Where do you think nature is ‹intact›?

· by Lucia Thaler, Annina Michel · in Research, Sustainability

What kind of everyday relationships with nature do people living in Swiss regional nature parks have? What values do they associate with ‘nature’? A module of the project ValPar.CH – Values of the Ecological Infrastructure in Swiss Parks explores these questions through participatory mapping in local stakeholder workshops. This allows to assess diverse social values of nature(s) and landscapes and, therefore, to include them in land-use decision-making processes.

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People do not only value nature for its material benefits, such as food. Rather, they build relationships with nature that are more complex, spatially and temporally explicit and cannot simply be expressed in terms of natural resources. These long-neglected so-called ‹relational values› are increasingly receiving attention in environmental research as well as in science-policy platforms such as IPBES (see Deplazes-Zemp & Chapman 2021, IPBES n.d.).

Everyday activities create strong human-nature relationships

«You can only consider the things beautiful that you know, where I have time […] and spend part of my life.  […] Where you work …, you are at home. That grows on you», one workshop participant explained how everyday activities and the accessibility form the basis for their appreciation of and relationship to nature. Multi-sensuous experiences in the landscape and feelings of connectedness to nature are crucial to one’s quality of life. For example, many participants value nature for recreation, but also as part of a very active interaction in their (professional) everyday lives. Thus, beautiful walking paths, but also one’s own paddock can become very meaningful places in the landscape. «On the one hand, there is land from my family that I am taking over. […] And on the other hand, it’s a place of work and inspiration all the same, and there’s also a beautiful view and nice for walking. A lot of things are coming together for me at the moment. And a lot of history, too. My grandparents already had their vineyards there», said one participant, summarising diverse landscape values.

Negatively perceived landscape elements are often built infrastructure, such as buildings in the landscape that are described as poorly integrated and too massive, new buildings that break with traditional architectural styles, paved roads, industrial areas, reservoirs, or gravel pits. «I’m a farmer myself and you tear up when you see how the meadows are cut through with melioration roads from this side and you’re glad that the elderly didn’t see it. […] It makes your heart bleed. These constructed curves with these pseudo-natural stone walls. With an extremely large amount of money, existing long-lasting natural stone walls were torn down. It hurts me every day when I drive up there», said one participant, describing their emotional reaction to landscape changes. Furthermore, concerns about over-tourism and crowding can also lead to negative connotations of places that otherwise are associated with positive attributes.

‹Intact nature› is not necessarily pristine

Different participants described ‹intact nature› in various ways – but rarely as an ‘untouched wilderness’. They often referred to dynamically changing landscapes or ecosystems that are (gently) influenced by humans, with culture being a part of nature. A retired ranger described a forest: «There, we replaced the old [tree] population, but all with natural regeneration and there the walnut tree, the cherry tree, are abundant. It is interesting. […] Today, we have a [tree] population of the future there, a forest with this composition, which can probably withstand our climate and not fail immediately. That is the future and intact regarding the population and so on». Interestingly, the participants perceived natural environments with a higher disaster risk not necessarily negatively, but rather accepted certain risks as inherent to ‘intact’ nature.

Participatory mapping as a basis for discussion
Participatory mapping is a suitable method to spatially assess the perception of (cultural) ecosystem services or environmental values (see e.g. Karimi & Raymond 2022). Between November 2022 and January 2023, we conducted a focus group workshop in each of our four study regions, the regional nature parks Parc naturel régional Gruyère Pays-d’Enhaut, Pfyn-Finges Nature Park, Jurapark Aargau and Beverin Nature Park. The 51 participants live and/or work in the regions and thus have individual relationships with their (near-)natural environment. First, we asked the participants to mark three significant ‹hot spots› for their everyday lives and three insignificant ‹cold spots› in nature on a printed map of the region. In a second step, the participants marked places where they perceive nature to be intact. Mapping allowed for a deeper discussion of nature meanings and conceptions. We recorded the discussions and coded them according to value categories. We digitized the produced maps with ArcGIS Pro.

The digitized result of the workshop in Jurapark Aargau with significant places (‘hotspots’), less significant/disturbing places (‘coldspots’) and places with ‘intact nature’ (‘intakte Natur’) as described by the participants.

Significance for the Ecological Infrastructure

In contrast to prevalent value frameworks (e.g., ecosystem services) that focus on a present status-quo, our study showed that participants› stories have a strong temporal dimension: In particular, the lived past, but also traditions of their communities, and realities and narratives of their ancestors play a role in why nature or certain landscape elements are meaningful and highly valued. Thus, we have to consider both, individually and socially informed and constructed nature values and human-nature relationships.

In the ValPar.CH research project, our results are brought together with economic data and ecological models. This will result in a comprehensive understanding of the values of the ‘Ecological Infrastructure’, including non-quantifiable values and individual meanings that are entangled in a multitude of temporalities. The ‘Ecological Infrastructure’ refers to a network of natural and semi-natural habitats that are important for biodiversity and provide ecosystem services. By 2040, Switzerland should have a functioning Ecological Infrastructure that contributes to the long-term safeguarding of near-natural habitats and helps tackling biodiversity loss and the climate crisis (FOEN 2022, Grêt-Regamey et al. 2021).

Including individual values in decision-making and planning processes strengthens social justice and, furthermore, enhances positive impacts of sustainable land-use strategies for society and the environment. Highlighting the relevance of relational values of nature supports a comprehensive appreciation of landscapes both inside and outside of parks, as well as environmental management strategies towards a sustainable transformation.

About the research project

ValPar.CH – Values of the Ecological Infrastructure in Swiss Parks (2020-2024), funded as part of a pilot project of the ‹Action Plan for the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy (AP SBS)› of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). Subscribe to the ValPar.CH newsletter here (in German and French).

We would like to thank the workshop participants and the park managements for their support in planning and conducting the workshops.

A big thank you to our project team: Dr. Roger KellerDr. Anna Deplazes ZempDr. Franziska KomossaProf. Norman Backhaus, Alix d’AgostinoNathan KüllingDr. Amaranta FontcubertaUrs SteigerSergio Wicki


Deplazes-Zemp A., Chapman M. 2021. The ABCs of Relational Values: Environmental Values That Include Aspects of Both Intrinsic and Instrumental Valuing. Environmental Values 30(6): 669–693.

Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) 2022. Ökologische Infrastruktur. (Accessed 21/03/2023)

Grêt-Regamey A., Rabe S.-E., Keller R., Cracco M., Guntern J., Dupuis J. 2021.

Working Paper «Operationalization of a Functioning Ecological Infrastructure».

ValPar.CH Working Paper Series, 1. ValPar.CH: Values of the Ecological Infrastructure in Swiss Parks.

IPBES n.d. Contrasting approaches to values and valuation. (Accessed 21/03/2023)

Karimi A., Raymond C. M. 2022. Assessing the diversity and evenness of ecosystem services as perceived by residents using participatory mapping. Applied Geography 138, 102624.

Lucia Thaler & Annina Michel

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