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Landscape research in Sweden

A comment on past and present tendencies
La recherche sur les paysages en Suède. Tendances passées et présentes
Ulf Jansson, Peeter Maandi et Mattias Qviström
p. 361-368


L’article donne un bref aperçu de l’ensemble de la recherche suédoise en matière de paysage, y compris de la littérature la plus pertinente. Le paysage était à l’origine un objet d’étude pour des géographes. Aujourd’hui la pratique et la portée théorique de la recherche paysagère est pratiquée par plusieurs autres disciplines. La concentration de la recherche sur les paysages agraires semble néanmoins persister, aux dépens d’autres paysages dominants, notamment les forêts. L’article récapitule également les étapes principales du changement de paysage.

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

Suède, paysage, paysage rural
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Texte intégral

Landscape research

1Regional studies of the Swedish landscape largely disappeared when the geography departments were split into a human and physical branch in the late 1940s. A few such studies have been published since of a review character (Hägerstrand & Lohm, 1991; Sporrong et al., 1995). Landscape regions were also topical during the work with the National Atlas of Sweden in the 1980s and -90s (e.g. Helmfrid, 1994). In the 1980s a wider interest in landscape studies emerged, with an increasing focus on theoretical issues. The last 20 years of landscape research is reviewed below. Differences between contemporary and earlier landscape research should not be exaggerated, but four trends can be detected:

  1. The German speaking countries inspired earlier studies, but at least since the 1980s the Anglo-American influence is apparent.

  2. A number of theoretical works have been published recently (Mels, 1999; Olwig, 2002; Peil, 1999; Saltzman, 2001), in contrast to the more empirically oriented research of earlier days. Several critical discussions on traditional regional geography have also appeared (Crang, 2000; Sörlin, 1999).

  3. Landscape research is conducted far beyond the traditional boundaries of geography, making it difficult to delimit the content of landscape research.

  4. Research is more obviously oriented towards societal applicability, such as physical planning and landscape conservation, in contrast to the earlier dominance of descriptive research.

2The study of agrarian landscapes and their evolution remains as a major theme in landscape research, which traditionally emphasised the prehistoric and medieval periods. Geographers in cooperation with archaeologists have made ample use of the extensive cartographical material from the 17th century onward in combination with field excavations and observations, to reveal a new chronology of landscape change in mostly southern Sweden (e.g. Roeck Hansen, 1999; Riddersporre, 1995; Sporrong, 1985; Widgren, 1983, 1999). Studies on land-use and property rights for later periods put emphasis on economic and social factors (e.g. Jansson, 1998; Sporrong & Wennersten, 1995). Long-term perspectives on landscape have also been applied in research at Lund University, e.g. within the interdisciplinary “Ystad project” focusing on land use changes in southern Sweden during 6000 years (Berglund, 1991).

3Historians have become increasingly involved in landscape research (e.g. Andrén, 2000) as well as archaeologists (Bergman, 1991; Seiler, 2001). Professor Janken Myrdal has coordinated a multi-volume work on Swedish agricultural history (e.g. Morell, 2001; Welinder, Pedersen & Widgren, 1998). The interdisciplinary research-project “Landscape as arena; science, institutions and the discourses on environment, 1800-2000”, co-ordinated and administrated by the Department for Historical Studies at Umeå University, is an example of the width and theoretical interest in contemporary landscape research (Nordlund, 2001; Sundin, 2002). Its purpose is to analyse the scientific and intellectual history of landscapes, focusing on the evolution of cultural and natural heritage conservation.

4Most research has focused on the agricultural landscape, although forests cover more than half of Sweden’s land surface. There are some studies on the exploitation of the forest for establishing new farms from the 16th century onwards, as well as studies that focus on the management of forests during the modern period. The resilience and sustainability of historical and modern forests has also been analysed, especially for the 19th and 20th centuries (Axelsson, 2001; Bladh, 1995; Eliasson, 2002).

5After several decades of absence, an interest in landscape re-emerged among ethnologist in the 1980s (Löfgren, 1989), confined primarily to the Department of European Ethnology in Lund, where the diversity of today’s vernacular landscape has been studied (Löfgren, 1999; Saltzman & Svensson, 1997; Saltzman, 2001).

6Within time-geography the importance of landscape research in managing environmental problems has been emphasised in the 1990s (Bladh, 1995; Hägerstrand, 1993, see also articles in Ihse, 1996). The significance of limited space and of the continuous circulation of resources in time-space is seen as an important object for study in order to understand the interrelationship between nature and society.

7Geographers and anthropologists in Stockholm have since a decade studied landscape changes in Africa (e.g. Börjesson, 1998). The Programme for Applied Environmental Impact Assessment in Uppsala is involved in interdisciplinary projects on landscape dynamics in for e.g. East Africa (Strömquist et al., 1999). In Uppsala, human geographers focus on landscape and land ownership dynamics in Estonia from a long-term time perspective (e.g. Hoppe, 1993).

8Applied research within a wide field has characterised the work of landscape architects, at the departments of landscape planning in Alnarp (Gustavsson & Ingelög, 1994) and in recent years also in Ultuna, both departments belong to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Landscape design and -planning have never been separated, because research in these fields are conducted at the same university departments. Focus has for example been on visual aspects in landscape management, and environmental psychology (Hägerhäll, 1999). Historical landscape research can also be found at Alnarp (Olwig, 2002). Landscape ecology has been conducted, among others, at the department of physical geography at Stockholm and at SLU (Hanson, 1992; Ihse, 1995; Sarlöv-Herlin, 1999), with a clear American influence.

9There are no independent research institutions involved in landscape research. Government agencies primarily publish research summaries, but the National Heritage Board is involved in developing methods of landscape research (Schibbye & Pålstam, 2001).

Stages of landscape change

Table 1. Simplified table showing major events in history that are important for changes in the landscape.


Landscape change


Introduction of agriculture occurs at least by 3900 BC in southern Sweden.

Bronze Age

Regional and temporal differences in organisation of the rural landscape.

Roman Iron Age

The land-use systems covered relatively large areas and the arable land was probably used with long fallow.


The Saami population in northern Sweden were hunters and gatherers, some became reindeer herders moving over large areas of present day Sweden, Norway and Finland in search of winter and summer pasture for their animals.

Period of Migration

Changes in the structures can be observed and the older agricultural organisation was transformed.


Expansion of settlement, creation of the system of agriculture with meadows, arable and livestock. Hamlets occur in areas in southern Sweden. Settlement as well as land-use is formalised.

c. 1350-1400

Medieval recession and reduction of settlements especially in forested areas.


Renewed colonisation of forested areas in southern Sweden and in a later stage in the northern part, taking large areas of the Saami’s reindeer pastures and converting them to small farms in the inland.


Many towns are established, basically for channelling trade.


Increased number of landed estates with parks and aesthetic organisation of the landscape. The number of crofters increased due to this.


The first land reform (storskifte) that limited the number of strips in the open fields. The communal forests in the hamlets were divided among the landowners.


The second land reform (enskifte and laga skifte) that resulted in dissolution of the nucleated settlement in hamlets. Farms were moved out to the former arable, meadow or forest.


Modernisation of agriculture. New techniques are used. Expansion of arable. The amount of meadows decreased, large projects for creating new land from lakes, bogs and fens. Clearing of stones, cairns and other obstacles in the arable fields became common. A dramatic increase in the number of land-less workers and crofters.


Swedish society became more industrialised and the population increase meant that, in spite of emigration and a large proportion of people living in the countryside, the towns grew.


Family-farms with a large proportion of their income from dairy-products, while retaining the arable land became the dominating type of farm along with large estates (mixed farming).


Increased urbanisation. Rural areas have either become less densely populated or are becoming residential areas for a commuting urban population.


The number of small farms was reduced. Farms were amalgamated into larger commercially viable holdings. An increasing specialisation in the production occurs and family farms with mixed farming become rare.


Diverging trends with a deregulation of subsidies to the agriculture in the early 1990s, and an increased support through subsidies to farmers for ecological values in the landscape. Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and the full force of the European agricultural policy hit the landscape, with renewed increased level of subsidies.

The landscape today

10During the latter part of the 20th century, small farms were increasingly abandoned, especially in the forested areas. Hence, the number of people involved in agriculture decreased. The amount of individuals economically active in agriculture and forestry was only 1,5-2 percent of the workers in Sweden in 2000. In some areas few farmers remain and large amounts of arable were converted to forestry, thus a very small number of the general population will have personal relations to the actual management of rural landscapes (Stenseke, 1997). Simultaneously, rural areas become increasingly important for leisure, and tourism industry will become more important for the survival of rural communities.

11The mosaic of the landscape of the pre-industrial period has changed over the years. The grasslands, used as hey meadows or pastures, are vanishing. The transition zones between arable fields and dense forest disappear, and with them biotopes of great importance for flora and fauna. In response to the polarisation of landscape types, political steps are made to preserve valuable landscapes both in a pure biological sense and as a cultural heritage. The research summarised here will have an important task to fulfil.

Figure 1. The map presents landscape regions as defined according to the dominant land use. The boundaries of traditional, administrative regions, landskap, have been included. Although replaced by a new administrative division in 1634, they remain as strong symbols of regional identity.

Figure 1. The map presents landscape regions as defined according to the dominant land use. The boundaries of traditional, administrative regions, landskap, have been included. Although replaced by a new administrative division in 1634, they remain as strong symbols of regional identity.
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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The map presents landscape regions as defined according to the dominant land use. The boundaries of traditional, administrative regions, landskap, have been included. Although replaced by a new administrative division in 1634, they remain as strong symbols of regional identity.
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Ulf Jansson, Peeter Maandi et Mattias Qviström, « Landscape research in Sweden », Belgeo, 2-3 | 2004, 361-368.

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Ulf Jansson, Peeter Maandi et Mattias Qviström, « Landscape research in Sweden », Belgeo [En ligne], 2-3 | 2004, mis en ligne le 14 septembre 2013, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/belgeo.13586

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Ulf Jansson

PhD, Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University,

Peeter Maandi

PhD student, Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala Universityn

Mattias Qviström

Agr. D., Department of Landscape Planning, Alnarp, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences,

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