Landscape Ecology

, Volume 34, Issue 7, pp 1807–1823 | Cite as

Revisiting futures: integrating culture, care and time in landscapes

  • Hannes PalangEmail author
  • Mart Külvik
  • Anu Printsmann
  • Joanna T. Storie
Research Article



Two approaches to study landscape change have been exploited: one that tries to study the developments that have happened in the past, and another that tries to foresee future.


We analyse how this dual approach can help understanding landscape change, how people relate to it in general, what their expectations and preferences are. We also discuss the usefulness of path dependency theory, cultural sustainability, and cultural ecosystem services approaches in understanding the management of a historical cultural landscape.


First, we revisit a 1999 scenario study that outlined the possible trajectories of change prior Estonian accession to the European Union in 2004. Then, through series of studies we track the wider context of the landscape changes, analysing the results from the interviews and combining those with the visible results. We seek to answer whether or not the landscape changes that occurred followed any of the past scenarios, and if people’s preferences changed.


The dynamics of realisation of different scenarios was not straightforward. However, people showed clear preference towards landscapes that carried signs of the continuation of rural life. What was not foreseen when designing the scenarios was the upsurge of local identity creating the links with the past.


In this Estonian traditional cultural landscape, stewardship, culture and cultural ecosystem services, or nature’s contribution to people as IPBES prefers to call this now, define what caring for the landscape involves.


Scenario approach Landscape appearance Landscape change and meaning Participatory approach Landscape preferences Rurality Heritage Stewardship 


In the 1990s, scenario studies were seen as a useful tool in understanding the consequences of available policy options for the future (Schoute et al. 1995). Scenarios were supposed to be valuable for depicting conceivable future situations and elucidating the driving forces behind them. Broadly speaking, two types of scenarios were in use, ones that tried to forecast the future, others that aimed to backcast the conditions that would create the desired future (Harms 1995; Schoonenboom 1995). Scenarios were not too specific—the aim was to understand the general outline of the looming change rather than delving deeply into what would change and what would not. It was also clear that scenarios have value only if there are several different choices—thinking through all the probable options would warn us on unpleasant surprises. Similarly, there is seldom a situation when one scenario is realised to its fullest extent, and the reality is usually a combination of scenarios.

Likewise, there were many future options available in the 1990s when Estonia was discussing the consequences of joining the European Union (EU). The semiotician Lotman (2009) describes these situations as cultural explosions—all development options are still possible and there is a struggle between those. Similarly, Antrop (1998) asked whether landscape change can be planned or is it rather chaotic. The answer, he suggested, was that “landscape changes accordingly in a somewhat chaotic way, while at certain times man tries to steer and (re)direct the evolution by planned actions” (Antrop 1998, p. 160). But even then it is better to know the options and their consequences.

There are not many cases available where results from former forecasts have later been evaluated or re-assessed. Indeed, as Luz (2000) remarked, it is often supposed that planning starts from a blank sheet, as if there has never been any planning before. The present landscape is the result of our past decisions, desires and dreams—and of course failures. Knowledge of the past, and the trajectory of landscape change is, therefore, indispensable to understanding the present landscape (Baker 1968). The present also determines what kind of futures we can imagine for our landscapes (Antrop 2005).

This paper seeks to analyse how much revisiting futures can in fact help in understanding landscape change, how people relate to landscape in general, what are their expectations and preferences. In short, what is the core (essence) of the human-nature relationship that we have started to call landscape? Are any of the recently proposed approaches—such as path dependency theory (Zariņa 2013), cultural sustainability (Soini and Birkeland 2014; Pavlis and Terkenli 2017), and cultural ecosystem services (Plieninger et al. 2015; Burkhard and Maes 2017) particularly useful?

This study focuses on the Estonian Setu region as a case study. As a very small part of that EU accession discussion, a scenario study was published (Palang et al. 2000) that tried to outline four possible trajectories of change in this region. From that study, and the subsequent studies, we track how the looming change of EU membership was anticipated and the resulting process of change, leading to the outcomes we see today. We acknowledge that together with actual landscape change, the approach to studying landscape has also altered, from more visual (scenery or land use patterns) towards social (Palang et al. 2011a) and collective aspects of landscape care.

Theoretical background

In this article we try to combine two major approaches to studying landscape change: one that tries to study the changes that have happened in the past, and another that tries to foresee or model the changes that are about to happen in the future. For the latter, scenario studies is one of the most often-used methods.

The 1990s witnessed an increasing trend in the use of various types of scenario studies in landscape planning (see Schoute et al. 1995; Tress and Tress 2003a, b; Penker and Wytrzens 2005). The array of studies ranged from forest planning to habitat designation, from watershed planning to impacts of land use change on biodiversity, from urban expansion to rural land use. Methods and technology use may have differed, but most scenario studies share some important common characteristics: they tend to focus on the visual aspects of future developments and utilise a participatory approach. Over time the scenarios became more and more detailed and place specific, by using aerial photography, concentrating more on land use/cover than on landscape and applying iterative agent-based modelling, whereas the participative approach has remained (Millington and Wainwright 2016; Zagaria et al. 2017). And, while assessing the use of scenarios Haasnoot and Middelkoop (2012) found that scenarios enabled learning about possible impacts of developments and effectiveness of policy options, but the scenario method is not yet fully exploited for decision-making under uncertainty.

While problems with the future are mostly connected with its unpredictability (see Antrop 1998, 2005; Tieskens et al. 2017), studying the past is somewhat easier, as we have plenty of materials to rely on for recent history (e.g., maps, orthophotos, satellite imagery, registries, censuses, etc.). We know what has happened and the task is to elucidate the reasons for the change. There is an abundance of literature on how to study the past. Much attention has been paid to heritage, palimpsest and identity (Vervloet 1984; Antrop 1997; Graham et al. 2000; Moore and Whelan 2007; Graham and Howard 2008; Bloemers et al. 2010; Kolen et al. 2015). Widgren (2004), inspired by French historical geography (see Baker 1968), has pointed to two approaches in dealing with the past, reconstructive and retrospective. Antrop (1997, 1998, 2000) demonstrated that there are times when landscape develops gradually and times when the amplitude of changes increases dramatically. Cosgrove (1984) noticed that each socio-economic formation creates its own landscape that has different symbols, power relations, value systems etc. In this sense, landscape could be handled as a chronotope, i.e. having boundaries both in time and space (Cosgrove 1984; Lotman 2009; Remm and Kasemets 2019). This in turn led to defining time layers in landscapes (Palang et al. 2006, 2011b; Palang 2010) and the need to study the mechanism of change more closely across these time boundaries.

Looking at landscape change in this layered way, the cultural explosion theory developed by the semiotician Lotman (2009) is useful. While studying culture he also noticed that there are times of relative stability and times of explosive change (compare to Antrop 1997, 1998, 2000). In the case of an explosion he found many competing new scenarios of development emerge, only one of which finally consolidates and achieves the central position. In this way, we can distinguish between periods of gradual and explosive changes in landscapes, where the explosion disrupts (see Sooväli-Sepping et al. 2015) the previous landscape epoch. After this qualitative change the culture must be able to describe its own change as during the explosion itself this sort of description is impossible. If a culture is able to describe the explosion, the pre-explosion becomes part of the culture, if not—the link is lost (Palang et al. 2006). There are many examples of how this link with the past has been either created or lost (e.g., Meurk and Swaffield 2000; Bürgi et al. 2017). For example, Applebaum (2003, p. 64) claimed that “collectivization also destroyed—forever—rural Russia’s sense of continuity with the past”. On the contrary, Viik et al. (2015) showed how current Estonian culture has been able to create a link to the landscape that existed up to 1919 and incorporated the Baltic German heritage into the present-day Estonian landscape (discourse). From this cultural explosion theory, three study lines could be constructed.

First, historical geographers have wondered for many years whether the path dependency theory could be useful in landscape studies. The concept originates from economics (Mahoney 2000) and has been used in historical sociology. For example, Martin and Sunley (2006) and MacKinnon et al. (2009) have studied the possibilities of path dependency theory to understand the role of social factors and institutions in the process of regional development. Zariņa (2013) produced one of the most comprehensive studies of this kind and concluded that landscapes as such are path dependent. They are the accumulation of causes and conditions of ongoing change, but a new event can push the development onto another path, and then all conditions as described in connection with cultural explosion, apply. Path dependency, in her words, describes the stability of a landscape in relation to changes, its development in accordance with the continuing traditions of previous generations, inherited meaning and the creation of a similar social geographical space. Zariņa asks how and to what degree events in the social life of society are reflected in and influence the landscape. In other words: what sort of events determine and guide landscape development? She concludes that by using path dependency theory it is possible to understand processes, where landscape is created by a complex interplay of necessity, chance and social practices, allowing the integration of the scientific (expert) and the real life (local person) view. In summary, using Lotman’s terminology, path dependency can be one way to describe how landscapes pass through the explosions.

Second, what about sustainability? Despite Antrop’s (2006) declaration that the concept of sustainable landscapes could be viewed as a utopian goal, there seems to be a rising understanding that cultural sustainability might be a useful concept (Soini and Birkeland 2014; Palang et al. 2017). Culture has been called the fourth pillar of sustainability, thus, to achieve sustainable landscapes, one should focus on maintaining values, practices and functions (Widgren 2004), and the knowledge needed for these. One option to observe these is through place-shaping and identity involved in community development based on Horlings (2016) and the Landscape Identity Circle (Stobbelaar and Pedroli 2011). As Viik et al. (2015) stated, the key question remaining is how to handle the past: should it be forgotten, destroyed or absorbed into the new emerging system? They argue that a culture/landscape can only be described as sustainable when it is capable of absorbing elements of other cultures. Cultural sustainability of landscapes depends on how much history and heritage has been integrated into an active landscape. Incorporating the knowledge about and understanding of the past is crucial in ensuring the continuation of a landscape. At the same time, it is important not to get stuck in the past. Pavlis and Terkenli (2017, p. 185) conclude: “if cultural sustainability is viewed as a fallback to ways of the past, regarding thinking, feeling and acting with regard to the landscape, as would be exemplified here by perceptions, mentalities, attitudes, and values of our rural sample, then obviously such sustainability would not be desirable in light of more recent and contemporary inroads into landscape conceptualization and stewardship (i.e. the European Landscape Convention)”. What remains unsolved here is the definition of a sustainable landscape. Sustainable landscapes vary according to landscape type and factors and as landscape changes, so does its meaning and significance change and consequently its management.

Third, there has been a recent focus on cultural ecosystem services (CES) where it has been claimed that they encourage multi-functionality within landscapes (Plieninger et al. 2015). “However, CES can either encourage the maintenance of valuable landscapes or act as barriers to necessary innovation and transformation depending on the context. Hence CES is contested when viewed through the analytical lenses of landowner behaviour, cultural practices of communities, and landscape planning” (Plieninger et al. 2015, p. 28). Criticism has centred on its largely separatist perspective on humans and nature, its reductionist view of culture as a service provided by ecosystems and for its neglect of social-ecological co-generation of benefits (Plieninger et al. 2015, p. 29). CES are supposed to include, among other issues, security (Pascua et al. 2017) originating from the capability of reading (Widgren 2004) and understanding surrounding landscapes, the time depths of these, orienting and navigating there—the loss of it may have influence on human well-being. This is secured by history and heritage creating identity resulting in better social cohesion, stronger sense of place, spiritual and cultural well-being and thereby better care for the environment (Daniel et al. 2012). This way CES are also linked with care.

Care is “… a deep, pervasive cultural norm that is imposed upon what is noticed and noticeable to others and care that evokes an immediate aesthetic response, can both provoke behaviour to change, maintain, and protect landscape appearance. A halo-effect can be created where the appearance of the landscape affects assumptions about the people who are responsible for providing care, as well as assumptions about resource characteristics” (Nassauer 2011, p. 321). This evidence of care and stewardship can create normative reactions, like reflecting on the way the landscape should look, given cultural norms, but also aesthetic responses, like immediately eliciting pleasure or displeasure. A neglected place suggests stewards who are irresponsible or overwhelmed and not desirable neighbours.


Case study area

Many studies have been done presenting alternative views of the future, but little has been written on how those landscapes have subsequently altered in reality. Our observations are based on mutually linked studies in the Setu region, in the south-easternmost corner of Estonia (Fig. 1). This is a marginal area characterised by low income and depopulation. Compared to the rest of the country, this region was also economically poor a century ago. Tammekann and Kant (1928, pp. 52–53) noted that the Setu economy was at a very primary level with agriculture forming the basis for living, mostly due to their poor education. It is also a culturally distinct area. The Setus, although being an Estonian sub-group, are more culturally influenced by Russia: whilst the language spoken is an Estonian dialect, they adhere to the Orthodox religion (compared to the Lutheran in the rest of the country). Their respect for traditions, traditional costumes, architecture, and way of life are closer to Russian than Estonian. Life between two worlds makes people conservative and mistrustful of that which is new and alien. This distinct cultural identity has impacts on the local landscape changes (see Palang et al. 2009 for more).
Fig. 1

Location of the case study site (based on Estonian Land Board 2018, 2019; 2018; ESRI Media Kit 2006)


In the short time period when Estonia was out of one union (Soviet 1991) and warily discussing accession to the other (EU 2004) we were interested in capturing the expectations for the regional changes of landscapes. By studying the wider context of the landscape changes, analysing the results from the interviews and combining those with the visible results, we track the background to the changes, and not just what has changed in terms of land use/cover.

The results are presented in four blocks from different years and studies in the same Setu region allowing to follow the dynamics of diverse scenarios. First we present a baseline scenario study of 1999 in Härmä village and then try to explore the ways the projected scenarios have been realised in the wider area. A general narrative of landscape change in the Setu region continues with the undercurrents of heritage and emerging identity around the time of Estonia joining the EU in 2004. This is followed in the upsurge of local identity and community development. Finally, the scenario realisations are verified with the most recent map and statistical data.


The baseline study: the original scenario study prior to Estonia’s accession to European Union

The study conducted in 1999 in the marginalised Setu region created future scenarios based on policy document analysis and existing knowledge, then investigated the public preference for these (Palang et al. 2000). The research was inspired by the works of Emmelin (1982, 1996) and Jones and Emmelin (1995). The current situation and four possible future options were illustrated by an artist (Fig. 2). All pictures feature the same location in Härmä village and were drawn to depict similar seasonal characteristics and weather conditions. These images (A–E) were used to discuss the predicted changes with inhabitants.
Fig. 2

The illustrated scenarios: A the existing situation; B the status quo scenario; C the EU model 1992 agricultural policy scenario; D the zero scenario; E the unpredictable surprising future scenario

  • A—the existing situation on which the scenarios were based, showed homesteads on both sides of the road with different buildings. Next to them are small fields, larger hay meadows and pastures with forest in the background.

  • B—the status quo scenario showed the specialisation of farms capable of competing with production from other EU countries; the scope and robustness of landscape changes are similar to those during Soviet times. On both sides of the road there are large fields. The old houses are demolished and replaced by a field on one side of the road and a modern grain dryer. Fields have been expanded at the expense of forest.

  • C—the EU model 1992 agricultural policy scenario showed some decline of agriculture. The homestead on the left is abandoned, the one on the right is still populated, but the buildings are dilapidated. The field on the left has fallen out of use, the field on the right is used as a pasture for a couple of cows. There are still small fields close to the homestead.

  • D—the zero scenario indicated the deepening marginalisation of the area and a prolongation of the current trend. Homesteads on both sides of the road are abandoned and slowly decaying. The field on the left has been long abandoned and is overgrown with brushwood, the field on the right has been abandoned recently. The logs in the background refer to increased forest felling.

  • E—the unpredictable surprising future scenario showed transformation from the traditional agricultural activity to small-scale business and a corresponding alteration of the landscape. On the left side a stable has been built to replace old buildings. On the right some older buildings still remain, but a new home has been added. The surroundings are cared for, there is a small patch of field. The land on the left is used as a grazing ground for horses, while a pond and a camping site have been created on the right.

Generally, all scenarios included continued marginalisation and depopulation, the difference being the speed of these processes. The Scenarios C and E were considered being more coherent with the trends of the time in the landscape, while Scenarios B and D introduced large-scale changes and total loss of the present landscape appearance. The study concluded that people preferred landscapes that appeared to “create a feeling of certainty, predictability, welfare and well-being”, even if the landscape involved large changes. The scenarios from most preferred to the least were: A, C, E, D and B.

The undercurrents of heritage and emerging identity

Estonia joined the EU in May 2004, which meant a new set of drivers for landscape changes (e.g., free movement of people, in addition to environmental and agricultural incentives). The situation in 2005 included components from the different predicted scenarios (Fig. 2). The photo looked the closest to the visualisation of Scenario C (the EU model 1992 agricultural policy) (Fig. 3). The household on the left was abandoned. The household on the right was occupied and seemed to be in the same condition as six years previously. There were still small fields and pastures around the houses, but one of the fields on the left was fallow. In addition, there are elements of Scenario E (the unpredictable surprising future), such as the horse, sheep, cows and the well maintained fence. Most of the agricultural land was well tended, with cattle, sheep and haymaking.
Fig. 3

Härma village on October 2, 2005 and on October 17, 2009 (photo: Mart Külvik)

By 2009, the picture had changed further. The last cow in the village was sold in 2008, the buildings were dilapidated, the fields in the foreground were abandoned and becoming overgrown, and the fields closer to the village were grazed by sheep or were hay meadows. The elements of Scenario E (the unpredictable surprising future) gradually withdrew from the scene and Scenario D (the zero or trend prolongation) became dominant.

When comparing the landscape of Härmä village to the area as a whole, the reality in 2005 was not markedly different. Some households in disrepair in 1999 were abandoned, but numerous houses empty in 1999 were inhabited by newcomers or part-time residents. The fields were better cared for and fallow land had decreased due to the introduction of agri-environmental subsidies and the increased local self-confidence of inhabitants (see Soini et al. 2006).

These changes were a result of the unforeseen increase in identification with the local cultural heritage (see Palang et al. 2009 for more), which attracted many younger people to buy second homes and some to settle on a permanent basis. A social network was formed leading to an innovative revival. They started repairing and restoring the vernacular buildings in the traditional architectural style and inspired some others to do the same. Tsässons—small chapels—were also repaired and had reacquired their former social standing in the landscape and the indigenous Obinitsa art gallery became the centre for local life. However, agriculture, the biggest shaper of the landscape appearance had still not regained its pre-independency scope.

In 2005 and 2009, two sets of interviews were carried out with the local people, asking them to rank the pictures of the scenarios according to their preferences, and also to describe the changes that occurred in the preceding years. The problem with these interviews is that due to the very small population in the area (see Fig. 4) the sample sizes were also very small (n = 23 in 2005, n = 16 in 2009) inadequate for a reliable statistical analysis of answers, only a qualitative description.
Fig. 4

The number of inhabitants in selected villages/scenarios (data: Statistics Estonia: “Eesti Vabariigi külanõukogude ja maa-asulate rahvastik 1970. a, 1979. a ja 1989. a rahvaloenduste andmeil”; 2000 and 2011 census data and data for 2017 and 2018 statistics map application (

Two questions regarding landscape change in the previous six years were asked in the 2005 interviews. First, which of the depicted scenarios fitted best with the current landscape situation and second, which were the most important landscape changes. In the 1999 survey, Scenario D (the zero or trend prolongation) was considered the most realistic. Interestingly, six years later, the two scenarios that were considered to illustrate the current landscape best were Scenario D, and Scenario C (the EU model 1992 agricultural policy).

The respondents, however, often felt that there had been no change or they could not identify any changes. A common answer to this question included an opinion that more fields were cultivated and there was less fallow land. Phrases illustrating the landscape changes perceived by locals in 2005 include:

the growth of brushwood has been stopped, fields are tended more due to the agri-environmental support (male 39, taking care of large field areas);

some farms are neglected and in disrepair, while others have been restored and lived in (female 62).

The results from the 2005 survey indicated there was equal support for two pictures, A (that is not a scenario by itself but illustrates the starting point, i.e. the landscape that was there in 1999) and Scenario E (the unpredictable surprising future). The level of support was so similar that no other scenarios (except one respondent’s support for Scenario B (the status quo)) were mentioned as the most preferred ones. Surprisingly, the outcomes of the 1999 survey revealed the majority of the respondents admired the landscape scenario called “surprising future” (Palang et al. 2000). The shift has been noteworthy. However, it was the elements depicting living landscapes that showed the continuation of rural life, such as tended households, cultivated fields, and livestock that were the most attractive in both studies. No large scale developments Scenario B (the status quo) or abandonment Scenario D (the zero or trend prolongation) were appreciated.
There were also additional questions asked regarding landscape preferences and people’s views about different aspects of the landscape. For most respondents, the ideal landscape would consist of cultivated fields and tidy households. Cattle were often seen as an important element of the “picture”. A number of respondents also mentioned forests, but essentially ideal landscapes seemed to be farmed land and nice (vernacular) buildings. As one inhabitant stated:

the village has to be lived in! (female 62).

When asked which landscape elements they considered important in their territory, the vast majority of respondents referred to single (old) trees, sometimes also to vernacular buildings. A few respondents found that they had no such landscape elements on their land.

any element is important, I don’t like sterile landscapes (male 31).

Further, the respondents were asked about the importance of maintaining the landscape heritage of their forefathers, i.e. whether the landowners should try to keep the landscape as it has been, should change the land use, or something else. Several respondents could not answer the question, so we must conclude that the question was not well-chosen or well-posed. However, this question also required extra thought, and people were often not prepared to philosophise on these issues. Still, interesting answers as such were retrieved:

parts of the heritage I maintain, parts I don’t find necessary to keep and parts I don’t have the strength [finances and time] to maintain (male 46);

small fields are irrational to keep, fields should be larger than they used to be (male 47);

we try to restore the landscape of 50–60 years ago, to mow the meadows and have sheep (female 27);

partly important, partly I change it (male 31);

the landscape changes all the time anyway, so I also change it. The landscape 100 years ago was not the same as 200 years ago, was it? (male 31);

you’ve got to change it, if necessary (male, 52);

I am active in landscape management. Some parts of the heritage should be maintained, but the landscape changes anyhow, like infertile lands are afforested, etc. (male 39);

we don’t change the land use much, but we don’t know how it used to be. We are not going to cultivate flax any more, are we? (female 28, new resident).

In 2009 questions on heritage landscapes seemed to be more easily comprehended by locals, at least for some elements of landscape heritage. Several of them have experienced visitors showing interest towards certain “forgotten” elements in the landscape, such as flax-ponds, ceremonial trees, border-stones etc. Reading the heritage landscape as a complex feature is something that “ordinary people” were not prepared for.

Identity and community development

Further studies within Setu region were located in Obinitsa area and centred on place-shaping and identity involved in community development. These were based on Horlings (2016) and the Landscape Identity Circle (Stobbelaar and Pedroli 2011), following the trend towards a focus on social impacts on landscapes.

Horlings (2016) describes sustainable place-shaping practices of re-appreciation, re-grounding and re-positioning as having transformative power. Stobbelaar and Pedroli (2011) break landscape identity into four aspects: Personal–Existential, Cultural–Existential, Cultural–Spatial, and Personal–Spatial. These aspects respectively cover how places have personal meaning through their personal biographies linked to the place. By taking these different ways of perceiving the landscape they can take into consideration ethical and aesthetic viewpoints.

The study investigated how community development actions in the area had changed over time and affected the place-shaping and subsequent development of the area. Inhabitants described how things had changed in time, also what or who has caused these changes and their ideas for the future of this area. Although people generally viewed the changes as negative and were pessimistic about the future, they did see that their own involvement was required to support sustainable development and creating better and stronger community.

Inhabitants of Obinitsa expressed appreciation for the peace and quiet of their rural location, with the solitude and the slower pace. They described themselves as “not city-people” and felt it was a good place to raise children due to the greater freedom of the open spaces.

As in previous studies people continued to appreciate tidy, well-maintained fields but disliked the larger fields of modern agriculture regretting the loss of the smaller homesteads. Community adhesion was also impacted by reduced local food production due to a reduction of shared activities, for instance potato planting and harvesting followed by a party to celebrate each event.

People worked during the week and at weekends they were free and then they worked together. When it was potato picking time, then all people came together and picked together all the house’s potatoes. Back in time people communicated more with each other (male 55).

Modern lifestyles further exacerbated this as work and education took people away from the area and reduced the flexibility to take part.

The re-vitalisation in cultural heritage led to an increased pride in the local Setu culture and in the distinctive hilly terrain of the area with its rich history of myths and legends associated with various landscape features, strengthening the cultural pillar of the society.

The re-vitalisation of the cultural heritage provided limited employment and the benefits were not widespread, as most of the events are based on the work of individual initiators, contributing to the feeling that only a few inhabitants benefitted from the funding.

You can explain to those people, where this money comes from and where it goes and they still do not understand. You can show papers, bills that are connected with the project, make everything so transparent, but this is still not enough (female 27).

Re-vitalisation did not offset unemployment caused by demise of local food production and move to larger farms and potential incomes remained small. There was also a general feeling that the State should do something to aid the rural areas to bring increased opportunities for employment.

During the Soviet times people moved to work at the local collective farms (kolkhozes) creating a significant non-Setu segment to the community. The plethora of activities associated with the Setu culture failed to incorporate many of the newer non-Setu inhabitants weakening the sustainability of the Setu cultural pillar. Many felt the Setu people were obtaining all the resources just to hold Setu parties and the Setus had a superior attitude through their education; however the Setu people often viewed the non-Setus as unmotivated, uneducated whiners who would rather sit and watch their televisions than be involved in community activities or organise their own.

The local population had continued to decline and the infrastructure suffered as a result. Consequently people felt increasingly isolated. The loss of the local school was particularly detrimental, discouraging young families from moving back into the area or encouraging them to move away as their children grew. Inadequate bus services meant after school activities were inconvenient and older inhabitants were unable to access resources they needed. As Setu traditions also rested on a tribal people rooted in a landscape for a millennium, attracting back their own people was considered important.

Forests were important as sources of mushrooms and berries but also as familiar features of the landscapes that inhabitants enjoyed. Forests were associated with Setu myths and legends, such as leaving the first berry for the Forest God. The inhabitants appreciated the State Forest’s maintenance of the forest and understood they needed to be felled when mature, however there was distress over the rapid felling by new private owners which impacted where they could forage. This was a significant change of perspective from the problem of overgrowth in the 1990s as now forest felling was the primary concern.

The forest areas are also cut. Previously you could go and pick berries, now all the forest areas are cut and so there is nothing (male 70);

I think in Setu region there has not been so much forested areas as we have right now, maybe when it was 500 years ago or so. Of course, many forest areas have been cut, but still we have quite a lot. Many open views have overgrown (male 58).

Generally people in Estonia describe themselves as a closed people, but this is particularly strong amongst the Setu people. The Setu people primarily relate to each other through kinship relationships and not as strongly outside of this.

Setus, it seems, do not traditionally use that term (“friend”). There are just good or bad people, and people whom they know, or do not. Or who live in vicinity, or apart. Very important, and still in use, is the word “tribe”. Our tribe (kin) or different tribe (kin). And most relationships are reducible to this tie (female 42).

The reduction of multi-generational households due to young people leaving the area has also left the older generations isolated and without the support networks to maintain their homes, gardens or homesteads, adding to the perception of abandonment. Whilst the population has declined over time, the upsurge of local identity ensured that the decline did not lead to the complete demise of the culture. Many prior-inhabitants maintain their connection to the area and the culture and so it continues in a part-time capacity ensuring some continuity of traditions and thus continues to impact the landscape.

Verifying scenario realisations

Since the initial scenario study of 1999 created only a narrative of change and the general image of the area, the same tools should be used to check how much of these scenarios have been realised. For that, a set of proxies seems to be useful. For further analysis, eight villages were selected. From expert knowledge and interviews we presumed these might demonstrate the four development paths as projected by the 1999 scenarios. We presumed Rääptsova and Triginä represent the least desirable option, Scenario D (the zero scenario)—prolongation of the marginalisation trend of 1990s into today. Other villages should then demonstrate the deviations from the course to marginalisation. Ignasõ and Tääglova could serve as examples of Scenario C (the EU model 1992 agricultural policy) or the slowed marginalisation; Hilana and Talka examples of continuous agriculture of Scenario B (the status quo); Ostrova and Härmä could serve as prototypes of surprising developments of Scenario E. How are the differences expressed, or—are there any?

First, let us look at population dynamics in these villages (Fig. 4). The numbers suggest the major depopulation happened just prior to the first study, and has stabilised at very low levels after that. This helps to explain the support, or rather nostalgia, for the landscape that had recently ceased to exist noticed in the first study, while during the more recent studies people were more used to (but still not satisfied with) the changes. The problem here is that the villages in the area are extremely small, both in terms of area and population. The smallest of these, Triginä, covers only 43 ha and the largest, Rääptsova, 1751 ha, the others fall mainly between 150–200 ha. Currently the population of these villages fluctuates below 20 people meaning the living cultural landscape is dependent on the individual decisions of a very few people.

The land use statistics about the villages is sketchy, but it is still possible to compare the land use of 1990s and today (Table 1). Usually, the declining share of grasslands is the first indicator of abandonment (Fig. 5)—they fall out of use and get overgrown rapidly. Forest and fields are more stable, although in conditions of marginalisation the share of forests tends to grow at the expense of other land use categories. Figure 5 and Table 1 show these changes in villages. The general tendencies are the same: open agricultural lands have decreased and forests have increased. Ostrova village has lost close to 1/5 of its field area, and the share of forest has increased. Ignasõ’s agricultural land has also decreased and forest increased. In Triginä village the grasslands have turned into forest. Concerning the wetlands, much amelioration was done during Soviet period. After the collapse of the collective economy many wetlands started to slowly return to their natural state, as there was no money to maintain hayfields or pastures due to the reduction in livestock.
Table 1

Change of land use/cover categories in percentage points from the village area, from 1980s until 2000s–2010s (data: Cadastral map 1989 and Estonian Topographical Dataset)








Hilana (B)

− 2

− 3


− 1



Talka (B)


− 7





Ignasõ (C)

− 7

− 4


− 1



Tääglova (C)

− 1

− 1





Rääptsova (D)

− 2

− 2

− 1




Triginä (D)


− 14


− 2



Härmä (E)


− 2





Ostrova (E)

− 17






Fig. 5

Left: field and forest change from 1980s until 2000s–2010s as a percentage of the village area. Right: grasslands and yards (data: Cadastral map 1989 and Estonian Topographical Dataset)

The changes that occurred in land use are perhaps better illustrated through aerial photographs (Fig. 6). The most significant change one can notice is the emergence of forest clearcuts—however, these are not reflected in official land use statistics as the land use category has not changed. Nevertheless, the overall trends in land use are similar everywhere.
Fig. 6

Land cover changes in Ostrova village between 2002 (left) and 2017 (right) (data: Estonian Land Board 2019)

At the same time, there are several new developments happening in some of the listed villages that define the appearance of the landscape. There is a new organic farm being developed in the villages of Hilana and Talka, which, from landscape point of view, points towards Scenario B (the status quo), where the agricultural production is the highest. The inhabitants from Härmä and Ostrova have also developed new opportunities in farming blackcurrants and organising cultural events, thereby (re)creating local identity. Fields are also used for the production of solar energy here—this is also not reflected in land use statistics, but show that marginalisation could be decelerated.

Finally, Fig. 7 shows real estate (land) prices in the county of Võru. This demonstrates that the price of land per hectare has increased by almost ten times in 20 years (for comparison, the average salary has risen by only five times in the same period). This suggests that even in marginal areas land values are increasing. Mostly this increase has been caused by people selling forest land for logging; prices for agricultural land and buildings have not risen as quickly. Nevertheless, it indicates that even in conditions of marginalisation and extremely low population people have found use for landscape.
Fig. 7

Real estate (land) prices (€/ha) in Võru county. Data on the total value of transactions (gift, other transaction, purchase-sale, exchange) is displayed only when there has been at least five transactions (data: Estonian Land Board, transactions database (9.01.2019)


There are different views on temporal change: one from the time preceding the anticipated change, the other looking back at the change. Lotman’s (2009) explosion model fits well with trying to describe the change and making the past part of the present. In late 1990s the society was well aware of the changes looming ahead, and by means available/fashionable at that time—scenario studies, focusing on the visual and involving participatory approach—tried to (fore)see the future. The observations in mid-2000s were an attempt to describe the change while the change was still going on—and by definition were meant to fail. The current study should then both describe the change and create the needed links with the past.

Two questions were asked in the beginning of this paper. First, did actual landscape changes follow any of the options presented in 1990s scenario study, and second, have the preferences changed.

The answer to the first question is partly yes. Of course, scenarios never tell the whole truth, but rather make assumptions on general directions of a process; however the actual changes that occurred indeed reflected one of the general scenario trends presented. The scenario pointing towards rapid marginalisation (C—the EU model 1992 agricultural policy) seemed the most probable to experts during the first study in 1999, but it has been compensated for by the boost in local identity that in some places has bent the trajectory towards the surprising future scenario (E). As we have seen, there are deviations and backlashes, but the general tendency follows this route. Also, visualisation of the scenarios with pictures proved useful and helpful in initiating conversations about landscape issues, as often people are unable to grasp the idea of changes from maps and/or texts. Ideally, however, these tools should be used in combination.

The answer to the second question arose from the comments showing clear preference towards landscapes that carried signs of continuation of rural life. There was a distinction (also noticed by Soini et al. 2006) between those resigned to marginalisation and those willing to counteract it who valued their cultural heritage and roots. We also found that the role of culture and identity in shaping landscape changes cannot be underestimated, and similarly one cannot underestimate the power of small interest groups to introduce desired changes in the landscape.

In the theoretical background of the paper we outlined three possible study lines that depart from the cultural explosion theory and wondered whether any of them might be useful. First, what about cultural explosion? At first glance one notices that joining the EU was not seen by the locals as such a significant change compared to the changes that happened after WWII (see Palang et al. 2006). Creating the link with the past, from such a short time distance (2005), was not a problem. However, this is perfectly fine from the theoretical point of view. As Lotman (2009) stated, it is impossible to describe the explosion from inside; it can be done only afterwards. The question however remains about the time scale of the explosion—politically and socially the turn is clearly completed. In another study (Palang 2010) a three-step model was used to study the transformation from one formation to another, the steps being changes in representation as projected by the new power; changes in real land use, and memory of the change. While it is maybe too late to study the changes in representations of the projected future (the scenario work could be understood as that) and too early to study memory changes, it seems to be the right time to look at land use changes.

The landscape in the study area had changed somewhat over the study period. Although people were sceptical about the future in 1999, and also in 2005, the reality was promising at this point. As the interviewees have stated, the fields and houses were better cared for than in the previous 5–6 years. Certainly some houses had been demolished, but many others had been re-inhabited and repaired. Also, the growth of brushwood that was a major landscape trend in the mid-1990s, had been stopped and several fields returned to agricultural land again. This was mentioned as the biggest change by the majority of the respondents in all studies. This altered perspective is one of the biggest changes in attitudes that has happened within the last 20 years: in the 1990s people were dismayed over the brushwood overgrowth, today it is too much forest felling.

What is not answered here is the question whether path dependency might be useful. On the one hand, there is a growing body of literature that links marginalisation and peripheralisation with post-Soviet issues (e.g., Plüschke-Altoff 2019). On the other, depopulation of these landscapes leads to them being very dependent on the actions of a very small number of individuals, and that topic asks for more research.

Second, what about sustainability? Is the Setu landscape culturally sustainable? While the understanding of cultural sustainability seems to be still somewhat vague (see Palang et al. 2017) it concentrates around the terms of heritage and identity. From the viewpoint of cultural explosion this means the past has been interlinked with the present through these concepts. Identity at the same time means people feel the link with landscape, and they care for it. At the same time, the surge of identity in Setu region has been brought forward by a minority in the society, and the question remains how sustainable this surge might be.

This upsurge of local identity in the early 2000s and its impact on the landscape could not be foreseen when designing the scenarios. The bond with the land encouraged the return of people of Setu origin who have been living outside the area and has resulted in an increased interest in everything that is or was considered authentic. This group had an important effect on the landscape. They were concerned about retaining the heritage, both for the local residents and for the wider public as well. However, Soini et al. (2006) claim they often lived on the perceived memories rather than the actual situation and felt in a position to judge what was authentic and what was not, thereby defining traditions (see also Semm and Palang 2004; Semm and Sooväli 2004; Sooväli et al. 2005). This rise in identity changed what was deemed to be important in the landscape. Traditionalism, authenticity and cultural heritage landscape were not at the forefront in 1990s but gained much higher esteem in subsequent years. There are many marginalising areas in Estonia, but strong local identity and culture can at least mitigate the marginalisation to some extent. This notion could also be used in mapping CES, for instance.

Whilst there had been significant activity and commitment to passing on the traditions down the generations by all sections of the Setu community, there was a difference between the perception of the older and younger generations as to the vitality of those traditions. The older generations feared that the traditions would die out over time, whereas the younger generation perceived the traditions as robust that will continue.

This fear in turn leads the older generation to resist any evolution of the traditions that may enable the traditions to continue to be relevant to the future. Additionally, the younger generations were not as committed to the Orthodox religion, on which many of the events were based, this was considered to weaken the culture of the area.

Additional hindrances included the fact that tourists were not returning to visit the area after the initial interest stemming from Obinitsa being a centre of culture in 2015. Setu culture and food was not enough to maintain the tourist industry and therefore this posed a further threat to the local economy and sustainability of the culture.

A general lack of trust between people exists between Setu and non-Setu communities and to a degree within the Setu community, this is in part a Soviet legacy but also due to more recent events. There is also a mistrust of the local municipality where the Setu community do not feel supported hence the individual nature of the projects. This presents an institutional barrier to constructive efforts to work together.

Third, on cultural ecosystem services. Recently, research has started to appear that argues for using landscape services (LS) instead of (cultural) ecosystem services, or at least using landscape units for assessing the CES (Aalders and Stanik 2019; Keller and Backhaus 2019). As Keller and Backhaus (2019) put it, ‘ES has a stronger focus on (natural) science aspects, such as species, while LS is more a social science approach that focusses on human perception. Moreover, landscape is a common expression that people understand better than the term ‘ecosystem’’. Our results fall very much in line with these statements.

The fear that the culture would become diluted or die out limited the opportunities to allow the traditions to be developed or adapted to modern interpretations leading to innovative and novel products or events that could provide an economic stimulus to the locality. The lack of progress over time inevitably leads to a more pessimistic outlook of the community. There is a sense of loss by those who wish to return but feel unable to due to the hindrances of low employment opportunities and reduced resources such as school provision. However if these were to be overcome, there may still be a pool of people ready to take up opportunities to return and maintain the traditional nature of the area. Additionally, if everybody takes good care of their land, there is stewardship in landscape, a kind of regional governance, territorial sustainability.


Looking back at old scenario studies is useful in many ways. First it helps in understanding the assumptions behind some former decisions, but it also reveals the changes that have happened in our own thinking. In the Estonian Setu case we found that the number of people diminishes in rural areas, but the appearance (visual side) of the landscape has not changed as much as we would have expected after 20 years. All this raises a question of how few people do we actually need to sustain landscapes. Social aspects of landscapes, i.e. our perception and perspectives, seem to alter faster in this case.

Second, well-maintained landscapes and landscapes that show signs of being taken care of are ones that people tend to prefer. That has not changed over the 20 years of this study. Abandonment and loss should be avoided, and strong local identity and culture could be used as driving factors here. The stronger the identity, the more people care, the more secure they feel and the more involved they are. With continuing urbanisation, more and more people become consumers of landscapes meaning that some new forms of distant care/stewardship should be developed.

Third, history, heritage and identity are the three concepts that cultural landscape sustainability could be based on. Understanding history—being able to link with the past—encourages continuity and traditions. Heritage should be understood in a flexible way—not getting stuck in it, but rather it should be able to absorb positive aspects from other cultures while maintaining the specificity and character of the local landscape. Identity, as said, is a strong driver for care and stewardship.

Two issues come through strongly in this discussion. One of them is stewardship, another culture. Let us put these two together, add a little of cultural ecosystem services (see also Musacchio 2018) or rather nature’s contribution to people (Pascual et al. 2017), and we can claim that caring for and after landscape is one of the pillars of (cultural) landscape sustainability. And while studying landscapes one inevitably ends up with studying people.



We are grateful to our interviewees for their willingness to cooperate and master students Helen Alumäe and Teele Laur for conducting essential parts of the fieldwork. We thank Mr. Meelis Krigul and Mr. Janar Raet for their substantial contribution in preparation of the figures. This paper has been supported by the Estonian Research Agency (PUT398).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Landscape and Culture, School of HumanitiesTallinn UniversityTallinnEstonia
  2. 2.Institute of Agricultural and Environmental SciencesEstonian University of Life SciencesTartuEstonia

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