The Abandoned Cultural Landscape
Abandonment of the countryside is a recent phenomenon that is common to all European countries. It started with the industrial revolution, therefore earlier (19th century) in the Northern European countries, and later in the Mediterranean countries (20th century), reaching a maximum in the 1950-60’s. The industrial revolution brought about the development of big commercial industries, small and middle sized enterprises, and a strong transformation of the land due to the development of the necessary water, electricity, and gas networks. A strong impact on the landscape emerged from the construction works for transportation purposes like railway lines and road systems. In agriculture, the improved transportation increased the availability of general products and decreased the dependency on local production. These changes in the energy fluxes and information in the landscape had as a consequence the partial or almost total transformation of the traditional agricultural systems, where different elements and relationships were altered:
- Rupture or weakening of relationships between infield and outfield;
- Over-specialization in one or few products (e.g. livestock production, milk, grain), instead of maintaining diversified production systems;
- Abandonment of processes or techniques, and loss of traditional knowledge on the processes;
- Weakness on the relationships between neighbours, which no longer need each other for common work;
- Growing importance of regional or national markets, over local markets.
This socio-economical modernization process developed in a way that the more profitable fields where machines were employed were favoured with respect to small, poor, and unproductive lands. Therefore large farms were benefited while abandonment of small, family-run farms was encouraged and local specialized productions inevitably declined and became less frequently a mean of subsistence. This leaded throughout all Europe to a situation of polarity between intensification and abandonment or marginalization in the agricultural landscapes.
Contributing to land abandonment was the mass migration of people from the old world to the new world starting from the mid 18th century, which ultimately caused strong depopulation of the European countryside.
10 years later...
The main effects of land abandonment are soil and vegetation degradation; as a consequence landslides and wildfires increase and enhance the degradation process. Also tied to this phenomenon is under- and over-grazing; while the first is a more evident effect of abandonment, the second is due to concentration of pasture in specific areas such as abandoned agricultural fields.
Abandoned terraces growing in with shrubs and trees; Alpe di Vobbia, Italy
Regrowth of coastal heathlands with Juniper communis in western Norway. (Photo Bjørn Moe)