Appreciate mountains and lowlands as partners

Thomas Dax, Federal Institute of Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research (BAB), Austria.

I’d like to turn our attention to recognize highland-lowland interactions as an old paradigm which was foundational for the interest in mountain areas, the changing perceptions towards using them, and realizing the values we attach to them.

Hallstatt, Austria. Image: AFP Photo


We have read in previous NEMOR Blogs about the dramatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mountain areas (see posts Norway: coronavirus crisis emergency preparedness rural mountain municipalities by T. Arnesen, University of Applied Sciences and In the mountains: new opportunities horizon by J.G. Pawlowski, Centre for Innovative Education). Both deal with the question how we can prepare to tap into the potentials of mountain regions, being seen all of a sudden by large groups of citizens.

I’d like to turn our attention to recognize highland-lowland interactions as an old paradigm which was foundational for the interest in mountain areas, the changing perceptions towards using them, and realizing the values we attach to them. This is rather unspecifique and I agree with Bernat Claramunt in his post Without a definition of mountains, how can we do mountain research? that a concise understanding about what we understand as mountains is required in order to respond to development challenges of these areas.

However, widespread assumptions about mountains and mystifying their functions has led to stereotypes of mountain idylls, with a strong emphasis on pristine nature and attractive sceneries, and increasing efforts to integrate them in tourism use.

General perceptions of societies oscillate between seeing mountains as disadvantaged areas with limited opportunities and productivity, or as places of iconic status of landscape attraction and nature endowment that are paradigmatic for our longing for unspoilt nature and search for adventure to ‚conquer‘. However, these rather ‚old-fashioned‘ views of mountain stereotypes have since long been rejected as out-dated and idealized projections by tremenduous socio-economic changes affecting all regions.

Still mountain areas are overwhelmingly presented as dependent places that are economically ‚weak‘, under social pressure, devoid of any alternative and in need of ‘compensation’ for all these hardships. Together with the global awareness on environmental problems, and particularly climate change, and its pressing societal challenges, mountain areas have been highlighted as sentinels of global change since several decades. They entered into policy discourses at various scales, from global through national to regional and local settings. Arguing for effective action, the need for place-specific implementation was underscored in research, policy circles and through regional activists. According to the integration into national and global economies, awareness of challenges and institutional settings, respective activities emerged at different times.

As we notice a particular concern of European-centred research with regard to mountains on the Alps, we could observe an early interest and commitment for addressing mountain challenges in a comprehensive manner in that mountain range. It should be noted here explicitly that other mountain ranges, in Europe and beyond (ICIMOD, The Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment, 2019), elaborated similar efforts and engaged in innovative approaches towards shaping ‘mountain policies’. My intention here is to refer in this short consideration in an exemplary way on the crucial role highland-lowland interaction plays in the Alps.

Map 1: Alpine designations and cross-border cooperation

Crossborder and inernational cooperations
Crossborder and inernational cooperations. Image: Chilla et al. 2018, 16


We can see that interplay already through the long-term discussion how to ‘delimit’ the Alps and what areas to integrate in ‘Alpine’ funding programmes. Besides the delimitation of mountain areas in the framework of the policy scheme for the (agriculturally) less-favoured areas by the EU (IEEP (2007) Evaluation of the Less Favoured Area Measure) and (Researchgate, Policies for less-favoured areas), now labelled as Areas of Natural Constraints (ANC), the Alpine governments agreed on the Alpine Convention (in 1991) to provide a common framework to protect and develop this mountain range. Later on in 1999, the European Commission initiated the Alpine Space Programme to enhance trans-national cooperation in this area. The much wider geographical dimension aimed at including a large part of those lowlands which are in strong inter-relation and exchange with the mountains. However, that raised concerns of those advocating a strict delimitation and restriction of actions on the ‘core’ mountain area. The wide ranging approach of integrating cities and agglomeration areas surrounding the Alps was taken even further with the European Union’s Macro-Regional Strategy for the Alpine Region (EUSALP) which was adopted in 2015 and intensified strategy building processes for this area.

One of the respective foresight studies, carried out under the ESPON programme, aimed at discussing potential futures for the Alpine area in 2050. It strongly built on these tensions between the core mountain range and the lowlands which are in more or less close interaction. In addition it explored how the surrounding regions increasingly benefit on mountain amenities and sustainable future pathways. Mountains hence provide substantial services for the surrounding lowlands. The EUSALP strategies highlight that the area of mountain topography is home to about 13 Million inhabitants whereas population in the whole area of EUSALP attains more than 80 Million. Main functions of the core mountains are in providing highly valued ecosystem services, biodiversity and habitats, as well as cultural landscapes, which are appreciated as amenities for tourism purposes and recreation. Beyond that, pure air, water and energy, and hazard prevention are other well-known services stretching towards inhabitants of lowlands.

Map 2 shows the reelvance of a spatial diversified analysis on the example of drinking water demand (in the left hand map) and drinking water supply (presented in the right hand map). The striking difference of the images underpins the function of the ‘water tower’ of the mountain areas, and points to the intensive interrelation in water supply between mountains and surrounding densely populated areas. Other examples on service provision by mountain areas could be cited as well.

Map 2: Ecosystem services: Drinking water demand and supply

Ecosystem services - Drinking water
Ecosystem services – Drinking water. Image: Chilla et al. 2018, 15


Scientists have repeatedly pointed to the need to take account of the particular features of mountains inter-relating to other areas, not different from other regional types, but with a predominance on natural resource management. To indicate just recent EU H2020 research we might look at relevant EU-projects on enhancing the recognition and valorization of public goods for different types of land management systems through the PEGASUS project, particularly relevant for mountain areas, the following-up project CONSOLE searching new instruments for public goods provision from agriculture and forestry, and particularly the project MOVING aimed at enhancing value-chains of mountain areas products and services.

The mountain-lowland interaction is widely acknowledged in discourses on research priorities, dealing with mountain challenges. Acknowledging the implications of this exchange increasingly in future studies might sharpen our perspectives on ‘seeing’ mountain opportunities. In the current situation of changing spatial behaviour we might explore new or altered attitudes of mountain and lowland citizens. Given the frameworks of such strong inter-relations, we must not neglect the complementary contributions of both these groups.


Chilla, T., Heugel, A., Streifeneder, T., Ravazzoli, E., Laner, P., Teston, F., Tappeiner, U., Egarter, L., Dax, T., Machold, I., Pütz, M., Marot, N. and Ruault, J.F. (2018) Alps 2050 Common spatial perspectives for the Alpine area. Towards a common vision. Final Report, 21.11.2018. ESPON Project Targeted Analysis. ESPON EGTC, Luxembourg.

Dax, T. (2017) Mountain development in Europe: Research Priorities and Trends, Doctoral Thesis. University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, Vienna.

Klein, J. A., Tucker, C. M., Nolin, A. W., Hopping, K. A., Reid, R. S., Steger, C., et al. (2019). Catalyzing transformations to sustainability in the world’s mountains. Earth’s Future, 7, 547–557.

Yves, J.D. (2002) Highland-lowland interactive systems. FAO-FORC/IYM 2002). Ottawa.