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Sound and independent information
on the environment


Land use (Switzerland)

Why should we care about this issue

Land Land
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010
Data sources

Human beings shape their habitat. For centuries, people have created different kinds of landscapes and thereby indirectly encouraged species diversity. The diversity of cultural landscapes reached its peak at the dawn of industrialisation and has since diminished. Since the mid-20th century this decline has even accelerated.

Switzerland has many remarkable natural and cultural landscapes which are of great importance for people’s quality of life and for tourism. But many landscapes are under pressure. This problem is compounded by intensive land use, the increasing extent of soil sealing and urban sprawl, all of which the Landscape 2020 vision is intended to counteract.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Agriculture remains the dominant form of land use in Switzerland. Cropland accounts for 37 % of the country’s area. Nevertheless, settlements are expanding, with an annual increase of 27 km2 in the 1980s and 1990s (FSO, 2001). The most recent figures from western Switzerland show a decline in arable land and a substantial increase in pasture land in Switzerland’s areas of permanent settlement. This marks the beginning of a certain shift towards more extensive agricultural practices. In Alpine regions, inaccessible sites that are difficult to farm are in the process of reverting to wild vegetation.

It is to be expected that land cover classes such as glaciers and permanent snow and ice fields will be observed to decrease significantly in the future land cover datasets of Switzerland (given CLC2000 as a reference) due to climate change.

Switzerland still has a rich variety of natural and cultural landscapes, including several of global importance. Since 2001, the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch region (BE/VS) has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces (VD) was added to the list in 2007 and the Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona (GL/GR/SG) in 2008. Monte San Giorgio (TI) has also been UNESCO-listed since 2003. In 2001, the mire landscape of Entlebuch (LU) in the Alpine foothills was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve, Switzerland’s second after the National Park.

The Federal Inventory of Landscapes and Natural Monuments of National Importance (BLN) currently lists 162 sites covering 19 % of Switzerland’s area. The majority are near-natural cultural landscapes. The biotopes and mire landscapes of national significance amount to 3.4 % of the country’s area and are legally protected.

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Data sources

Urban sprawl
Sealed Area
Data sources

According to Swiss land-use statistics, 11 hectares of productive land in Switzerland were lost every day during the last two decades of the 20th century. That is almost one square metre a second. Around three-quarters of that land take is for new areas of settlement and infrastructure. The areas that remain in the Central Plateau region and in the Alpine valleys are steadily shrinking. However, that development does appear to be slowing somewhat. This is indicated by the first part of the results of the latest land-use statistics survey.

A further problem is increasing soil compaction. This phenomenon stems from the rationalisation of forestry and agriculture, where ever heavier machinery is being deployed. Water erosion is a particular threat to farmed soils on hillsides with sparse vegetation: it is estimated that 20 % of cropland is affected. Alpine soils are damaged by extensive machine-grading of ski pistes and by artificial snow production. In addition there is local overuse, because livestock numbers are too high.

The Swiss Landscape Monitoring Programme (LABES) is developing 37 indicators about the state and the modifications in landscape. One is dedicated to the phenomenon of urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is a persistent trend affecting the landscape. Some of the negative consequences include the loss of cultivated land, open spaces and local recreational zones as well as higher traffic volumes due to the widening distances between housing and centres of employment. In landscapes subject to urban sprawl, land is in heavy demand. Most often, prime agricultural land falls victim to wasteful and inefficient residential development.

Alongside urban sprawl, a further problem is soil sealing. With rising numbers of settlements and their accompanying transport infrastructure, an increasing area of land is sealed with impervious surfaces. Soil sealing is increasing at an annual rate of 1 %. The main categories of sealed surfaces are buildings and roads. As a result of sealing, soil loses its natural ecological function as a holding and filtering medium.

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The Landscape 2020 document sets out a guiding vision of a landscape that provides habitat for all animal and plant species, and fosters human well-being and development. One example of these guiding principles in practice is the new method for managing small watercourses. In future it will not be permissible to divert streams into underground pipes. Culverted watercourses will be uncovered again, and structurally stabilised riverbanks will be restored to more natural conditions. The revitalisation of the stream landscape is also an aspect of the guiding principles for Swiss watercourses.


Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

In conducting their spatially significant activities, the Swiss authorities are obliged to conserve the landscape and species-rich habitats. Construction projects are only approved, subsidised and implemented if they are justified on important public interest grounds, and only on condition that they are optimally fitted into the landscape. If valuable habitats suffer any degradation in the course of construction work, they must be reinstated or replaced. The Landscape 2020 document sets out a guiding vision of a landscape that provides habitat for all animal and plant species, and fosters human well-being and development (SAEFL, 2003)

In the near future, parks of national importance will be created: the purpose of national parks is to permit the conservation of large-scale natural habitats. Regional nature parks are intended to enable the sustainable use of local resources. Finally, nature discovery parks are designed to be recreational zones near large cities. The new parks represent an opportunity for regional development. Voluntary initiatives in more than 20 regions are working towards establishing new parks. Until 2010, one nature discovery park and two regional parks have been assigned with the park label. 14 parks have been accepted as candidates and three park projects are being audited.



  • FSO 2001: Federal Statistical Office (FSO), The changing face of land use. Landuse statistics of Switzerland, Neuchâtel, 2001.
  • SAEFL 2003: Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape (SAEFL), Landscape 2020. SAEFL’s guiding principles for nature and landscape, Bern, 2003.

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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