Knowledge atlas Science

Mateja Šmid Hribar, PhD, researcher of cultural landscapes, ecosystem services, and collective actions on commons


“Practically all landscapes in Europe today are cultural, we hardly have any wild landscapes left to speak of. Landscapes have been cultivated for millennia, shaped and altered by humans to secure their survival. But over the past decades we have seen this balance between nature and humans has disrupted as the result of radical changes in our lifestyles and new technologies.”

Name of Field in the local language
Kulturne pokrajine na presečišču skupnega, skupnostnega upravljanja in ekosistemskih storitev (cultural landscapes at the intersection of the commons, community-based governance, and ecosystem services)
Area of Expertise
Sociology of culture, Philosophy (BSc), Conservation of natural heritage (MSc), Geography (PhD)
Scientists / Scientific team
Mateja Šmid Hribar, PhD
Location, Institution, Website
The Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), Anton Melik Geographical Institute, Gosposka ulica 3, Ljubljana, Slovenia Link to website
+386 1 470 63 52,
Type of Institution
Scientific research institution
Years of Active working in the Field

Laboratory and research space
Laboratory and Research Space, cultural landscapes and communities in Slovenia and abroad
Materials and equipment
Cultural landscapes, land use and landscape changes, agrarian communities and their experiences; collective actions, archives, GIS
Technology / Tools / Machines
Interviews, focus groups, archival research, fieldwork, Geographic Information System (GIS)
Education of the Scientist
Nevenka Bogataj, PhD (Slovenian Institute for Adult Education), Mimi Urbanc, PhD (ZRC SAZU), Daniela Ribiero, PhD (ZRC SAZU), and Maja Topole, PhD (ZRC SAZU), Prof. Catherine M. Tucker, PhD, and Romina Rodela, PhD (foreign institutions)

Most impactful project
SELINA. Science for Evidence-Based and Sustainable Decisions about Natural Capital (research project, 1. 7. 2022–30. 6. 2027); * SHARED GREEN DEAL. Social Sciences and Humanities for Achieving a Responsible, Equitable, and Desirable Green Deal (research project, 1. 2. 2022–28. 2. 2027); * NatGuidES. Identification, Assessment, and Mapping of Ecosystem Services in Valuable Nature Conservation Areas in Slovenia (targeted research project, 1. 10. 2021–30. 9. 2023)

Awards, certifications, or scientific recognition
Commendation for the integration of the village of Kosovelje in the research project, for encouragement and productive collaboration with the villagers (2017). First prize for Okljuk – Interpretation polygon as a tool for understanding the cultural landscape; international landscape competition E-CLIC: Landscape of Possibilities (Category C – General Public), 2015.

In the last decades, Mateja Šmid Hribar has been working across three complementary fields. Her research begins with cultural landscapes, both rural and urban, and the ways we see and understand them, and continues with ecosystem services, which include the direct and indirect contribution of ecosystems and landscape elements to human well-being. The last piece in the whole is the commons and community-based natural resource management. When she was working on her master’s thesis she became interested in landscapes, including those recognized as cultural heritage. The study area that she chose for her dissertation was the Ljubljana Marshes landscape park, where she was interested in how the landscape have changed with land use.

She came to realise that it was important “who owns certain landscape components, who governs something, who has the use right and who has the right to reap the benefits.” She began to study community-based natural resource management practices that maintain specific ecosystems with low input human intervention. In addition to traditional collective actions, which in the case of Slovenia involved mainly rural agrarian communities that have govern pastures, forests, roads, and water resources, we have recently come to see new types of urban and urban-rural commons that are not primarily associated with survival, but oriented toward sustaining social cohesion.

Cultural landscapes change with social development and management practices. New land uses, management practices, and even ownership may influence new/different ecosystem services. A shared pasture thus not only offers forage, but also provides recreational benefits as part of its ecosystem services, and even regulating services (e.g. air and water purification, noise protection, flood control, pollination). When such a pasture is divided into smaller plots (as it happened in Ljubljana Marshes), their owners may convert them to fields, but when abandoned, this pasture may become overgrown, which leads to the loss of provisioning and cultural services on the one hand, but stronger regulating services on the other.

The heart of her research consists in the interaction of nature and humans as reflected in the landscape, and the links between practices and specific landscape elements. She understands cultural landscapes as a mosaic of landscape elements, its cornerstones. “When you arrive in a traditional rural landscape, the first thing you notice is the meadows, fields, or orchards that cover it, with a forest in the background and a few buildings at the fore – that’s a typical traditional Slovenian landscape. Then you try to discern the logic of the landscape, its inner logic.

Mateja uses different research methods and combines them with technologies and software tools. She uses GIS tools for landscape analyses, to determine land use, and to mark specific landscape elements. She always complements this data with fieldwork and interviews, which, as she points out, are very revealing. She interviews individuals, experts, and social groups relevant for a specific research study to find out how they live, what they do, what the landscape or the natural resources they manage mean to them.

In 2008, she took part in the setting up of DEDI, the Digital Encyclopaedia of Heritage, which presents natural and cultural heritage to wider audiences.

The aim was to synchronise various natural and cultural heritage registers into a single digital encyclopaedia, because if we want “people to recognize heritage they need to know what in their local environment constitutes it. Only then will they know heritage and protect it.

In the framework of the Shared Green Deal project the participants from four countries learn about biodiversity through social experiments in the form of study circles. The idea is to explore cultural values linked to different aspects of biodiversity. One of the ways to achieving this could be through artistic practices. The project focuses on building biodiversity-related knowledge and skills in the local community.

Written by Denis Maraž