Riparian Landscapes

A territorial project for riparian landscapes in European mountainous regions
By Josine Lambert and Eugenio Darin

The relation of human with nature often involves conflicts, particularly in wealthy countries where the carbon footprint continues to grow. The denser the population, the larger the impact on the natural landscape. The Netherlands for example, with a population density of almost 500 people/km2, has been turned into a completely artificial landscape.

Most of Europe’s original natural landscape has to some extent been affected by human interventions. Only the last decades – when significant damage has already been done – a consciousness about the importance of natural landscapes and their value for ecology grows. Fossil fuels get to an end some day and people start to exploit renewable natural sources.

Networks for “green energy” are being developed in different landscapes in Europe; o.a. solar energy in Southern countries and wind energy in the North. Renewable energy might sound as a “nature-friendly” alternative to the polluting fossil energy sources, but it has its drawbacks too. Renewable energy networks can have a negative impact on local ecologies and social territories. These networks can completely alter the landscape with many consequences. Mountain rivers are the source of Europe’s water and hydro-energy networks. Over time human interventions, in order to control and benefit from them, dramatically transformed these landscapes. One of the most significant interventions is the construction of hydropower dams, which contributes to a sustainable energy network, but at the same time physically, economically and socially affects the local territory. Which interventions can be justified, considering the impact they have on the riparian landscapes? Could a new transformation take place in order to integrate the various conflicting territories within one new landscape?
Despite the disparity in national governmental policies, this issue is common to many European countries, as hydropower facilities have been constructed in all mountainous regions divided by national borders.
The focus will lie on the Alps, as it contains the most densely developed hydropower network and comprises eight different countries Dams seriously influence the behaviour of streams and consequently cause the transformation of the riparian landscapes: they hold back sediments, which causes erosion downstream and the braiding of the river to disappear while provoking problems in its deposition in the reservoir. They also reduce the frequency of floods and their intensity in the valley, which is essential for riparian landscapes. 

These territories are gaining an increasingly significant role within the implementation of the new European Green Infrastructure. (European Commission, Green Infrastructure – Enhancing Europe’s Natural Capital, 2013) The importance of riparian landscapes as infrastructural and productive areas asks for a careful approach of the water and sediment management, especially considering the effects of climate change; altering precipitation patterns and melting of glaciers influence the amount and the seasonal flow of water both in the short and long term. Reactivation of the riparian landscape is needed, not only to strengthen the ecological values of a green infrastructure, but also to generate possibilities and opportunities for surrounding territories within this green infrastructure.

Riparian Landscapes