A parc naturel régional (PNR) or “regional natural park” is a grouping of local authorities, created collaboratively around a common land use planning project to protect and enhance large inhabited rural areas. It is concerned with preserving natural, as well as cultural and human heritage (popular traditions, technical know-how, etc.). As of 2022, France has 58 regional natural parks, representing 16.5% of the territory (over nine million hectares), over 4,700 municipalities and over 4.4 million inhabitants.
Regional natural parks have no regulatory power. They are unable to prohibit anything, be it related to construction, hunting or land use. Regarding these, only national regulations apply. Territories within the regional natural parks are classified by decree for a renewable period of fifteen years.
An alternative to national natural parks
Regional natural parks are the fruit of a desire, back in the 1960s, for an alternative to national parks, which were reserved for largely uninhabited spaces. The problem was to find a solution that would address simultaneously the problems of large cities, of sensitive natural environments and of remote rural areas. Regional natural parks were established by decree on 1 March 1967. The first, Saint-Amand-Raismes, now Scarpe-Escaut, was created in 1968. A decree of 1994 identified them as “territories with a fragile balance and a rich and threatened natural and cultural heritage that are the subject of a development project, based on the preservation and enhancement of heritage” (Decree no. 94-765 of 1 September 1994, cited by Violier et al., 2021: p. 149).
The boundaries of regional natural parks do not necessarily respect administrative boundaries. Since 2006, they have been run by joint associations. Legally, they cannot overlap the national parks, but most incorporate protected areas (nature reserves, biotope orders etc.) and provide human and sometimes financial resources for the implementation of environmental policies. The focus and fields of action differ from park to park (Laslaz et al., 2020: p.52-53).
The term “natural” is even more debatable than for national parks because human presence and interventions in the history of these territories are obvious, to the point that the preservation of cultural heritage is considered equally important. In fact, the invention of PNRs adds a further layer to the confusing architecture of institutional competencies. One merit, however, lies in their ability to stimulate cooperation across local, departmental, and regional levels.
Special arrangements to support tourist attractions
Regional natural parks are positioning themselves in the subsector of ecotourism in order to raise awareness among travellers, tourists and local populations of the need to conserve the environment. To this end, they use two tools in particular: the Valeurs parc naturel régional (Regional Natural Park Values) label and the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism.
The “Regional Natural Park Values” label was created so that visitors could easily identify tourism establishments that uphold PNR values. The goal is to promote the territory, the conserved and enhanced environment, and the human dimension. Specifications are drawn up in the form of a self-assessment to determine whether the criteria that professionals must obtain are met.
For an annual fee, establishments that meet the requirements can use the local regional natural park website and its communication channels. They can be clearly identified, distinguishing them from competitors. They form a network of actors able to share good practices and benefit from technical support. On its website, the Federation of Regional Natural Parks promotes its own achievements, specifying that compared to other rural municipalities, those of the park territories have more capacity for tourism (two million beds and resident dwellings), a higher share of tourism employment and more hiking facilities (Federation website, 2022).
Since 2008, some regional natural parks have been applying the principles of the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism. In 2022, 26 parks were 26 signatories of the charter.
- Site de la Fédération des parcs naturels régionaux: https://www.parcs-naturels-regionaux.fr/
- Laslaz Lionel, Cadoret Anne et Milian Johan, 2020, Atlas des espaces protégés en France. Des territoires en partage? Paris, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 120 p.
- Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le tourisme en France 1, approche globale. Londres, ISTE Éditions, 273 p.