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Workshop 1 in Green Karst

On the 17th of April 2024 we held the first workshop in the frame of the PLUS Change project. The event was integrated with the introduction to regional spatial planning in our region, which is starting this year.

In the past decades, spatial planning in Slovenia has been carried out exclusively at the municipal (micro) and national (macro) levels, leaving out the regional level, a functional unit that includes public institutions, services and complementary infrastructure. Given its ability to coordinate across jurisdictions and address complex issues that span beyond local boundaries, the regional level is most suitable from the operational and practical point of view of long term spatial planning.

In Workshop 1, we introduced the process of regional level spatial planning by having a moderated discussion on the 4 main themes that represent the pillars of spatial planning for the region. These themes represent the main challenges for spatial planning and include:

  1. The lack of space in certain business zones and space for new private buildings and apartment complexes
  2. The spread of forests into formerly arable land due to abandonment of farming
  3. Wildlife management
  4. The balance between the growth/enhancement of tourism and nature protection

With 47 participants from the public sector, expert groups and the general public, the workshop focused on narrowing down the main spatial planning challenges to be addressed in the upcoming regional spatial plan. In two-rounds, with a joint presentation and discussion at the end, participants from different backgrounds, professions and experiences contributed unique insights into the current situation and offered valuable proposals for how to align future development with climate change adaptation and sustainable development goals.

Challenges & Opportunities in Green Karst

Our region is unique within Slovenia and even more so from the European point of view – two main outstanding characteristics of land use in the region are that vast forests cover 74% of the land and that 54% of the land is under Natura 2000 protection. These two facts create specific circumstances that represent a rather substantial challenge for how to ensure sustainable development (economic, environmental and social), creating a better life quality for residents and protecting nature.

The general trend in the majority of economic zones in the region is a significant lack of space needed to support existing businesses in their development and to welcome new companies. Moreover, there are smaller zones that could be improved if they transitioned from business use to residential purposes. The importance of fostering the development of new businesses that align with the regional business strategy was also emphasised. This includes companies within sustainable value chains that incorporate clear green components and circular economy possibilities.

Besides the lack of available space in existing business zones, there is a lack of available plots of land for private housing of all types and sizes, either to buy or to rent. This shortage is a result of non-existent and ineffective policy over the past decades. Currently, a large part of the existing building plots are unavailable to the market. This is mainly the result of ownership status – they are (partly) owned by expats who have no intentions to return (in some cases, the expats themselves are deceased). In other cases, some existing properties are owned by elderly individuals who are unable to maintain the homes, which have since fallen into disrepair, but are also not willing to put the homes on market. The spatial challenge is to place new settlement areas in the limited spaces available, between arable land, Natura 2000 areas and protected forests. With a growing population, a further concern is inadequate social infrastructure, such as schools and public transportation.

The forestry and agriculture sectors have faced their own challenges in maintaining arable land, which has been overgrown by shrubs and forests in the decades since the second world war. Unmanaged forests have spread to the edges of villages, bringing with them wild animal species that are increasingly inflicting damage on tree species, crops and livestock. During the workshop, participants contributed important insights for how to improve land use, but the success of such proposals largely depends on effective wildlife management plans and agricultural policy (especially in regard to the allocation of subsidies).

In Green Karst, our primary tourist attractions are nature-protected areas. While we generally avoid mass tourism, certain spots become particularly popular, leading to strain on infrastructure and accommodation during peak season. This concentration of visitors can create significant challenges, as the most popular areas face high demand while other locations remain underutilised. To alleviate this pressure, it is crucial to promote lesser-known areas, thereby distributing the influx of visitors more evenly across the region.

Green tourism is the desired path for future development. Numerous ideas and initiatives aim to capitalise on the natural environment sustainably, enhancing and expanding the green tourism offerings. One suggestion is to foster greater cooperation between sectors to ensure the development of tourist spots aligns with nature protection guidelines, thus preventing conflicts with conservation efforts.

Furthermore, some nature-protected areas have outdated formal protection, necessitating new acts to impose the appropriate level of protection. Additionally, some areas lack an established management system, and the protection regime is not always enforced, particularly when there is insufficient cooperation with landowners and local inhabitants.

As organizers, we were extremely pleased with the large number of participants from our region. They all demonstrated a keen interest in spatial planning and a strong understanding of the importance of intersectoral communication and cooperation in its preparation.