Europe’s landscapes are undergoing rapid changes. Especially rural landscapes are currently put under pressure of two polarised trends in landscape management – the agricultural intensification on one hand and the abandonment of less profitable land on the other hand. At the same time urban sprawl increases in many regions of Europe. Over the past years, a growing body of studies explored the social and ecological impacts deriving from these changes. Many of them particularly focused on consequences related to landscape aesthetics, cultural heritage or recreational values. Only sporadically touched was the concept of wilderness as a distinct quality of the landscape. While debates around a rewilding of Europe and the preservation of the last wild places gained momentum among nature conservationists, its significance for people and its role as a landscape quality remains rather unclear. To enable a more holistic approach for future investigations of landscape change, we present work that draws specific attention to the idea of wilderness as an inherently subjective concept.
In particular, we are interested in investigating public understanding of wilderness, and how this links to perceived attributes in the landscape that give people the notion of the wild. The work was carried out in the region of South Tyrol, Italy in the Central Alps. Within a multi-methodological setting, qualitative interviews were first carried out with different user groups of the Alpine landscape (i.e. farmers, local residents, and visitors) to account for the diversity of wilderness perspectives. In a second step, a representative survey (N=858) was conducted covering the same user groups, asking respondent’s about their 1) understanding of wilderness, 2) their attitudes towards wilderness, and 3) about their visual localisation of the wild using geo-referenced landscape pictures. Subsequently, a model is calculated to better understand the relative role of a set of influential factors (i.e. people’s wilderness understanding, personal and cultural characteristics, and physical attributes of the landscape) on forming public perception of the landscape’s visual wilderness quality.
First results show, that although public understanding of wilderness is highly diverse, three distinct wilderness perspectives were revealed. Especially for farmers, wilderness is understood as an inaccessible and impassable area that hasn’t been changed by humans yet. Visitors in contrast, perceived wilderness as a large, remote area, where one can be alone and that serves as a habitat for native animals. Overall, high mountain landscapes were perceived to have more wilderness qualities on average, followed by forest and water landscapes. This presentation will reflect on these results, and show how a comprehensive modelling procedure can be used to identify spatial indicators for the visual perception of wilderness qualities and how to integrate them into landscape monitoring applications.