Leisure and the European landscape

The book Greetings from Europe, edited by Dirk Sijmons, was recently published. Sijmons warns about the enormous impact of tourism and recreation on the European landscape.

The Mont Blanc is seriously threatened by mass tourism and climate change, reported NRC Handelsblad newspaper recently. Some five million tourists visit the mountain each year, and although only a relatively small number of them actually reach the summit, it’s still busy around Europe’s tallest mountain. To protect Mont Blanc, attempts are being made to give it the status of World Heritage Site, though opponents fear that this will only attract more tourists.

Our relationship with the landscape is paradoxical. We seek to relax there in our leisure time, and for many of us nature means fresh air, relaxation, and recharging our batteries. But we do this in such large numbers that those beloved landscapes are changing drastically and are losing their ‘naturalness’ and serenity for ever. Dirk Sijmons wants to alert Europe and European politicians to the immense influence of tourism and recreation (summarised by the appropriately languid-sounding word leisure). In his role as state advisor for landscape, he took the initiative to draw up a broad inventory of current developments and present them to policy makers, politicians, designers, training colleges and all the individuals and institutes involved in one way or another with landscape. Thirty universities from twenty countries contributed to the study, which is contained in the book Greetings from Europe.

Attention among Dutch designers for tourism and recreation as specific design tasks is a recent phenomenon. The exhibition ‘Mare Nostrum’, held during the second architecture biennale in Rotterdam, was devoted to the subject. That looked largely at the coast, by far the most popular holiday landscape thanks to its successful cocktail of sun, sand and sea. Greetings from Europe also examines the mountains, forests, rivers and countryside. The six chapters explain the history of their appreciation and the way in which tourism and leisure time have developed.

It is a story of lost innocence. Each chapter opens with a painting by an artist like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and John Constable, and with a literary quote by the likes of George Sand, Thomas Mann and Anton Tsjechov. Their images and words evoke the beauty of the landscape yet also its power and apparent inviolability. When these artists were alive, travelling and tourism were reserved for a relatively small group of adventurers and wealthy individuals. It was only after World War II that holidays came within reach of the masses thanks to growing prosperity, improved mobility and more leisure time. From then on things went fast. In recent decades tourism and recreation have become the biggest economic sector in the world. The wonderful and especially entertaining photos by Martin Parr at the start of the book show landscapes that seem to have been reduced to miniature proportions: easily consumable products.

Mass tourism on the coast has especially drastic consequences. The Spanish coast is now blighted by an unbroken chain of apartments and hotels, which are increasingly often vacant owing to competition from countries like Turkey and Tunisia. Islands, like those of Greece and the Canaries, are increasingly overgrown by apartment complexes and holiday homes. Even mountain landscapes do not escape the consequences, as the NRC report on the Mont Blanc shows. Large areas of the Alps are dominated by an extensive network of ski runs connected by cable cars and lined by holiday accommodation for the millions of tourists who head to the mountains for a season that is getting shorter and shorter. The original population has left to make way for ‘holiday ghettos’ that are reduced to ghost towns for large parts of the year.

Now that pure nature is more or less a thing of the past in Europe, other sorts of landscape experiences are emerging. Recent trends include industrial landscapes, such as the Emscher Park in the Ruhr Region, and areas visibly and acutely suffering from the effects of climate change. Examples of the latter are trips to the melting ice cap of the North Pole and visits to a rapidly melting glacier in the Alps.

Greetings from Europe is a well-made and informative book of readable essays. Sustainability is a main theme addressed. Not only does the leisure industry cause irrevocable changes to the environment, but climate change will also have a big influence on tourism. The mutual alliance between leisure and landscape should ensure that the quality of the latter is the concern of the former. In other words, the leisure sector would benefit from a careful treatment of the landscape and should now invest in landscape to safeguard both its own future and that of the landscape. This is the argument made by Sijmons in the epilogue to the book. Landscape architecture, a profession that came about largely because of commissions in the leisure sector – just think of country houses with their parks and gardens, recreational forests and city parks – could play an important role in this area, says Sijmons. And, to give an initial impulse, the book includes a number of design proposals for real leisure landscapes.

Absent from them, unfortunately, is a solution for Mont Blanc. That will have to shake off its assailants in another way, which it sometimes bravely does by tossing someone down its slopes. But that doesn’t stop the masses from heading back up the mountain on the next comfortable tram.