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The Vombsjö basin – on the way to becoming a unique new biosphere reserve

Anna Berg and Maj Persson, biologists and freelance creators.
Anna Berg and Maj Persson, biologists and freelance creators, collecting material for the ARNA project 'The landscape as a designed living environment'. Photographer: Nille Leander.

The Vombsjö basin in Skåne could become the world's first biosphere reserve integrating the cultural dimension. If the application to UNESCO is successful, the area could become an international forerunner as the first to work with culture in various forms of collaboration with citizens, academia, industry and the public sector.

The Vombsjö basin in the municipalities of Eslöv, Lund and Sjöbo in Southern Skåne is an area of 110 000 hectares, of which large parts are nature reserves of both biological and geological value. This area, where culture meets the natural landscape, is the source of our drinking water and our food, and home to around 777 red-listed species. A valuable landscape, close to Scandinavia’s most populated regions, with strong potential to become Sweden’s next biosphere reserve according to the UNESCO guidelines.

So what is a biosphere? The biosphere that surrounds our planet consists of thin layers of air, water and living organisms, including humans. A cycle of limited resources in which we need to interact with the environment without disrupting its balance and an area where ecological resources are utilised without being depleted.

For 50 years, the UN’s organisation for education, science and culture, UNESCO, has been designating biosphere reserves all over the world to work as pilot areas to test methods of long-term sustainable development for both humans and the environment. From the grassroots level with committed individuals to lobby organisations, associations, landowners and public authorities, biosphere reserves are to prioritise a sustainable relationship with nature. There are currently 727 biosphere reserves around the world, in 131 countries. Sweden has seven such reserves; the Vombsjö basin could soon become the eighth.

‟The challenges we are facing are so complex that no single individual can tackle these problems alone and create a sustainable society. We need new ways to navigate, new ways to lead and new ways to live”, explains Birgitta Persson, who is working in part as a project manager at Future by Lund, an innovation platform for sustainable and smart cities, in close collaboration with Lund University, which is involved in the project of developing the Vombsjö basin.

New concept – existential sustainability

Culture shapes who we are, both in relation to ourselves and to others. No development can be sustainable without including culture, according to UNESCO, which wants to equate it with ecological, economic and social sustainability in the world’s biosphere reserves. However, so far, it has been difficult to intertwine the cultural dimension in sustainability projects. The reason could be that politicians do not prioritise culture, which in turn may depend on the difficulty of measuring the significance of culture. Here, the Vombsjö basin could become an international forerunner, as the first area to work with culture in various forms of collaboration with citizens, academia, industry and the public sector.

‟We take the concept of ‘existential sustainability’ as our starting point, one which attracts us to work more systematically and with an interdisciplinary approach. We work on creating networks, unexpected partnerships and collaborations to generate a more dynamic innovation ecosystem which includes the cultural and creative sectors and industries. We have never seen anything like this before”, says Birgitta Persson.

Science and practice

Since 2011, the ARNA association has been working on supporting the role of culture in sustainable development and has been active in the Vombsjö basin to generate meetings and collaborations between interested researchers from Lund University and local inhabitants.

Ung Scishop is one example of this – a collaboration in which researchers from LUCSUS, the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, meet curious children full of questions and queries. Participating school classes meet researchers and artists, both at their schools and out in nature where the pupils learn in creative ways about diversity, cycles and their place in it all as individuals. Questions that arise are discussed with the researchers; the long-term goal for Ung Scishop is for this flow of questions and answers to contribute to the sustainable development of the Vombsjö basin, and for children’s ideas to be taken on equal terms as those of adults.

‟We want children and young people to feel that they can affect society, based on where they live. The reflections of young people can sometimes be more important than the answers”, says Kerstin Jakobsson, operational manager.

ARNA holds meetings with residents of the Vombsjö basin, while Skåne in general is a university-dense region. Many agents with different types of knowledge generate new insights in which the key concepts are knowledge, creativity, cultural heritage and diversity, according to Kerstin Jakobsson. The cultural dimension can contribute to new meeting-places and reinforce social sustainability.

‟This biosphere reserve could become unique, as we bring together both science-based facts and knowledge based on long-term experience. We could find local solutions to global problems.”

Advantages and challenges

There are many advantages in being selected as a biosphere reserve. Around Europe, the biosphere reserves attract funding both for research and for environmental monitoring, as community development is combined with nature conservation using local agents. These are also areas that attract new residents. The status as a biosphere reserve also increases opportunities for location marketing. In Europe, these areas become attractive to both residents and visitors. This kind of increase can be clearly observed at close quarters in the biosphere reserve of Vattenriket in Kristianstad, which has over 100 000 visitors per year.

However, a biosphere reserve does not entail any restrictions to the Swedish right to roam. On the contrary, the idea is to work to increase access to nature, which generates considerations about how this could affect the area. More visits to nature bring more wear and tear as well as littering.

‟There are both conflicts and challenges here. The Vombsjö basin is not a remote mountain environment after all, and the pandemic has led to people engaging in more outdoor activities which cause wear and tear on nature in the area. How can we bring about sustainable development here?” wonders Birgitta Persson.

Tomorrow’s sanctuary

The Vombsjö basin has now been approved as a candidate by Sweden’s national biosphere programme committee but the decision from UNESCO will take 3 to 4 years. If the area does become the world’s first biosphere reserve to include the cultural dimension – what would the future be like?

Birgitta Persson sees a sanctuary and an inspirational area in which we have credibly gathered different agents in natural working methods that combine to generate a sustainable environment.

‟One dream would be for people to understand what it is like to live in the countryside and in the city, and to be able to move easily between the two. To take responsibility and be proud of how we develop the district and not wait for public authorities to act, a higher degree of self-organisation.”

Kerstin Jakobsson is on the same track and hopes that the biosphere reserve will become an exciting location in the world where people work actively to combine creativity and knowledge.

My vision is an innovation platform close to citizens, where experiences within our cultural heritage become a way to understand our present era and science contributes to converting challenges into new opportunities. Our world needs such places.”

Learn more about the 'Dinner for future' project.