Menu Close

The Po Delta Biomarine Reserve: Cultural Landscapes and Sustainable Development

Figure 1. Po Delta Valley landscape, from

by Sara Mazzuchelli

Nature reserves and tourism

Natural heritage has always had an utterly special appeal and is attracting more and more visitors each year. The sense of urgency stimulated by the perception, increasingly present in our lives, of climate change, combined with the influence of other global phenomena, chief among them the recent COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a further appreciation of nature reserves as destinations for recreation and tourism. Indeed, some recent studies have shown how travel restrictions imposed by many states during the periods of the highest incidence of contagion have favoured domestic tourism and short stays, reversing a trend that privileged foreign resorts as the preferred destinations: national parks and nature reserves have thus been widely reevaluated as vacation destinations, thus creating new opportunities for economic and social development for local communities. Although varying considerably from destination to destination (in Indonesia and Malaysia, domestic tourism in natural parks decreased by 30%), the statistics show that the pandemic has consolidated a fair amount of interest in nature tourism: in 2021, 29% of Dutch citizens listed the naturalistic qualities of the destination as a key factor in choosing a holiday destination, and 53% indicated them as a reason for a second visit. 

Nature reserves are precious heritage preservation tools not only from a strictly scientific and environmental point of view, but also constitute a unique resource for the historical and cultural sector. These areas, which have enjoyed special attention from international bodies such as UNESCO since the 1970s, often and willingly also include more or less recent and busy urban settlements, constituting unique testimonies of the complex link between man and the landscape. 

About this Blog series & the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme

The Blogs in this series (March-July 2024) were written by graduate students and early career professionals who participated in the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme “Heritage and the Planning of Landscapes” in October 2023 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Are you interested in participating in the next iteration of the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme, “Heritage and Landscape Futures”, in Gothenburg, Sweden, in October 2024?

Contact Niels van Manen:

Preserving nature and culture: the Man and the Biosphere programme

The Man and the Biosphere programme, initiated by UNESCO in 1971, is an example of how nature reserves could become strategic factors in preserving not only the biological and landscape qualities of a region but also in enhancing the history and culture of the territory. Although the main objectives of conservation and development are focused on environmental and naturalistic aspects, the guidelines also take into consideration the effects of human activity on the landscape, assessing not only its negative impact through the analysis of phenomena such as industrialization, urbanisation, gentrification, and demographic changes but also valuing the evolution of the human-nature relationship from a historical and cultural perspective. As demonstrated by the Po Delta Valley example, the sensitivity towards the cultural value of natural landscapes has evolved over time. Although most of the projects implemented in the area give priority to safeguarding its naturalistic qualities, in recent years the Po Valley has benefited from an increasing number of cultural initiatives, which often prove to be essential factors in promoting social cohesion in the Park area. 

The Man and the Biosphere programme counts twenty active sites in Italy. The Po Delta Biosphere Reserve, recognised as a park in 1988 by the Emilia Romagna region and in 1997 by the Veneto region, joined the program in 2015 when part of this area was associated with the cultural attributes of the nearby city of Ferrara, certified UNESCO world heritage.

Cultural and natural landscapes in the Po Delta region

The Po Delta valley, generated by the largest river on Italian territory, is a vast area (180 square km) of high population density located between the regions of Veneto and Emilia Romagna, in northern Italy, and is considered a historical example of a planned cultural landscape. Thanks to its proximity to the city of Ferrara, the Po Valley, and more specifically the Delta area, went through a process of water reclamation and canalization since the 12th century, thanks to which this wetland area was gradually transformed into cultivable and particularly fertile fields, still crucial in local agricultural production.

The Po Delta region presents a great variety of anthropic and natural landscapes, thanks to the presence of historic villages (e.g., the Municipality of Comacchio), natural marshes, reed beds, forest, and dune habitats. Given the particular conformation of the Po River and its tributaries, the landscape is constantly changing, not only because of agricultural and industrial activity but also and especially because of the large accumulation of sedimentary material, transported by the rivers, and the gradual rise of the salt wedge inland.

Climatic and anthropic threats on the Po Delta landscape

The ecosystems within the Park are currently facing a series of changes, the main causes of which seem to be human activity on the territory and climate change. As indicated in the 2022-2025 MAB Action Plan, in recent decades there has been a peak in the incidence of water pollution damage: the Po River flows through some of the main industrial centres of the Italian peninsula, thus collecting significant amounts of pollutants. The increase in average annual temperatures, coupled with a substantial decrease in precipitation, is also causing the shrinking of forest, coastal and lagoon areas in some parts of the park. This impoverishment of the Park’s landscape diversity is further aggravated by the spread of numerous alien animal and plant species, which hinder the reproduction and maintenance of native colonies.

Beach tourism along the Adriatic Riviera presents additional risk factors for the park, not only from an environmental point of view, but also and especially from social and economic ones. Indeed, this area is home to many fairly successful beach resorts, especially in the summer months. Although it is well known that the tourism industry creates economic development opportunities for the local community, the quality of the employment opportunities that this sector offers needs to be questioned: seasonal or occasional hiring is, in these areas, an established practice for decades now in the context of beach tourism, and this creates, in many contexts, a strong limitation of social mobility opportunities within the population, with discrete repercussions on objective and perceived social security in these areas as well.

Figure 2. Cycling path in the Park, from

Sustainable Development Perspectives in the Park

The initiatives proposed by the Man and the Biosphere Programme, in collaboration with various other stakeholders, including the administration of some of the municipalities in the Park’s territory, schools, cultural associations, and private investors, demonstrate how a proper application of the heritage approach to the cultural landscapes protected by the Reserve can serve as an effective tool for the mitigation of some of the risk factors identified. In particular, the effects of mass beach tourism are now the subject of a collective discussion that problematizes the intensive exploitation of resources, and appeals to the model of slow tourism in proposing itineraries and ways of experiencing the Reserve that are more attentive to their social and environmental impacts. Some bicycle paths are currently being redeveloped and implemented, adding to several other proposals for the adaptive reuse of old buildings, which have the potential to be used as cultural centres and museums of the ecosystem and rural life. Intergenerational communication is one of the strengths of many of these projects, which often focus on holding workshops in which young and old will be able to discuss ancient knowledge and new technologies. The same interest in the intangible heritage of local communities is also the enhancement of food and wine tourist itineraries, in which local crafts are highlighted.


Beaudoin, A.B. (1997) Are National Parks Also Museums? in Alberta Museums Review 23: 21–23. 

CBI. The European market potential for nature tourism. Online. Available at: Ente di Gestione per i Parchi e la Biodiversità- Delta del Po. (2022) Piano d’Azione. Riserva della Biosfera Delta Del Po, versante emiliano-romagnolo 2022-2025. Online. Available at: Fyall, A., e B. Garrod. Heritage Tourism: at what price? in Managing Leisure 3: 213–28. 

Kurdistani, S.M., Verri ,G., Pinardi, N., Coppini, G. (2022). Climate Projections of salt-wedge intrusions in a Po river branch (Northern Adriatic Sea)

Kusdibyo, L., Septyandi, C.B., e Rafiati K. (2023). Examining Tourist Visit Intention to Nature-Based Tourism in Post-COVID-19 Pandemic in KnE Social Sciences. Online. Available at 

Lebrun, A.M., Su, C.J., Bouchet, P. (2021). A more sustainable management of domestic tourists in protected national parks: a new trend in sport tourism after the Covid-19 pandemic? in Sustainability 13. 

Montaguti, F., Mingotto, E. (2015). Ecotourism in Natural Parks: An Assured Sustainable Success? Tourist Behavior, Attractiveness and Sustainable Development Issues in Two Italian Parks. In Tourism Planning & Development 12: 99–110. Online. Available at: 

Rina, L., Siswati. (2023). The Achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Social, Economic and Environmental Aspects: the Role of the Private Sector in Tourism Villages

UNESCO. Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta. Online. Available at: 

UNESCO. Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB). Online. Available at: 

UNESCO. Po Delta Biosphere Reserve, Italy. Online. Available at: 

Vitaliano, E. (2016). Le specie aliene nel fiume Po. In la Repubblica. Online. Available at: 78/1/. Delta Po- Biosphere Reserve. Online. Available at:

About the author

Sara Mazzuchelli is a graduate student at Upsala University, Sweden. This Blog post is based on her studies in Cultural Heritage and her participation in the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme on “Cultural Heritage and the Planning of European Landscapes”, October 2023.

Contact Sara Mazzuchelli:

About the National Parks Miniseries

During the Heriland Blended program Multispaces Living Lab, students worked on many themes, including National Parks. This post is the first of two proposal blog posts prepared by two different participants. Next week, we will have another proposal from the National Parks series. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *