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Latent Drivers of Landscape Transformation in Eastern Europe: Past, Present and Future

Global Change Research Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Lipová 9, CZ-37005 České Budějovice, Czech Republic
Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Centre for Eological Research, Danube Research Institute, Department of Tisza Research, Bem tér 18/c, HU-4026 Debrecen, Hungary
Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA), Viale S. Margherita 80, I-52100 Arezzo, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2018, 10(8), 2918;
Received: 6 July 2018 / Revised: 14 August 2018 / Accepted: 14 August 2018 / Published: 17 August 2018


Land-use changes in Europe have been influenced by social forces including economic, demographic, political, technological and cultural factors. Contributing to a refined conceptualization of multifaceted processes of landscape transformation in the European continent, the present study proposes an extensive review of land-use trends in Eastern Europe, focusing on past, present and future conditions that may characterize latent drivers of change. Three time periods with a specific institutional, political and socioeconomic context reflecting distinct processes of land-use change were identified including: (i) the rapid transition to a centralized political system since the early 1950s (up to the late 1980s); (ii) a progressive transition from communist regimes to parliamentary democracy in 1989–1990 (up to the early 2000s); and (iii) the subsequent accession of individual countries to the European Union (2004–2007) up to nowadays. The most recent land-use trends are increasingly influenced by European directives on the environment, while national policies continue to shape economic development in member states.

1. Introduction

Landscape transformations in Europe are affected by a multifaceted set of social forces that include demographic, economic, political, technological and cultural factors. In this regard, patterns and processes of Land-Use Change (hereafter LUC) are increasingly driven by the private interest of landowners and local communities, as well as by the wider interest of societies reflected in actual policy strategies [1]. Based on a meta-data analysis considering 144 case studies assessing landscape transformation across the continent, the role of latent LUC drivers in Europe was outlined evidencing distinct combinations of political/institutional, cultural and territorial forces [2,3,4]. In this regard, the major trajectories of landscape transformation were associated to socioeconomic processes such as urbanization (both compact and dispersed), agricultural intensification, cropland abandonment, forestation and expansion of natural, non-forest land. These processes were in turn influenced by a multiple set of factors, whose importance has changed considerably over time [5]; for instance, technological and economic factors (including greater access to loans and increased public/private investments) have promoted agricultural intensification especially along the last century [5]. Institutional and political drivers mostly affected urbanization during the second half of the 20th century [1]. Cropland abandonment driven by economic expansion and population expansion became especially relevant since the early 1970s, a time period coinciding with major economic changes worldwide [6]. Lifestyles and cultural factors had a relevant impact on urban sprawl at the end of the 20st century [4]. Conversely, subsidies stabilizing farmers’ income and farms’ production often led to agricultural extensivation since the early 1980s [7].
Under the hypothesis that LUCs in Europe have been distinctively influenced by multiple socioeconomic forces [8,9,10,11], the present commentary discusses recent land-use trends in Eastern Europe, focusing on past, present and future conditions that characterize latent drivers of change. Intended as a contribution to a more comprehensive understanding of landscape transformations in the whole continent, this paper is aimed at identifying and discussing the role of direct (and indirect) forces of landscape transformation in Eastern Europe, considered as a ‘laboratory’ of land-use change due to the largely differentiated drivers of change over time and space (Table 1). Placed in-between Russia, Middle East, central Europe and the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe is considered a transitional area between Asia and Europe displaying multiple forces of landscape transformation that are intimately linked with the peculiar history of the region, characterized by a unique trajectory of growth and change under different economic, social and political regimes. With the aim to better understand and discuss forces of landscape transformation under distinct regimes, three time intervals with divergent institutional assets influencing significantly land-use change in the region were considered here, covering the second half of the last century: (i) the rapid transition to a centralized political system since the 1950s; (ii) a progressive transition from communist regimes to parliamentary democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and (iii) the subsequent accession of individual countries to the European Union in the early 2000s.
Following the official definition provided by the United Nations Statistics Division, Eastern Europe is constituted by the following countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, as well as the Slavic Republics of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. The definition of “Eastern Europe” is frequently used to include European countries that were previously ruled by Communist regimes (namely, the ‘Eastern Bloc’) under the “Iron Curtain” regime separating Western Europe from Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe along the period of the Cold War. Under this line of thinking, the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Albania, Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro (the countries belonging to the former Yugoslavia), were included informally in such geographic definition (Figure 1). In these regards, the institutional transition of Eastern Europe to advanced (capitalistic) economic systems has represented a unique ensemble of background factors underlying long-term landscape transformations. Under the assumption that land-use dynamics will be increasingly influenced by European directives and policies at supra-national scale, a comprehensive understanding of LUC dynamics contributes to identify the role of socioeconomic forces and national policies shaping landscape transformations in member states. In this regard, the present commentary will focus on the specific feedback between political/institutional transitions and landscape transformations in Eastern Europe, evidencing social, economic demographic, political and cultural factors of change over distinct time intervals encompassing a period from World War II to nowadays. The paper is organized as follows: Section 2 evaluates the intimate relationship between institutional transitions and landscape transformations in Eastern Europe over recent decades, identifying and commenting the role of distinct factors of land-use change in the Communist era, during the subsequent transition to open market and capitalism and in a more recent time period coinciding with the access of most Eastern countries to European Union. A narrative approach grounded on a bibliographic analysis of relevant case studies dealing with landscape transformations and the underlying environmental and socioeconomic drivers was carried out to ground discussion on an informed and updated scientific knowledge. Based on this ground, Section 3 identifies and discusses present and future LUC trends in Eastern Europe, confirming and justifying the statement that Eastern countries can be considered a laboratory of landscape transformations thanks to the latent feedback between differentiated factors of change over both time and space. Section 4 outlines the relevance of our qualitative analysis of LUC drivers with a broader look to the whole continent, evidencing impacts and consequences of landscape transformations at both regional and local scales. Section 5 finally concludes this commentary with some statements summarizing the scientific contribution of our study and the need for further studies in the field of land-use change in Europe.

2. Institutional Transition and Landscape Transformations in Eastern Europe

2.1. Socio-Political Forces of Land-Use Change in the Communist Era

Relevant socio-political forces influencing LUCs were observed in Eastern Europe with the Communist regime; intensive agriculture and forestry were increasingly important uses of land, determining land alterations towards a more anthropogenic landscape in both lowland and mountain districts. In these regards, socialist agriculture was responsible for relevant transformations in cropping systems and rural landscapes and was oriented towards agricultural self-sufficiency within the Socialist bloc. Achieving more intense production targets resulted in massive subsidies oriented towards modernization and land reforms leading to confiscation of agricultural land and the establishment of centrally-managed collective farms managing a vast amount of cropland. Even larger farms were consolidated regardless of natural conditions; for instance, mega-farms were formed in flat areas of Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s and even in mountainous regions at the beginning of the 1970s [7]. The same trend took place in other countries where agricultural land was pushed into marginal and less accessible areas, as observed for example, in Romania [12]. Conversely, in some states under Soviet occupation—for instance in Latvia-, forestry became the dominant land-use in marginal and hilly areas [13].
Together with cropland, forests frequently expanded into less accessible areas; relevant examples include Czech Republic and Lithuanian coastal areas [14]. During the Soviet period, these areas experienced strict, militarized State border limitations [15,16]. In Hungary, semi-natural grasslands were often converted to arable land. Soil type, parcel area and the distance to the road network were involved in such dynamics. However, other relevant variables were population density, distance from human settlements and land protection constraints [17]. Together with rural transformations, state-driven urban growth determined massive land-use change in both central and peripheral places across Eastern Europe. Diverging from Western European dynamics—where urbanization followed economic forces and demographic trends [18,19,20]—political decisions were the main factor affecting urbanization in post-socialist countries. During the Communist period, vast parts of agricultural land were confiscated for the construction of industrial settlements, road networks and residential housing as well as for opencast mining [7]. Empirical findings from a study carried out by Siedentrop and Fina [21] suggest that above-average metropolitan densities of population, buildings and activities, as well as concentration of urban functions in given regions, are a legacy of Socialist housing policies.

2.2. Socioeconomic Drivers of Land-Use Change along the Transition from Communism to Open Market

Rapid changes to more open political, social and economic structures characterizing the transition from communism to capitalistic systems were grounded on processes of private property restitution, determining real estate speculation and extensively altering land markets. Mechanisms of landscape transformations in this period included both agricultural intensification and land abandonment, natural and artificial forestation and, finally, compact urbanization. Background socioeconomic contexts at both regional and local scales were influenced by indirect consequences of the transition (e.g., a thorough reduction of the state support to agriculture and industry, the progressive decline of export markets within the socialist sphere of influence and price liberalization). Farmers suddenly experienced increasing external competition while lacking basic inputs (e.g., fertilizers) and technology (e.g., access to machinery) assuring high yields [12]. Struggling to achieve farming profitability and competitiveness caused the abandonment of agricultural land in less profitable regions. In addition, land privatization and farm restructuring [7], ownership insecurity (e.g., in Romania), basic knowledge of agricultural practices played a key role in land abandonment and migration of farmers from rural villages to urban areas [22,23,24].
Cropland abandonment was a major concern in Eastern Europe, mainly in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, where land-use changes during transition to socialism were characterized by similar dynamics (i.e., cropland abandonment, overexploitation of agro-forest areas and intense forestation). Abandoned agricultural land in economically-marginal areas were artificially reforested. In countries such as Latvia [13] and Serbia, conversion of cropland into construction and industrial land also occurred frequently [25]. The highest decline of cropland during 1990–2006 occurred mainly in north- and south-eastern Poland, south-eastern Czech Republic, southern Romania and northern/central Bulgaria [15]. Land abandonment led to forestation, loss of cultural landscapes [16], expansion of bushy vegetation and fire risk in areas characterized by Mediterranean-type climate regimes [26]. In Serbia, large investors replaced farmers as new owners during the privatization of public farms. Since that time period, a progressive shift from agriculture to industrial and construction use has driven intense landscape transformations [27].
Since the early 1990s, intensive agriculture spread throughout Eastern Europe [7], in line with a broader wave of agricultural intensification worldwide, with demographic and economic growth inducing high (and increasing over time) fertilizer application rates [28]. Landowners were not motivated to reduce the intensity of pesticide use, as they were still struggling to make their farms profitable [29]. In many countries (e.g., Romania and Serbia), massive exploitation of rural areas threatened the overall sustainability of arable land systems [25]. For instance, deforestation, changing tree composition and bush encroachment were the most common land-use changes in the Carpathians. In the Lithuanian landscape, reforestation was one of the prevailing state-driven landscape change [15]. Logging intensity in some countries (e.g., Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) rose after a prolonged breakdown because of the rapid transition to market economy. Most of the countries doubled their logging area in respect with the Soviet time: for instance, Estonia and Latvia increased logging intensity three-fold or more. However, the global economic crisis in the late 2000s affected timber harvesting in a different way. Central Europe (Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland) and Baltic countries experienced an increase in the logging rates, while the annual logging areas remained quite stable in other countries of Eastern Europe [30].

2.3. Political and Economic Forces of Landscape Transformation in the Most Recent Context

Rural development was an increasingly important issue in regional and national strategies for economic competitiveness and social cohesion, contributing significantly to orient local production systems towards the desired development pathway [31]. Under the assumption that policy measures can affect background conditions more quickly (e.g., via the CAP Pillar II) than biophysical factors, economic settings have demonstrated to shape patterns and processes of agricultural intensification and cropland abandonment more or less variably over time and space. In these regards, European and national policies contributed to farm stabilization occurred over the last 10 years in post-communist states [24]. The CAP policy has contributed to restore farming activities, especially in mountainous regions, promoting rural development. For instance, land abandonment declined in Latvia since access to financial support was provided by the EU, such as single area payments to abandoned meadows [16]. For instance, EU agricultural subsidies led to moderate land-use stabilization in both Czech Republic and Slovakia [32].
Increasing environmental awareness, effective enforcement of environmental policies, the progressive shift of farm subsidies from productive to non-productive agricultural functions and the implementation of Agri-Environmental Schemes (AES) targeting ecosystem services and functions, have largely affected rural landscapes in the post-socialist countries shifting agricultural systems toward sustainable cropping. For instance, grassland area has increased in both Czech Republic and Slovakia with an enhanced interest on sustainable agriculture [32]. In some cases, EU subsidies caused unexpected socioeconomic problems by consolidating regional inequalities [33], for example, excluding from economic incentives remote and small-scale farms with poor soils and restricted access to private investments [32]. As a result of agricultural subsidies, ploughing of salty meadows in Serbia caused a significant increase in grassland degradation [25].
Nature conservation policies contributed to the stabilization of (and the increase in) forest cover since 1990 in many countries and especially in Slovakia, Hungary and Poland [34]. In Romania, evidence of the effectiveness of protected areas is more mixed because of ownership transfers, weak institutions and economic difficulties leading to illegal logging and forest fragmentation [12]. Generally speaking, after the EU accession, nature conservation and agricultural policies alongside a rising awareness of the loss of valuable mountain grasslands, resulted in a shift from arable land to high-nature value meadows and a shift from forest to pastures [14]. The type of administrative system and the public control over land-use change might be one of the most important factors explaining the spatial pattern of urban growth. Institutional fragmentation of responsibilities in land-use planning also promoted urban sprawl [35,36]. The size of local government units may be important in the relationship with collective or individual actors (e.g., investors, landowners, stakeholders) [21,37,38].

The Impact of Agronomic, Economic and Demographic Factors on Landscape Dynamics

Fraser et al. [39] identified three key socioeconomic and policy factors affecting LUC typical of Eastern Europe: (i) more or less market-based agricultural systems (in the range from command and control regimes dictating what farmers produce, through to moderate situations (using subsidies) to purely market-based systems); (ii) the way property regimes affect land use (importance of private property to create incentives for long-term conservation); and (iii) effects of population growth leading to productive systems in the short-term but less resilient in a longer time horizon. Skokanová et al. [7] identified important drivers that caused LUC in post-communist countries including: shift to a more open and competitive land market; privatization of state property; support of small and middle-sized businesses; improvement of agricultural co-operatives; liberalization of prices for inputs and agricultural products; introduction of budget constraints; decline of guaranteed markets within the socialist bloc; changes in agricultural policies stimulating local competition; rising volatility in the agricultural commodity market [40].
The socioeconomic changes in the Czech Republic at the beginning of the 1990s also led to a progressive decline in heavy industry. A case study from Pilsen suburb shows a trend leading to the controlled stop of landfill. However, the increase in the construction of solar power plants was influenced by global trends in the power industry and financial support provided by the government, [41]. Land privatization and the increase in economic wealth during the 2000s have driven substantial changes in land-use, particularly urbanization, further agricultural abandonment and the recent development of urban sprawl in Latvia and other East European countries [13]. In 2009, the Latvian economy suffered a severe setback forcing a substantial migration to find employment. Population decrease and rural-urban migration resulted in demographic aging and land abandonment.
Referring to processes that affect land-use decisions and actions at the local scale, globalization is another phenomenon linked with economic drivers of LUCs. Globalization emphasizes hyper-mobility, global communication and the neutralization of place specificity and geographical distance. New hierarchies of cities emerged and vast areas become increasingly peripheral [42,43,44,45]. As globalization connects land systems across larger distances, spatially-discontinuous linkages between an area and the intensity of changes were also observed [46,47,48]. An example of such dynamics is the increasing spatial mismatch between production and consumption that may allow land in one region to be set aside while the land-use footprint embodied in traded goods increases elsewhere [49,50,51,52].
Intensiveness and specialization are a result of technological progress stimulated by economic, political and social events [53,54,55]. The related development outcomes are manifold; an increasing level of pesticides, fertilizers and artificial manure was particularly evident in the Communist era, together with vast amelioration projects (e.g., in Hungary [17]). Extensive industrialization was achieved through the construction of roads and heavy mechanization [7]. Perhaps the most distinct change was the removal and degradation of semi-natural landscapes [24,56,57]. In some areas (e.g., in Latvia), the diffused amelioration of equipment was creating better conditions for the revival of natural swamps, altering the biodiversity profile of meadows and hayfields [15]. In addition, local development was influenced by background socioeconomic contexts and land accessibility [58,59,60]. In these regards, urban sprawl was stimulated by increasing transportation facilities and improved land accessibility. Areas with low accessibility were most likely characterized as natural landscapes with stable landscapes [61,62,63]. Technological drivers contributing to cropland abandonment were mainly represented by factors associated to a structural lack in infrastructural development [64,65,66]. This was the case of some vineyards in Slovakia [67].
Urbanization linked with population growth and improved mobility of citizens was particularly intense in Eastern Europe since World War II [7]. Economic growth associated with post-war reconstruction and late industrialization contributed to the spread of urban areas and the development of transportation networks that further stimulated new urbanization [61,68,69]. This was caused by progress in technical innovations as well as through political decisions to subsidize road construction, with areas close to roads and big cities being more prone to urbanization and land-use changes [10,13,70,71,72]. Declining economic returns from agriculture contributed to population movements: in Romania, (i) many people moved from rural to urban areas; (ii) there was a substantial population decrease during the period from 1996 to 2003 (more than 5%); (iii) birth rates decreased during the transition and rural population aged considerably since 1989 [12]. These processes were an indirect response to diminishing economic opportunities in rural areas due to low profitability of agriculture, as well as to the emerging role of cities [36]. In some states, the increased emigration to Western Europe resulted in decreased employment opportunities in the agricultural sector, which reduced the land allowing forest succession to take place [14]. For instance, since the early 1990s, land abandonment in Ukraine occurred mostly on large agricultural fields, while subsistence agriculture continued occupying marginal land in the mountains [73]. Apart from depopulation, political-driven and cultural-driven processes were also observed (e.g., expulsion of Czech/Polish Germans or Polish Ukrainians after World War II) strengthening land abandonment.
Urbanization associated with transforming life-styles was mainly controlled by the changing accessibility of places that offer new economic opportunities [74]. The countryside affected by urbanization becomes a multifunctional space within a more intense and spatially-diffused urban network [75]. Traditional rural landscapes characterized by pivotal cultural and ecological values become fragmented and gradually lose their own identity [61,76,77]. In these regards, suburbanization processes have caused intensive changes in land-use, occurring mainly after the early 1990s [7]. At that time, suburbanization was largely driven by changes in living standards and long held preferences for living in more rural environments, improving economic opportunities in less dense areas at the same time, with better transportation infrastructure and new technologies representing the most relevant changes [44]. An increasing awareness of the aesthetic and cultural value of landscapes was also observed in many local communities [16]. The amenity or recreational quality of the landscape become an important resource for the development of rural areas [78]. Value of the remnants of the past traditional landscapes is perceived as witness to ancestral values, symbolic and cognitive values and aesthetically felt scenery [42,79,80].
Property management or property related issues also play a vital role in the farmer’s landscape practice [81]. This may explain why landowners adopt agricultural practices influencing that are not related to production or that are less profitable because they are based on values that are related to family and individual strategies [29]. However, during the totalitarian era, high pressure was exerted on the natural systems with a consequent loss of landscape attractiveness. Many resident farmers were no longer interested in agriculture. A similar experience caused the forced transfer of German population; this caused a break in the continuity of landscape trajectories, altering consequently the relationship between humans and the landscape.
Finally, tourism—another important LUC driver—can have various effects, from protecting the value of landscapes for aesthetical and touristic purposes, to negative effects leading to deforestation and the increase of built-up areas, which has occurred in many touristic areas, such as in the Southern Romanian Carpathians and in the High Tatra Mountains [14]. More generally, environmental quality is attracting tourism which boosts the migration balance. This pattern is still occurring in many Eastern European countries, for example in Montenegro (i.e., development of settlements often with illegal standards of building and construction, mainly in coastal areas, across central plains and around natural lakes and mountains [82]). Housing stock in Lithuania increased significantly in the touristic region. The rising demand for living space, prestigious dwellings and recreation were causing anthropogenic pressures on landscapes that were mainly caused by lobbying, corruption and illegal building [15]. Moreover, during the 1980s people from cities built weekend houses in recreationally-attractive locations (e.g., mountainous areas, rural and natural attractive landscapes close to big cities) especially in Czech Republic and Slovakia [83].

3. Present and Future Trends of LUC Drivers in Eastern Europe

In market economies, driving forces of land-use change act primarily through market mechanisms (i.e., supply/demand of traditional agricultural products and environmental services as well as land for other purposes). These can address cases of corrected or regulated market “failure” which can sometimes be affected by special policies [4]. Under a reference scenario, models of land-use change applied to the whole of Europe indicate that economic expansion—coupled to population growth—stimulate urban growth and industrial development. Simultaneously, the net surface area of land covered by forests continues to grow in Europe, under land abandonment and an increasing demand for energy from biomass. This process takes often place in semi-natural areas [29]. Studies investigating LUC drivers using different models under Millennium Assessment scenario show the changing dominance of drivers in time. In a 2020 scenario, spatial policies formulated at supra-national, national and local levels and market drivers result as particularly relevant in shaping LUCs, while technical development, population growth and environmental issues are considered the main driving forces in long-term scenarios referring to 2050 and 2100. For the new EU members, the coming years are considered to represent a transition toward a new land-use regime [84]. The results revealed by the socioeconomic model that uses scenarios based on the interpretation of the IPCC-SRES storylines (i.e., four alternative scenarios: A1: world market, A2: regional cooperation, B1: global sustainability, B2: local sustainability) and long-term changes in agricultural land-use based on climate change models has shown the relative importance of relevant drivers in 2020. The distinctive historical backgrounds of the EU-15 and the new members of the EU-17 impact on the importance of and in which way the dominant driving forces are affected (Table 2). Based on this scenario’s analysis, the candidate drivers shaping future agricultural land-use were identified in the following social forces [1]:
Demography: population growth, population density; population breakdown by age, urban-rural migration; international migration.
Economy: growth of the national product; changes of income level and distribution across population; world market demand/supply, prices; domestic demand of agri-food production; pattern of market chain; energy demand; EU enlargement.
Technology: innovation and deployment; development of infrastructure.
Policy: agricultural policy (national); Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): price support, intervention, direct payments, rural development, environment protection; environment policy and regulations; national and international agreements (e.g., Kyoto); public awareness; food quality regulation, food safety; role of World Trade Organization (WTO); Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
social policies (education, social benefit, alternative income, support of SME’s enterprises); land market regulation based on ownership or leasing and land tenure; competition for natural resources including soil and water; farm structure (size and legal form); socio-demographic characteristics of farmers (education, age).
Antrop [42] identified the following trends in the transformation of European landscapes:
intensification and scale increase of agricultural production transforming wetlands and natural areas into agricultural land; this is likely to occur in densely-inhabited areas;
urban sprawl, growth of infrastructure and late urbanization/suburbanization;
tourism development and recreational forms of land-use that are still developing at an accelerating speed in coastal and mountainous regions;
extensification of land-use and land abandonment affecting remote rural areas with less favourable and declining socioeconomic conditions and poor accessibility.
The future growth in population and consumption and the rising role of bioenergy crops in Europe will increase the global demand for agricultural products over the next decades [29]. To a large extent, production increases in agriculture will depend on intensifying the existing agricultural systems [31] that will cause polarization between more and less intensive land-use. There is a continuous urbanization trend and vast areas of land could become disaffected or even abandoned [42]. Generally speaking, arable land and pasture are expected to decrease but the portion of arable land for the cultivation of new energy crops will probably increase in the medium-term, especially if production will be subsidized [85]. Green infrastructure networks are also expected to expand by 0.2% by 2020 and 1.1% by 2050, mainly as a result of forestation [29].
Dryer areas, where grasslands or shrubs are dominant in the landscape but where important agricultural activities also take place, are characterized by lower productive values. This is particularly evident for regions in Hungary and Romania as well as in some regions across the Mediterranean region which are known to be affected by water stress [86]. Agrarian land in Lithuanian coastal areas are being urbanized to a much larger extent than in the past decades [15]. Similar trend can be found in coastal and mountainous areas. In Southern Europe, processes of marginalization of agriculture and a change in functions with regard to urbanization and tourism were observed at the same time [87,88,89]. If these tendencies will continue and expand to larger areas, landscape transformations will result in relevant environmental changes over the next decades [29].
According to empirical results presented in earlier studies [19,21,41,61], the level of urbanization in Eastern Europe will rapidly reach the current level of urbanization in Western Europe [42]. Another trend which is likely to consolidate in Eastern countries is reforestation of abandoned areas. For instance, forestation in the last three decades was the most common type of landscape change in Latvia (17.1%). Such landscape transformations may cause a decrease in biodiversity, loss of the cultural landscape and tourism opportunities, determining an overall decline in food production that leads to reliance on foreign imports and trade imbalance [13].

4. Discussion

Rural development in economically-advanced countries results from the demands of a changing society [42,90,91]. The concept of a multifunctional landscape is gaining ground in landscape research as well as in land-use policy, focusing on joint socioeconomic and ecological targets [66,92,93]. The amenity or recreational quality of the landscape is becoming an important resource for the development of rural areas [16]. Land-use changes in Europe have been increasingly influenced by economic, political, technological and cultural factors [54,94,95]. As mentioned above, economic factors were influential drivers of landscape transformation In Western Europe. Conversely, in Eastern Europe the Communist determined political forces leading to land collectivization, agricultural intensification and forest expansion. More recently, land privatization and loss of state support for agriculture gave more importance to economic drivers, in turn causing new challenges for farmers, such as loss of profit and scarce competitiveness. These economic dynamics have also influenced demographic drivers (e.g., depopulation of rural areas, emigration), which caused the abandonment of agricultural land, mainly in marginal and remote areas. The EU national and environmental policies contributed to patterns of land-use stabilization in Europe which has occurred over the past 10 years [96]. However, some countries continue to struggle with the consequences of problems that arose during the Communist era, mainly the land overexploitation and cropland abandonment.
Adaptation strategies should include practical opportunities to lower pressures on ecosystem services, contributing to long-term sustainability of local development [97,98,99]. Policies should focus on services bundled around the agricultural sector (e.g., food provision, land-use diversity and crop biodiversity) or those connected with forestry (timber production, atmospheric regulation, landscape experience and forest biodiversity [100,101,102]). Factors determining adaptive capacity to climate change include wealth, technology and infrastructure, information, knowledge and skills, institutions, flexibility, equity and social capital [103,104,105]. Lung et al. [106] defined adaptive capacity as a function of three components: (i) financial capital; (ii) human capital; and (iii) technological capital. Financial capital involves the issues of productivity wealth and income equality. Human capital includes educational achievements and health services, whereas technological capital covers research and development as well as internet use. Special attention to Eastern and Southern Europe local conditions is required because of the considerable extension of vulnerable land with high risk and low adaptive capacity [57,62,66,107].
Research focus on adaptation strategies in Eastern European countries is increasingly required to move towards a more holistic approach, recognizing the importance of land for multiple purposes such as biodiversity protection, flood protection, urbanization, cultural values and climate change mitigation [108,109]. Flooding can be a relevant example in this line of thinking. Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and Poland all experienced a number of severe flood events in the last decades, conveying their adaptation needs to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a preliminary socioeconomic response to flood risk. As a result, these countries were engaged in projects and adaptation strategies were progressively developed in a joint fashion. More specifically, Hungary implemented its adaptation strategy in 2008. Czech Republic and Slovenia implemented more recently their national strategies to address climate change, including measures of both adaptation and mitigation [108,109].
Based on evidence presented in this study, long-term LUC trajectories in Eastern Europe, as compared to the whole of the continent, requires a specific (comparative and diachronic) analysis of landscape processes, including (i) urbanization; (ii) forestation; (iii) agricultural intensification; and (iv) cropland abandonment. Drivers of these transformations are only in part similar to what was observed in other European regions and specific investigations of the socioeconomic mechanisms at the base of such changes—with special regards for policy and institutional drivers—provide a relevant base of knowledge for understanding patterns and processes of landscape transformations in larger European areas—not limited to Eastern countries. Understanding the impact of multiple (geographical and economic) scales of analysis is an important research issue to figure out original processes of change and to predict—at least qualitatively—future LUC dynamics. Starting from the Corine Land Cover initiative (producing comparable maps that encompass a period of 22 years from 1990 to 2012), existing databases covering Europe as a whole are particularly relevant in the analysis of patterns and processes of landscape transformation in Eastern Europe. However, collection and improvement of digital data sources assessing land-use over longer time intervals (e.g., since World War II) are particularly required when identifying drivers of change acting in the long-term [110,111]. While limitations of a meta-data analysis of landscape transformation are relatively well known [12], a review investigation of land-use dynamics is the necessary knowledge base to build up appropriate models of land-use change providing realistic landscape scenarios under basic population, economic and social dynamics. Finally, an improved spatio-temporal analysis of the relevance of specific driving forces (and especially cultural, economic and technological factors) during different historical periods (as stated by Jepsen et al. [112]) is particularly helpful and informative in the construction of future scenarios.

5. Conclusions

It is assumed that major land-use changes in Europe include agricultural intensification, abandonment of marginal, economically-disadvantaged and remote rural land, compact urbanization, urban sprawl and tourism development. This commentary outlines the latent feedbacks between landscape transformations and socioeconomic changes in Eastern Europe during different time periods of the last century, characterized by distinct institutional and political regimes. Eastern Europe is considered a paradigmatic example of sequential institutional cycles reflecting important changes in regional and local socioeconomic contexts, in turn altering natural and agricultural landscapes. Eastern Europe is considered a paradigmatic example of long-term political transitions from a highly-centralized, Communist regime to a decentralized, open-market Capitalistic regime encompassing the second half of the last century. This transition indirectly promoted different mechanisms of landscape transformations, stimulating urbanization, agricultural development or abandonment and forestation under differentiated background contexts and policies, leading to unsustainable regional development. Challenges for the coming future will include policy more directed towards sustainable land-use, promoting non-productive aspects of agriculture and forestry. The case of Eastern Europe gives relevance to the concept of a multifunctional landscape oriented towards a balance of economic, ecological, social and cultural functions. This notion should be increasingly considered in land-use policy and in adaptive strategies to cope with global change.

Author Contributions

M.P. and O.C. identified research questions. R.V. and S.L. made the extensive bibliographic analysis. P.C. and L.S. wrote the commentary.


This research received funding from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of CR within the National Sustainability Program I (NPU I), grant number LO1415.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. A basic map illustrating countries belonging to Eastern Europe (source: our elaboration on maps presented in the website:
Figure 1. A basic map illustrating countries belonging to Eastern Europe (source: our elaboration on maps presented in the website:
Sustainability 10 02918 g001
Table 1. Candidate driving forces influencing land-use in Eastern Europe (ai: agricultural intensification, u: urbanization, ae: agricultural extensivation, aa: agricultural land abandonment; X: driving force of the respective land-use process Skokanová et al. [7]).
Table 1. Candidate driving forces influencing land-use in Eastern Europe (ai: agricultural intensification, u: urbanization, ae: agricultural extensivation, aa: agricultural land abandonment; X: driving force of the respective land-use process Skokanová et al. [7]).
Driving Forcesaiuaeaa
new crops
new technologies
road construction
underdeveloped infrastructure
land reforms
environmental law
high costs/low yields
new markets/market change/loss
economic development
structural changes
international competition
Cultural and socio-demographicpopulation growth
population decline
life preferences
recreational facilities
environmental awareness
Table 2. Impact of agricultural sector drivers in old and new EU members under four climate and global change scenarios (according to Fekete-Farkas and Singh [1]; 100 indicates the actual condition).
Table 2. Impact of agricultural sector drivers in old and new EU members under four climate and global change scenarios (according to Fekete-Farkas and Singh [1]; 100 indicates the actual condition).
Drivers2020 Scenario
Old EU members
Common Agricultural Policy52907485
Environmental policy8597183173
EU enlargement108679253
Resource competition1611239252
World demand/supply17210612179
World Trade Organization1887012461
New EU members
Environmental policy pressure8592140110
EU enlargement12414314092
Land market regulation123137143133
World demand/supply16010013383
Pattern of food chain155133159107
World Trade Organization14010010492

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MDPI and ACS Style

Prokopová, M.; Cudlín, O.; Včeláková, R.; Lengyel, S.; Salvati, L.; Cudlín, P. Latent Drivers of Landscape Transformation in Eastern Europe: Past, Present and Future. Sustainability 2018, 10, 2918.

AMA Style

Prokopová M, Cudlín O, Včeláková R, Lengyel S, Salvati L, Cudlín P. Latent Drivers of Landscape Transformation in Eastern Europe: Past, Present and Future. Sustainability. 2018; 10(8):2918.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Prokopová, Marcela, Ondřej Cudlín, Renata Včeláková, Szabolcs Lengyel, Luca Salvati, and Pavel Cudlín. 2018. "Latent Drivers of Landscape Transformation in Eastern Europe: Past, Present and Future" Sustainability 10, no. 8: 2918.

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