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Angelstam, P., M. Fedoriak, F. Cruz, J. Muńoz-Rojas, T. Yamelynets, M. Manton, C.-L. Washbourne, D. Dobrynin, Z. Izakovičova, N. Jansson, B. Jaroszewicz, R. Kanka, M. Kavtarishvili, L. Kopperoinen, M. Lazdinis, M. J. Metzger, D. Özüt, D. Pavloska Gjorgjieska, F. J. Sijtsma, N. Stryamets, A. Tolunay, T. Turkoglu, B. Van der Moolen, A. Zagidullina, and A. Zhuk. 2021. Meeting places and social capital supporting rural landscape stewardship: A Pan-European horizon scanning. Ecology and Society 26(1):11.

Meeting places and social capital supporting rural landscape stewardship: A Pan-European horizon scanning

1School for Forest Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Skinnskatteberg, Sweden, 2Department of Ecology and Biomonitoring, Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University, Chernivtsi, Ukraine, 3Department of Psychology, Sustainable Forest Management Research Institute, University of Valladolid, Campus de la Yutera, Palencia, Spain, 4MED-Mediterranean Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, Universidade de Évora, Núcleo da Mitra Gab. 206, Évora, Portugal, 5Faculty of Geography, Ivan Franko National University, Lviv, Ukraine, 6Faculty of Forest Science and Ecology, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas district, Lithuania, 7Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, University College London, London, United Kingdom, 8Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, University of Eastern Finland, 9Institute of Landscape Ecology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia, 10IFM Biology, Conservation Ecology Group, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden, 11Białowieża Geobotanical Station, Faculty of Biology, University of Warsaw, Białowieża, Poland, 12LL.M European and International Law School, Tbilisi, Georgia, 13Biodiversity Centre, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, Helsinki, Finland, 14Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission, Brussels, Belgium, 15The University of Edinburgh, GeoSciences, Edinburgh, UK, 16Nature Conservation Centre, Ankara, Turkey, 17Head Office/Secretariat of the Regional Rural Development Standing Working Group (SWG) in SEE, Skopje, North Macedonia, 18Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands, 19Nature reserve "Roztochya", Ivano-Frankove, Ukraine, 20Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Mestre, Italy, 21Isparta Unıversity of Applied Sciences, Faculty of Forestry, Isparta, Turkey, 22Department of Forestry, Köycegiz Vocational School, Mugla Sitki Kocman University, Mugla, Turkey, 23Independent consultant, 24Department Ecology and Vegetation Science, Saint-Petersburg State University, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, 25Department of Ecology and Biomonitoring, Chernivtsi National University, Chernivtsi, Ukraine


Achieving sustainable development as an inclusive societal process in rural landscapes, and sustainability in terms of functional green infrastructures for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services, are wicked challenges. Competing claims from various sectors call for evidence-based adaptive collaborative governance. Leveraging such approaches requires maintenance of several forms of social interactions and capitals. Focusing on Pan-European regions with different environmental histories and cultures, we estimate the state and trends of two groups of factors underpinning rural landscape stewardship, namely, (1) traditional rural landscape and novel face-to-face as well as virtual fora for social interaction, and (2) bonding, bridging, and linking forms of social capital. We applied horizon scanning to 16 local landscapes located in 18 countries, representing Pan-European social-ecological and cultural gradients. The resulting narratives, and rapid appraisal knowledge, were used to estimate portfolios of different fora for social interactions and forms of social capital supporting landscape stewardship. The portfolios of fora for social interactions were linked to societal cultures across the European continent: “self-expression and secular-rational values” in the northwest, “Catholic” in the south, and “survival and traditional authority values” in the East. This was explained by the role of traditional secular and religious local meeting places. Virtual internet-based fora were most widespread. Bonding social capitals were the strongest across the case study landscapes, and linking social capitals were the weakest. This applied to all three groups of fora. Pan-European social-ecological contexts can be divided into distinct clusters with respect to the portfolios of different fora supporting landscape stewardship, which draw mostly on bonding and bridging forms of social capital. This emphasizes the need for regionally and culturally adapted approaches to landscape stewardship, which are underpinned by evidence-based knowledge about how to sustain green infrastructures based on both forest naturalness and cultural landscape values. Sharing knowledge from comparative studies can strengthen linking social capital.
Key words: green infrastructure; human well-being; landscape approach; regional studies; rural development; social-ecological system


Natural capital is widely acknowledged as a key foundation for human well-being. The frameworks of “ecosystem services” (e.g., Costanza and Daly 1992, MEA 2005, Braat and de Groot 2012), “landscape services” (Termorshuizen and Opdam 2009), “connecting nature and people” (Díaz et al. 2015, Pascual et al. 2017), and “nature’s contribution to people” of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES 2019), were all developed to improve inclusion of natural capital into political and economic decision making across governance levels (Angelstam et al. 2019a). These frameworks aim at facilitating integration of stakeholders and knowledge systems. However, in spite of the proliferation of such frameworks the degradation of natural capital continues at both global (IPBES 2019) and regional levels (e.g., Acha and Newing 2015, Angelstam et al. 2018, Naumov et al. 2018). Additionally, fragmented policy, governance, and land ownership hinder integrated and strategic spatial planning of different land covers aiming at landscape sustainability (e.g., Selman 2012, Lazdinis et al. 2019). Because of their inherent complexity, these social-ecological system challenges can often be viewed as wicked (Duckett et al. 2016). Steering toward sustainable landscape stewardship as “a place-based, landscape-scale expression of broader ecosystem stewardship” (Bieling and Plieninger 2017:5, Primdahl et al. 2018) that maintains natural capital requires knowledge and skills to navigate the complexity of interactions within landscapes’ social systems through an inclusive societal learning process (e.g., Baker 2006).

However, trade-offs among costs and benefits, and the unequal distribution of different aspects of natural capital among stakeholders is challenging, particularly in the rural areas that provide material renewable and nonrenewable resources and immaterial values to often distant urban populations (e.g., Rodríguez et al. 2006, Bijker and Sijtsma 2017, Turkelboom et al. 2018). This requires collaboration among territorial actors sensu Hägerstrand (2001), and knowledge about the states and trends of ecosystem services. This calls for new modes of knowledge production and learning (e.g., Gibbons et al. 1994, Hirsh-Hadorn et al. 2008, Guimarães et al. 2018, Hilbers et al. 2019). As a consequence, social innovations are now arising, aiming at area-based collective action across multiple sectors in landscapes involving knowledge-based multilevel fora for social interactions (e.g., IMFN 2008, Angelstam et al. 2013, 2019b, Sayer et al. 2013, Singh et al. 2013). These can be considered as landscape approach innovations (Maffey et al. 2015, Arts et al. 2017), and are mediated through newly constructed actor and stakeholder fora for social interaction.

Inspired by Putnam (1995, 2001), both Szreter and Woolcock (2004) and Agger and Jensen (2015) proposed a conceptual framework for applying social capital to facilitate contacts within individual social networks of stakeholders (i.e., bonding social capital), horizontally among different networks (i.e., bridging social capital), and vertically with external forms of power at different levels (i.e., linking social capital). Sustaining these three groups of relations can provide land use decision makers and spatial planners, along with members of civil society, with necessary access to resources, ideas, and information toward landscape stewardship strategies and options that sustain functional green infrastructure, i.e., “a strategically planned network of high quality natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features, which is designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services and protect biodiversity in both rural and urban settings” (European Commission 2013:3).

Collective actions aiming at sustainability have a long history in rural Pan-European landscapes (e.g., Erixon 1960). Today these collective actions take place in a “glocalized” world, where every rural area is more strongly than ever before part of, and affected by, a large national, international, or global network of economic and social-cultural activities. This has modified rural landscape collective actions (e.g., Sporrong 1998). In some regions traditional collective actions have disappeared, in some they have changed, and in others they remained unchanged. Thus, traditional collective actions still occur on the European continent in some economically peripheral regions that also have retained traditional forms for land use (e.g., Angelstam et al. 2003, Barnaud et al. 2018). This provides a unique opportunity to both EU and non-EU countries as a “time machine” (Angelstam et al. 2011) for in-depth comparisons of regions in different stages of rural landscape transition, including approaches to landscape stewardship (e.g., Angelstam et al. 2013). The European continent hosts a particularly steep gradient in cultural values (Inglehart 2018, Welzl 2013), and legacies of multilevel vs. top-down societal and policy steering across rural regions (Van Eupen et al. 2012). To capture this, Huntington (1997) employed the term “cultural fault lines.” This Pan-European diversity of social-ecological contexts demonstrates not only challenges affecting this across rural landscapes, but is also a key resource for knowledge production and learning toward sustainable rural landscapes (Angelstam et al. 2019b).

The aim of this study is to explore, in a suite of place-based case studies, two factors that can underpin landscape stewardship toward functional green infrastructure. The first is fora for social interactions, including traditional and novel face-to-face, as well as virtual ones. The second is the portfolio of bonding, bridging and linking forms of social capital. Empirical data about states and trends were collected through rapid rural appraisal (sensu Chambers 1981, 1994) in 16 rural landscapes located in 18 countries on the European continent with different environmental histories in terms of biophysical, anthropogenic, and cultural legacies (e.g., Worster 2005, Inglehart 2018).


Traditional, novel, and virtual fora for social interactions

We focus on three types of social interactions affecting the opportunity for landscape stewardship. Traditional fora for collective action facilitate the maintenance of rural cultures, and provide places for interactions within and among land use sectors (e.g., Sporrong 1998). Novel fora focusing on local and regional interactions across sectors emerged in the wake of sustainable development in the 1980s (e.g., IMFN 2008). Finally, virtual fora appeared as social web-based interactions across sectors, which accelerated with the emergence of smartphones in the 2010s (Salemink et al. 2017, Thulin et al. 2020). This involves two shifts. The first is from local village to region and from traditional land use sectors, e.g., forestry and agriculture, to multiple sectors, e.g., cultural heritage, tourism, and energy. The second shift was from physical interactions to include also virtual interactions. These temporal shifts are complicated by the spatial expansion of these shifts. Whereas the first shift is linked to frontiers of landscape changes in social-ecological systems across Europe (Inglehart 2018), the second emerged rapidly at the global level.

Traditional fora

For long time the village was the main social-ecological unit in rural Europe (Hartel and Plieninger 2014). Villages were defined by traditional land use zones, such as the ancient Roman “domus-hortus-ager-saltus-silva” (“house-garden-field-meadow-pasture”; e.g., Elbakidze and Angelstam 2007), and held inclusive governance arrangements securing self-subsistence (e.g., Erixon 1960). Traditional village systems sustained the production of multiple ecosystem services derived from agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as wood and nonwood forest goods (e.g., Garrido et al. 2017, Stryamets et al. 2020), and contributed to cultural and social capitals (Agnoletti 2006). However, along with the gradual expansion of the industrial revolution in most of Europe, traditional village systems were modified from the 18th century by reorganizing land tenure top-down from communal units to individual landowners aimed at increasing the production of food, feed, wood, fuel, and fiber (e.g., Myrdal and Morell 2011). Simultaneously, this led to declining social capital (Erixon 1946), but also to deterioration of both traditional cultural landscapes and naturally dynamic forests. Urbanization phases then developed across Europe. Major cities were affected first, but gradually urbanization processes affected traditions in rural areas (Antrop 2004).

Novel fora

Policies about rural development (OECD 2017), green infrastructure (European Commission 2013) and forests (Forest Europe 2015), as well as the EU Water Framework Directive from 2000, the European Landscape Convention from 1999, and European Framework for Action on Cultural Heritage from 2019 have triggered the need for and appearance of social innovations aiming at collective action in landscapes involving knowledge-based collaboration across multiple sectors and governance levels. Such place-based integration of knowledge production and learning among actors and stakeholders toward sustainable landscapes has become generically termed landscape approach (e.g., Angelstam et al. 2013, Sayer et al. 2013, Singh et al. 2013, Arts et al. 2017). To enhance regionally adapted implementation of policies aimed at sustainable development and sustainability in landscapes as local social-ecological systems (Matthews and Selman 2006), a wide range of novel landscape approach concepts have emerged, namely, model forest, biosphere reserve, ecological networks such as the European Green Belt, ecomuseum, and long-term social-ecological research (LTSER) platform (e.g., Romaniuk et al. 2001, Angelstam et al. 2019a, b).

Virtual fora

At the end of the 20th century, social interactions in real time became extended beyond physical places through the Internet. Networks and communities therefore now exist in both physical places such as neighborhoods, and in cyberplaces (Wellman 2001, Driskell and Lyon 2002). Moreover, community was seen as being physically lost from or reduced in its original environment, the local place, typically a village, a community gathering place, or a residential neighborhood because of rural depopulation and increased global mobility (Lasanta et al. 2017). This encouraged the idea that community could be re-gained in the facilitated environment of shared space, typically through voluntary associations or working groups. Today the digital environment of cyberspace is rapidly becoming the most important forum for re-gaining community (Driskell and Lyon 2002). Nowadays various types of communities can be maintained by means of multiple Internet applications and platforms, for the exchange of information, keeping up the old and building new social networks, self-promotion, learning, and playing. At times these are used with the aims of supporting nature conservation and landscape governance (Daams and Sijtsma 2013, Bijker et al. 2014, Arts et al. 2015, Maffey et al. 2015, Bubalo et al. 2019).

Bonding, bridging, and linking forms of social capital

To succeed with place-based landscape approaches, it is crucial to facilitate landscape stewardship across power differentials at different levels of governance (Bijker and Sijtsma 2017). This applies in particular to actors, stakeholders, and organizations responsible for delivering continuous face-to-face interactions. The effectiveness of traditional, novel, and virtual fora depend on the constituent level and types of social capital (e.g., Ferragina 2012). The term social capital captures the idea that social bonds are critical for sustainability (Pretty 2003). Social capital is a property of a group or a network of social system actors (Adler and Kwon 2002). It defines how these social actors are placed in relation with other individual people and societal groups. Social capital is related with social dynamics and power, which builds on social interactions in a specific cultural context (Schafft and Brown 2010). Human well-being outcomes can be improved by expanding the quality and quantity of bonding social capital (among friends, family, and neighbors, networks, interest groups) and bridging social capital (trusting relations between those from different other sectorial, demographic, and spatial groups), and linking social capital, which introduces a conceptual and empirical distinction as it pertains to individuals’ overall vertical portfolio of social relationships (Szreter and Woolcock 2004; Fig. 1).


Case study regions and hotspot landscapes

To address the challenge of landscape stewardship supporting the maintenance of representative green infrastructures in Europe, we applied an approach based on multiple landscapes as case studies (e.g., Elands and Wiersum 2001, Angelstam et al. 2013). As suggested by Inglehart (2018), rather than limiting the choice of landscape case studies to countries with strong research traditions such as within the European Union, we advocate choosing sampling units that cover a wide range of variation in social-ecological systems by including the entire European continent, thus covering a wide range of social-ecological contexts. To mirror the Pan-European variation in environmental history and legacies of societal steering, we selected 16 case study regions that represent two gradients on the European continent. The first is biophysical between intact forest landscapes with highly functional green infrastructures for biodiversity, and landscapes that have been increasingly modified by historic forest alteration and fragmentation (Fig. 2). The second gradient reflects cross-cultural variation (Inglehart 2018, Welzl 2013), and governance arrangements among both EU and non-EU countries (Fig. 3). The size of the selected case study regions (order of magnitude 104 to 105 km2) matches recommendations for (1) social-ecological system research (Mirtl et al. 2008), (2) functional green infrastructure for biodiversity indicated by focal species’ local population area requirements (Angelstam et al. 2004), and (3) commuting to job and economic activity (see Angelstam et al. 2019b). The median size of the case study regions was 5300 km² (Table 1).

Within each of the case study regions, we selected a local “hotspot” landscape (see Table 1). The choice aimed at reflecting barriers and bridges for the maintenance of green infrastructure representing both visions of naturalness (e.g., Winter 2012) in areas with higher forest cover, and cultural landscapes in areas where natural potential forest vegetation is lower (Agnoletti 2006). Our sample of “hotspot” landscapes represented not only large variation in biophysical and environmental history factors related to latitude and altitude and forest cover as a proxy of human footprint on green infrastructure (Fig. 4), but also factors affecting social capital such as legacies of stewardship and societal steering (see Appendix 1). The median size of the hotspot landscapes was 700 km² (Table 1). In a parallel study, we focused on biophysical and biocultural aspects of the case study regions and hotspot landscapes (Angelstam et al. 2021).

Horizon scanning

Horizon scanning is the formal process of gathering, processing, and disseminating information to support more effective decision making for the future (e.g., Shackleton et al. 2017). Various methods for horizon scanning exist. These may comprise questionnaires, focus groups, and workshops, or a combination, conducted in various forms including also use of expert knowledge, issue trees, literature search, trend analysis, and scenario planning (Sutherland and Woodroof 2009, Bengston 2013). A horizon scanning is an approach to both trigger the process of knowledge production and learning with stakeholder groups, and to interpret and discuss the results from research.

In this study most of the coauthors were both academic experts involved with research or development cooperation in one or several of the 16 case study regions and hotspot landscapes, and also local citizens living in a case study region or even hotspot landscape. Together with their own professional and private networks they produced comprehensive summaries of peer-review and grey literature (n = 226), all quoted in Appendix 1. They, and their teams of three to four colleagues and locals, also summarized their collective knowledge about the current state and trends of traditional and novel face-to-face as well as virtual fora for collaboration, and bonding, bridging, and linking social capital forms (Szreter and Woolcock 2004; Fig. 1) supporting landscape stewardship toward functional representative green infrastructures. During the kick-off meeting to select case study areas, three workshops, and several online training sessions we developed a harmonized methodology. This approach was inspired by necessity in terms no funding for fieldwork, and rapid rural appraisal aiming at learning about rural conditions in a cost-effective manner. This means ignoring what Chambers (1981) calls “inappropriate professional standards” because they are too costly, and instead applying a new rigor based on the two principles of “optimal ignorance” (knowing what it is not worth knowing), and “proportionate accuracy” (recognizing the degree of accuracy required). The lead author has worked in all case study regions, and was therefore able to recruit suitable coauthors as focal points for data collection in each hotspot landscape, as well as to support harmonization of the narratives, and compile data from the rapid assessment of fora and forms of social capital. To secure the reliability of local knowledge representing hotspot landscapes, authors of this study have a long trajectory of place-based and transdisciplinary research in their own regional and local landscape contexts, and thus have built first-hand knowledge about these areas in conjunction with local networks and actors across at least a decadal period of time. Being aware of how personal and professional bias can operate making descriptions and interpretation less accurate considering the researchers’ implication in some cases studied, triangulation processes (Flick 2006) among the coauthors was conducted to contrast the narratives and estimations in order to ensure reliability. This methodology minimized the risk that the perception of fora and social capital among coauthors and their teams might be biased. This resulted in three data sets, which focus on each of the hotspot landscapes as a discrete sampling unit:

  1. Concise standardized narratives about each case study region and constituent hotspot landscape (Appendix 1).
  2. Estimates of the portfolios of states and trends of traditional, novel, and virtual fora for social interaction (Table 2).
  3. Estimates of the states and trends of bonding, bridging and linking forms of social capital for each of the fora for social interaction (Table 3).

The rapid appraisal approach means that the precision within the study’s individual hotspot landscapes most likely could be improved. Although studies about fora for social interaction and social capital focus on an area-based overview, as the hotspot landscapes in this study, specific groups may participate to different extents in different networks of interaction in different spaces and times. Demographic characteristics such as age and gender (e.g., Veenstra 2000) is one example. Use of virtual means of communication requires specific knowledge, skills, financial resources, and technology that the older generation does not always possess, especially in the former socialist countries. Settlement size and features also determine social interaction offering opportunities for enhancing social ties and bonds. Gender is an important factor influencing the kind of networks with which women and men tend to be more likely engaged, and the places and activities they attend more frequently. Historically, men have dominated the public sphere, whereas women were oriented toward socialization by developing social identity, and skills focused on care-giving roles. This implies difficulties in public space and fora for women to have their voice heard. Studies show that women are more likely to be connected in informal networks, while men’s networks are more likely to be formal (Ray et al. 2017). Granovetter (1973) argued that the strength of personal ties is formed by a combination of the interaction time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confidence), and the reciprocal services. Also Chambers (1981, 1994) lists a wide range of additional potential biases, especially by urban-based professionals, which we avoided, when attempting both rapid and participatory rural appraisal. Nevertheless, we assumed that the accuracy in the relation to the Pan-European focus is sufficient.


After mapping of traditional, novel, and virtual fora for social interactions based on the narratives and rapid appraisal estimates by coauthors and their teams, each identified forum item was ranked by their occurrence as active (2), present (1), or (near) absent (0), and the trend from past (before 1980s assuming that this is before “modern” ideas about sustainable development and sustainability appeared) to present was marked as increasing (+), stable (=), or decreasing (-). The same method was used to assess hotspot landscapes’ social capital interactions (bonding, bridging, or linking) for traditional, novel, and virtual fora. The resulting state and trends (i.e., 0, 1-, 1=, 1+, 2-, 2=, 2+) were then translated to a 1–7 step ordinal Likert scale used to express the relative role of a particular variable. This was used as input data for multivariate analyses to explore regional patterns of different categories of social interactions (fora) and social capital forms on the European continent. First, we used hierarchical clustering as a way to illustrate which hotspot landscapes behave similarly. Next, focusing our exploration we used principal component analysis (PCA) as a robust and much used method for illustrating complex data. The seven-step Likert scale is a violation of the condition of having continuous data, but was accepted because of the exploratory nature of this study.


Portfolios of fora for landscape stewardship

A total of eight traditional, nine novel, and five virtual fora were identified across the 16 hotspot landscapes (Table 2). These encompassed actors from private, public, and civil sectors. Their relative ranks were quite similar for the different traditional fora (3.3 to 4.4), but varied more for novel (1.2-4.6) and virtual (1.7-4.8) fora. Social media represented by a broad variety of communication apps and various platforms had the highest mean Likert score (5.9) of all fora (see Fig. 5).

Clustering hotspot landscapes using Ward’s method (Fig. 6) resulted in three clusters: (1) one with four secular NW European countries (Scotland in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden-N, Sweden-S) and two hotspots hosting German-funded development cooperation projects (North Macedonia and Georgia); (2) one with four countries representing catholic Europe (Spain, Austria, Portugal, Slovakia; see Fig. 3), and (3) one with post-Soviet countries (Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and the two Russian hotspot landscapes), and Muslim Turkey. This corresponds to the gradient from “self-expression and secular-rational values” to “survival and traditional authority values” (sensu Inglehart 2018). A PCA analysis for the use of and trends regarding fora for social interactions (Fig. 7) showed that the first two components explained 41% of the variance (PC1 = 23% with Eigenvalue 15.8 and PC2 = 18% with Eigenvalue 12.6). The two variables most related to component 1 were local pub/bar and market/shop, and for the principal component 2 this variable was churches.

Portfolios of social capital

Across all 16 hotspot landscapes the sum of Likert rankings decreased from bonding (252) to bridging (217) and to linking (177) forms of social capital. Applying the Kruskall-Wallis test for equal medians for the three forms of social capital (n = 3 x 16) showed that there was a significant difference between sample medians (chi-square 15.9, p = 0.0003). However, there was no difference between the Likert ranks for traditional (194), novel (243), and virtual (209) fora (chi-square 5.1, p = 0.07). This suggests that none of the groups of fora is effective at any particular level from local bonding to linking of multiple levels.

The cluster analysis resulted in two distinct groups with subgroups in each (Fig. 8). From left to right in the first group the first subgroup included North Macedonia, Spain, and Portugal, the second subgroup included three hotspot landscapes with post-Soviet legacies (Ukraine and two Russian ones), and the third subgroup with S Sweden, Georgia, Slovakia, and Poland. The second group included the Netherlands, Turkey, Scotland in the UK, Lithuania, Austria, and N Sweden. Using PCA analysis (Fig. 9) for the social capital data (Table 3) the first two components explained 53% of the variance (PC1 = 29% with an Eigenvalue of 2.6 and PC2 = 25% with an Eigenvalue of 2.2). The two variables contributing most to principal component 1 were traditional linking and traditional bonding while all three virtual social capitals were negatively related to this component. The variables contributing negatively to principal component 2 was traditional bridging capital, and all the other ones contributed positively to this component.


Fora for social interaction

This exploratory study inspired by cost-effective rapid rural appraisal (Chambers 1981) shows that the portfolios of fora with opportunities to support landscape stewardship were associated to macro-regional societal cultures across the European continent. The three clusters in the northwest, the south, and the east were explained by the relative occurrence of traditional secular vs. religious local meeting places. This matches the pattern on the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map (Inglehart 2018; see Fig. 3) that places countries with respect to survival values versus self-expression values, and traditional values versus secular-rational values. However, virtual internet-based fora were the most widespread and increasingly common ones. Virtual fora for social interaction have become important for both mitigating as well as exacerbating social conflicts over land use priorities (see Appendix 1). Our results also indicate that social capital decreased from lower to higher levels of governance. Thus, local bonding social capital was the strongest across the case study landscapes, bridging was intermediate, and linking social capital was the weakest. This applied to all three groups of fora. The case study narratives in Appendix 1 provide detail to these patterns.

Traditional fora

Different forms of social interactions are part of the social structure and cultural context of landscapes’ social-ecological systems, and hold systems of meanings conceived as languages, practices, and knowledge (White 2008). Fora for social interaction depend very much on the pre-existing context, which can help understand the dynamics of and relationships between social capital and landscape stewardship. Traditional fora for social interactions have diverse formats and expressions for social life, and depend on local contexts. In all hotspot landscapes some kinds of traditional fora were important for face-to-face interactions, e.g., churches, local bars and pubs, and public outdoor spaces. Traditional village systems (Sporrong 1998) remain longer in physically and economically remote rural landscapes (Angelstam et al. 2003). Examples include parts of the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains, and the Caucasus, but also remote parts of Western Europe (Butlin and Dodgshon 1998, Pinto et al. 2010).

In the Russian Empire in the eastern part of the European continent, the interchangeable terms obshchina (общи́на) and mir (миръ; the current meanings of the latter are peace or world [мир]) denoted a self-governing community of peasant households that elected its own officials and controlled local forests, fisheries, hunting grounds, and vacant lands (Hann 2003). Following the revolution, communist ideology gradually came to define landscape stewardship in Eastern Europe. The period of collectivization during the Soviet period was characterized by the expression of power and aggression, confiscation of private agricultural property, and establishment of collective farms and worker cooperatives. Responsibility for land management and use was moved from individuals to cooperatives. Thus, in former east-bloc countries like Russia (Pallot 1990), Ukraine (Marples 1984), Slovakia (Špulerová et al. 2018, Bezák and Dobrovodská 2019), and Lithuania, collectivization destroyed village community systems during the Soviet regime. Until now, the radical effects of this period are still manifested, especially among the elderly. In general, traditional meeting places are better maintained in regions with strong spiritual-religious beliefs and practices (Inglehart 2018). This was characteristic of the east European cluster including the case studies in Turkey, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. The role of churches and mosques as meeting places was a common factor, and we also noted increasing attendance to mass, volunteering groups related to church, and also the restoration of old and construction of sacred buildings. Indeed, persons who are members of a church or religious community are better cared for in times of crises and have more confidence in persons and institutions (Denz and Battisti 2005). This is also the case where people are strongly rooted in local communities with robust ties to local social networks (White 2008).

Novel fora

Landscapes form coupled social and ecological systems (Matthews and Selman 2006), which are maintained or changed through many different types of actions and decisions at diverse levels of governance. The most immediate impact stems from actors possessing what Hägerstrand (2001) termed territorial skills, i.e., physically using and altering land cover units and classes. Today these skills are typically held by land owners, managers, and users who produce renewable resources, e.g., food, feed, fiber, and biofuel, or practice different kinds of resource extraction, e.g., mining. Landscapes are also influenced by indirect and distant anthropogenic demands for goods, services, and values, and local problems and actions may be the results of decisions taken in distant urban areas far outside the local rural landscape. This reinforces the need for multilevel approaches to landscapes as social-ecological systems, and new types of fora. Activities of direct actors and external drivers are generally regulated by public sector policy interventions representing so-called spatial skills such as management of landscapes for cultural reasons and those developing different kinds of infrastructures (MacFarlane 2007). Such interventions have the potential to contribute to the protection, maintenance, enhancement, and restoration of ecological, economic, social, and cultural values of rural landscapes and regions across multiple scales.

This study shows that efforts toward landscape stewardship were often present. Interaction among international environmental NGOs, forest certification schemes, and based on evidence-based knowledge about the state of green infrastructure, is demonstrated by the creation of a large (> 3000 km²) protected area, the north Russian case study in Arkhangelsk oblast (see Appendix 1). Introduction of the global intact forest landscape (IFL) concept was the first important step around year 2000. An IFL is a “seamless mosaic of forest and naturally treeless ecosystems with no remotely detected signs of human activity and a minimum area of 500 km²” (Potapov et al. 2017). IFLs stabilize terrestrial carbon storage, conserve biodiversity, and regulate hydrological regimes.

Additionally, a wide range of landscape approaches, such as model forest (IMFN 2008), provide tools to encourage collaboration and form partnerships that work with sustainability in local landscapes (e.g., Elbakidze et al. 2010, Angelstam et al. 2019c). Long-term social-ecological research (LTSER) platform is another example (Singh et al. 2013). This landscape approach concept focuses on a particular landscape as a coupled social-ecological system with a bottom-up perspective toward knowledge production and learning by integration, research, infrastructure, and coordination of academic and nonacademic stakeholders and actors (for a review see Angelstam et al. 2019b). However, in all cases they were introduced from the outside through international NGOs (Russia), development organizations (North Macedonia, Georgia), or universities and research centers (Russia, Portugal), but less often truly bottom-up such as in the case study in southern Sweden (see Appendix 1).

The area-based development (ABD) approach (Santini et al. 2012) applied in the North Macedonian case study is a good example of international development cooperation funded by Germany, and similar to the EU LEADER system (Marquardt et al. 2012). The ADB-approach involves rural smallholders through a bottom-up approach promoting public-private and civil sector partnerships in six Western Balkans’ cross-border regions of Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro. The approach uses a methodology, which aims at being inclusive, participatory, flexible, and supporting integration and coherence. The nucleuses are so-called stakeholder groups (SHGs). They comprise rural private smallholders, as well as relevant representatives of the public and civil sector on a local level from the target cross-border regions. The SHGs are informal forms of cooperation in which members meet on a regular basis to discuss and propose solutions for common cross-border issues, develop strategies for implementing the solutions, provide policy recommendations, as well as develop business ideas and mutual business cooperation. Thereby, there is a strong focus on sustainable economic growth through promotion of the principles of sustainable use of natural resources, development of short value chains, and increasing quality of local, traditional products and tourist services (Volk et al. 2017). The implementation of ABD has resulted in strengthened local ownership of local planning and development.

Virtual fora

This study indicates that virtual meeting places are gradually becoming more commonly engaging than physical ones. At the end of the 20th century, social interactions in real-time became extended beyond physical places through the Internet, adding to our vocabulary such terms as “computer-mediated communication” and “mediated communication landscape.” Communication among and within individuals and communities therefore now exist in both physical places such as neighborhoods, and in cyberplaces (Wellman 2001, Driskell and Lyon 2002). Social affordances of computer and other digital devices change interactions in communities from “door-to-door” and “place-to-place” to “person-to-person” and “role-to-role” (Wellman 2001). Then the claim came that community could be regained in the facilitated environment of shared space, typically voluntary associations or working groups. The most recent candidate for regaining community is rapidly becoming the digital environment of cyberspace (Driskell and Lyon 2002).

In a virtual community, users can interact, exchange ideas, share information, provide social support, do business, direct activities, create art, play games, and participate in a political debate. In addition, virtual communication is increasingly used with the aims of supporting nature conservation and landscape governance (Arts et al. 2015, Maffey et al. 2015). All this is an indicator of the formation of a culture, which is directly opposed to the processes of maintaining the traditional linear culture (one-way communication, no feedback expected) and the values it represents. Digital media and modern technologies seem to prevail and suppress traditional cultural values and their content (Baltezarevic et al. 2019). Generally, communities are social structures that enable groups of people to share knowledge and resources in support of collaborative action. Different communities grow around different types of practice. Fischer (2001) and Fischer et al. (2007) defined two types, namely, (1) communities of practice, i.e., homogeneous groups of people who share a professional practice and a professional interest, and (2) communities of interest, i.e., heterogeneous groups of people (typically coming from different disciplines) who share a common interest. In addition, individuals commonly use virtual means of person-to-person communication (Fig. 10; Rosenfeld et al. 2019). Unlike traditional meeting places, which remain the same for centuries, virtual meeting places over the past decade changed from a handful of distinct forms of social media communication (phone calls, email, texts) to hundreds of communication apps. Mobile instant messaging (MIM) alone comprises a wide variety of applications, including Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage, KakaoTalk, WeChat, Line, Viber, Vkontakte, and more (Nouwens et al. 2017). Platforms including Facebook, Amazon Marketplace, Uber, AirBnB, and YouTube are well-developed, and are used for not only personal interests but also serving professional needs. The most advanced among CoPs are known for using various cyberplaces, even collaborative virtual environments such as 3D simulations (Churchill and Snowdon 1998, Johnson 2001, Kimble and Hildreth 2005, Dudezert et al. 2006, Eustáquio and de Sousa 2019). However, social media can be a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, its low cost, easy access, and rapid dissemination of information lead people to seek out and consume information from a wide range of social media. On the other hand, it enables the prevalence of "fake news", i.e., low quality news with intentionally false information (Shu et al. 2017), but nevertheless resulting in widespread real-world impact. A prominent example is the U.S. presidential election campaign in 2016, when social media platforms like Twitter were increasingly used as direct sources of news, thus bypassing the editorial media (Enli 2017).

Social capital

This study’s approach inspired by rapid rural appraisal confirms that regional differences in social relationships are associated to historical legacies and the resulting and cultural values (see Welzl 2013, Inglehart 2018). For example, Lee et al. (2005) found that in Scotland networks of crofters, and in Sweden voluntary and leisure associational practices, were important as such social networks. Social capital, especially in remote areas plays a strong role. For example, in rural Ukraine, if someone gets ill, the whole village will collect money to help to treat that person. Similarly, in Poland, in case of house fire, spontaneous financial support to its victims is offered from all members of community, irrespective of religious, social, or political differences. Under a totalitarian regime Russian communities were disintegrated, but in recent time the formation and expansion of horizontal social ties has been strengthened. That is due to expansion of social media.

Social capital can, however, also decline. Lately, social capital innovation has been examined regarding its capacity to revitalize forest-dependent communities across Europe, with a focus on marginalized rural areas (Nijnik et al. 2018, Nijnik and Sarkki 2019, Nijnik et al. 2019). The implications for such communities concerning aspects such as pragmatism (Sarkki et al. 2017a), equity (Sarkki et al. 2017b), and improved participatory approaches (Sarkki et al. 2019) have also been identified as extremely relevant for securing innovation and ultimately social cohesion and innovation. Both cohesion and innovation are considered as prerequisites for rendering landscape stewardship models more effective for pursuing sustainable local and territorial development. In spite of not being planned as supporting development actions toward sustainable landscapes, social networks may therefore make valuable contributions to social capital and economic life.

Linking meeting places, social capital, and landscape stewardship

The Pan-European pattern of relationships between fora for social interactions and social capital that we identified can guide current approaches and adapt to future trajectories for landscape stewardship. The ecosystem services framework to link natural capital and human well-being aims to encourage ecological sustainability through political-economic decisions. However, this framework has been criticized for not capturing the complexity of social-ecological interactions (Norgaard 2010, Díaz et al. 2015). This is an obstacle for coping with current grand challenges for landscape stewardship supporting biodiversity conservation and supply of multiple ecosystem services (e.g., Musche et al. 2019). This also applies to green infrastructures aimed at promoting naturalness in forest ecosystems, as well as biocultural values in traditional multifunctional cultural landscapes (Cocks 2006). By combining evidence-based knowledge about the state and trends of ecosystems with partnerships for landscape stewardship, landscape concepts and approaches can help resolve the integrative and operational gaps encountered in the ecosystem services framework (e.g., Maes et al. 2018, Angelstam et al. 2019a). Although place-based research using landscape concepts can help to develop more sustainable alternatives for land management, scaling up different landscape approach initiatives toward a generalized powerful landscape stewardship approach and fostering collaborations among initiatives, remain paramount challenges (Cohen-Shacham et al. 2019). We can look to examples such as sustainable multifunctional forest management for reference, which refers to the necessity for new forms of governance (Rametsteiner 2009, Sarvašová et al. 2014). Three main approaches are in place for European forest governance (Pülzl et al. 2013): a legislative approach that follows traditional top-down models, a mixed approach based on cooperation and prioritization of information sharing (Pülzl and Lazdinis 2011, Lazdinis et al. 2019), and soft modes of governance (Kleinschmit 2012). There is thus no panacea on how to translate theories about landscape and social capital to generally applicable landscape approach practices, but it is necessary to develop as rich and diverse an understanding as possible to equip ourselves to begin to address these challenges.

However, there are major challenges for collective action aimed at accommodating multiple, often rival, benefits from landscapes (Thellbro et al. 2017). In particular, the necessary collaborative planning suffers from the lack of coordination between the involved legal frameworks as well as deficiency in local planning resources and limited skills (e.g., Elbakidze et al. 2015). Specifically, these include stakeholder/actor-specific institutional legacies, values, and norms, securing long-term funding for facilitation, and continuous knowledge production and learning. Necessary conditions for developing place-based knowledge production and learning, representing different social-ecological contexts include: (1) sufficient time for developing collaborative capacity as an iterative process (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008, Singh et al. 2013); i.e., a “gyroscope” sensu Lee (1993), (2) production of knowledge about states and trends of ecological and social systems involving both quantitative and qualitative methods; i.e., a “compass” sensu Lee (1993), and (3) transdisciplinarity built on coordination among academic disciplines and nonacademic participants (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008). The critical need of having committed persons as visionaries, project leaders, and holders of knowledge and key project skills to champion a process is well documented (e.g., Poon and Wagner 2001, Hahn et al. 2006). Dawson et al. (2017) found that successful project leaders’ experiences applied a range of strategies including dividing project size and complexity into smaller short-term subtasks, securing visibility of social benefits and public utility from project achievements, and the key role of pedagogical communication.

To conclude, this study combines the social capital framework and its three forms of bonding, bridging, and linking capitals, with an innovative approach that considers different traditional, novel, and virtual fora for social interactions, and how these aspects combined can promote landscape stewardship in the context of green infrastructures. This study stresses that Pan-European social-ecological contexts can be divided into distinct clusters with respect to the portfolios of different fora with the potential to support landscape stewardship. Hence, the diversity of landscape and environmental histories, land ownership, legacies of governance/government, cultural meanings, and socioeconomic situations call for regionally adapted solutions for governance and management of green infrastructure (e.g., Bezák and Dobrovodská 2019). Results from our 16 local hotspot landscapes across the European continent also showed that the bonding and bridging forms of social capital were strongest. In contrast, linking social capital involving multiple levels of governance was the weakest. Sharing knowledge based on comparative studies about factors of importance for landscape stewardship, as is the focus of this study, can strengthen linking social capital. Landscape stewardship also, however, needs to be underpinned by evidence-based knowledge about how to sustain green infrastructures based on both forest naturalness and cultural landscape values. Therefore, both sustainable development as a social system process (Baker 2006, Baker and Mehmood 2015), and sustainability as what societies agree on and aim at with regard to their futures (Norton 2005), need to be included. Application of fora for transdisciplinary landscape concepts and approaches, which emphasize human-environment interactions, governance, and stewardship with both nonacademic participants and researchers (Angelstam et al. 2019a, Axelsson et al. 2020) can support this.


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This study was carried out as an AlterNet High Impact Action based on a travel grant to Per Angelstam. Other key funding was received from FORMAS (grant 2017:1342) to Per Angelstam, VEGA (grant 2/0078/18) to Robert Kanka and Zita Izakovičová, and LIAISON-H2020 (grant agreement No 773418) to José Muńoz-Rojas. We thank Serdar Göktepe and the forestry administration in Gülnar for arranging the kick-off meeting in the Turkish case study, and Claudia Von Brömssen and Alison Gray for discussions about analytic methods. Sylvia Ackerl, Irena Dzimrevska, Boban Ilic, Aleksandr Karpov, Katerina Kolemisevska, Hubert Malin, Benjamin Mohr, Vladimir Naumov, Zymantas Morkvenas, Darren Moseley, Louise Sing, and Anastasia Yang made valuable contributions to the narratives in the Appendix.


All data are in the paper, and the associated Appendix


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Address of Correspondent:
Per Angelstam
School for Forest Management, Faculty of Forest Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
PO Box 43, SE-73921 Skinnskatteberg, Sweden
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