed, amounting to approximately 4.7% of Switzerland’s territory (1920 km2).

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.

Landscape is highly prized within the population. Diverse landscapes that stimulate exploration are considered especially attractive. In general, the population rates the landscape quality better in rural areas and city centres than in rapidly changing and densely settled suburban and commuter (peri-urban) areas, where they miss the visual richness and varied landscape features that can be found there.

The fragmentation of the landscape by transport routes and settlements has increased significantly since the 1980s. The size of the areas that have not been fragmented has declined as a result. The Central Plateau is the area most fragmented by transport routes, with more than half of all Switzerland’s road links located there.

Forest areas are also growing and currently cover a good 30% of Switzerland’s territory. They have grown primarily in high-altitude regions, where the use of Alpine meadows is declining.

Between 1985 and 2009, agricultural areas decreased throughout Switzerland by 850 square kilometres or 5.5% of the country’s territory. The main reason for this is settlement growth but newly built farm buildings outside of building zones are also encroaching on farmland. The abandonment of land use, especially at higher altitudes, also leads to an increase in forest area. 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.

Small structures such as hedges, trees and stone mounds play an important role in shaping the landscape and provide habitats for animals and plants. Although a general decline in these small structures can be observed, the state of Switzerland's watercourses has actually improved since the revision of the Waters 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.

Switzerland has a total of 10,234 km2 of area which is largely left to develop naturally (forest wildernesses and alluvial sites). This corresponds to 24.8% of its entire territory.

4. Impairment of opportunities for recreation and experiencing nature, insufficient habitat connectivity (impacts)  

The increasing urban sprawl, landscape fragmentation and the loss of beauty and diversity are reducing the recreational value of landscapes for both the people who live and work in them and for tourists. As a result, the services provided by the landscape (recreation and health, identification and confidence, aesthetic pleasure and attractiveness of a location) may be undermined in the long term.

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.

The agricultural areas in the mountain region 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, and the services they provide in relation to regional identity diminish.

5. Inventories, parks and ecological compensation (responses)  

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.

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.

At the federal level, the Swiss Landscape Concept (SLC) serves as a guideline for the landscape-related activities of the Confederation. The SLC is currently being updated. The goal is for the revised SLC to take current developments into account and for landscape policy to be better integrated in spatial development.

As a result of the revised Spatial Planning Act, which came into force in 2014, the cantons must implement inward settlement development. The federal Agglomeration Policy requires the Confederation, cantons and communes to promote the quality of life and environment in Switzerland.

As part of its agricultural policy, the federal government makes landscape quality contributions that assist agricultural operations in conserving, promoting and enhancing the diverse cultural landscape. The Confederation earmarks CHF 150 million each year for landscape quality-enhancing projects.

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 natural and cultural 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.

Since 2007, the federal authorities have supported regional initiatives for the establishment and operation of parks of national importance by providing financial support and awarding the park label. Through these measures, they aim to promote regions that have particularly attractive natural and landscape values and to achieve sustainable development. Given the success of the Parks Policy, parliament doubled the funding allocated to parks in 2016 from CHF 10 million to CHF 20 million. In addition to the Swiss National Park, a further 16 parks are now in operation and 1 is under development.

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

Further information


Last modification 30.11.2018

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