Development of the cultural landscape on the Curonian Spit (1795-2016)

A different perspective on the development of the cultural landscape on the Curonian Spit is provided by comparing the distribution of land use in the longitudinal section from 1795 to 2016. This approach makes it possible to recognise and describe the major lines of development of the landscape structure on the Curonian Spit. It is important to bear in mind that the maps used originate from different development phases of cartography and have different backgrounds, which is why the same elements and phenomena may be mapped differently on the various maps. There are also other uncertainties with historical maps, as different mapping and surveying methods (geodesy) were used to create the maps. Overall, the development trends of the interpretation presented here can be regarded as reliable, even if individual inaccuracies cannot be avoided. 

The total area of the Curonian Spit has not changed significantly over the time depicted in the various maps. An exception to this statement is Schrötter's survey (1795-1802), which shows the Curonian Spit with a significantly larger area. However, this large deviation in area from the subsequent maps could also be due to the measuring methods used at the beginning of the official survey at the time it was drawn up. In the following comparison of the total area of the Curonian Spit, we therefore leave out Schrötter's map. (Some explanations on the developments in geodesy and cartography after Schrötter's map can be found here).

The small change in the total area of the Curonian Spit is remarkable, as the morphology of this area is an extremely dynamic system in which material is both eroded and deposited. Sand in particular is eroded from the cliffs of the Samland west of the Curonian Spit, transported along the coast and finally deposited on the spit itself, where it is further distributed by the wind. At the same time, the Curonian Spit loses surface area due to erosion processes in which material is removed again by wave and wind movements. The coast of the southern spit is more dynamic than the coast in the north (Mager 1938, p. 70). The fact that the total area of the Curonian Spit shows only slight changes over time, with a difference of only about 5 % (8.22 km²) between the maximum values, suggests that this complex system is in a dynamic equilibrium (Solger 1910, p. 68). For further comparisons, it is therefore important that the comparison is made using percentage values.

The shape and appearance of the landscape of the Curonian Spit has been shaped by human use over the centuries. Over the course of time, the landscape has changed again and again as a result of various interventions and forms of utilisation, which have often been accompanied by significant events such as wars or social changes. This change is illustrated by the maps of the Curonian Spit presented on this page. Various aspects of change have become clear in the analysis of the cultural landscape, which will be presented as part of a statistical analysis. In the following section, the change in the predominant landscape forms on the Curonian Spit is described first, as they significantly characterised the appearance of the cultural landscape in the period under consideration.

Thus, the first maps of the Schrötter survey (1795-1802) presented on this website show the result of an ecological catastrophe (Solger 1910, pp. 66-67). During the second half of the 18th century, the forests of the Curonian Spit disappeared and the causes of their disappearance are closely linked to human activities on the peninsula, as other possible explanations, such as climatic changes or pests, have never been documented or described. To this day, however, the exact human-induced causes for the disappearance of the forests in the 18th century remain unclear, but over-intensive utilisation with excessive tree removal is assumed to be the most likely cause (Mager 1938, 60-94). As a result of the disappearance of the forests, the sand previously held back by the trees was released to accelerated erosion and thus mobilised.

The mobilisation of the sand ultimately led to the widespread development of shifting sand dunes on the Curonian Spit (Solger 1910, pp. 66-69). For the inhabitants, these shifting dunes pose a particular challenge to their lives on the peninsula. They repeatedly threatened to bury individual villages and measures had to be taken to prevent this. As a result, entire villages have been relocated or abandoned. To this day, however, the shifting sand dunes are also an important element in the public image and representation of the landscape of the Curonian Spit and should not be missing from any travel guide (Lendvai-Dircksen 1941; Sietz and Malerek 1996; Pluhařová-Grigienė 2017; Sereika 2020).

The importance of sandy areas for the appearance of the cultural landscape on the Curonian Spit is easily recognised by the fact that, after the disappearance of the forests, sandy areas make up 80% of the total area on Schrötter's map (1795-1802). On the subsequent maps of 1834 and 1859/60, the proportion of sandy areas drops to around 50% of the total area. Only in the following maps does the proportion of sandy areas decrease significantly again. In 1912, the proportion of sandy areas is still 30.8 % of the total area. This is followed by a further progressive decline in the proportion of sandy areas, falling to 18.1 % by 1960-66 and to 12 % by 2016, which is the lowest value in the data series shown.

The former sandy areas are then covered by low vegetation, which is classified in the maps as herbaceous and shrubland or grassland. In Schrötter's map, the proportion of these landscape forms together totalled only 3.2 %, but increased to 35 % in the 1834 map, of which the greater proportion was herbaceous and shrubland (26.4 %). The proportion of woodland in the total area remained at 8.3 % during this period, as in Schrötter's map. In 1859/60, the map shows a decline in the area of grassland from 8.6 % (1834) to 2.2 % (1859/60), while the proportion of herbaceous and shrubland remained largely the same over the same period.

Compared to the previous maps, the cultural landscape of the Curonian Spit changes significantly on the 1912 map. There is a clear increase in the forest area, which rises from 9.2 % (1859/60) to 46.7 % (1912), while all other extensive landscape forms decline. The sandy area falls to a new low of 30.8 %, while the combined area of herbaceous and shrub land and grassland falls to 15.5 %, which is about half the previous proportion. The most important cause of the change in the cultural landscape in the period between the two maps are the measures to define the dunes, which promote the planting of forests on the extensive sandy areas. In this process, grasses or young trees are planted in the sand according to certain procedures, so that initially low vegetation develops, which then slowly grows into a forest (Gerhardt 1900a). These methods were largely implemented by the dune construction inspector Wilhelm Franz Epha, who worked as a dune inspector on the Curonian Spit from 1864 (Gerhardt 1900b, 310-312).

The transition of the Curonian Spit into the administration of the Soviet Union is not recognisable as a drastic change in the cultural landscape. There is continuity in the development of the landscape, in which the previously recognisable changes continue. The proportion of sandy areas decreases further in the 50 years from 1912 to 1960-66, to only around 18% of the total area. At the same time, the proportion of all vegetated areas increased. One deviation from the trend of previous periods is that the proportion of woodland decreases for the last time during this period. At the same time, the proportion of grassland increases significantly, from around 3 % (1912) to 21.2 % (1960-66), while the proportion of herbaceous and shrub vegetation remains almost the same (1912: 14.1 % and 1960-66: 13.4 %). With regard to the change in the distribution of different forms of vegetation (forest, grassland and herbaceous and shrub vegetation), it remains unclear what can be identified as the decisive cause. It could be due to an effective change in the landscape, a change in the form of data collection in the field or a different form of visualisation on which the maps are based. For example, the same shapes could be depicted in different ways depending on the map in question.

The following two periods from 1960-66 to 1984-87 and then to 2016 show a remarkably constant development of the cultural landscape. This is characterised by a further shrinkage of sandy areas and an increase in areas covered with vegetation, with the proportion of forest increasing significantly, while the areas of low vegetation decrease. A closer look at these periods reveals a continuing development of the cultivated landscape. The sandy areas decrease continuously, while the areas overgrown with vegetation increase. The proportion of sandy areas decreases from 18.1 % (1960-66) to 13 % (1984-87) to 11.9 % (2016). In contrast, the proportion of woodland increased significantly from 42.7 % (1960-66) to 59.9 % (1984-87) to 74.4 %. In contrast, the proportion of low vegetation, consisting of grassland and herb/shrubland, shrank from 34.6 % (1960-66) to 20.8 % (1984-87) to 8.8 %.

In addition to the dominant landscape elements of sand, low vegetation and forest, there are other elements that only occur in small areas of the Curonian Spit as a whole. These include water areas such as lakes and wetlands as well as areas characterised by human activities, especially agriculture and settlements. On closer inspection, it is noticeable that the area used for agriculture on the Curonian Spit accounts for a very small proportion of the total area over the entire period. This is due to the mostly infertile soils, which means that the proportion of agricultural land never exceeds 1.4 %, as shown on the 1912 map.

The proportion of the settlement area and its immediate surroundings varies. In Schrötter's map (1795-1802), it accounts for around 1.9 % of the total area, while on the map from 1834 its share decreases to 1.2 %. Over the next 80 years, the settlement area increased, reaching a share of 2 % in 1912. Following the transfer of the Curonian Spit to Soviet administration after the Second World War, the settlement area initially fell significantly to 1.4% of the total area by 1960-66, due to population losses and the slow resettlement during the Soviet period (Arbušauskaitė 1993).

In the following period, the settlement area increases significantly to 2.8% (1984-87) within a short period of time due to new construction projects and a growing population on the Curonian Spit (Drėmaitė et al. 2020). In the last period, the proportion of settlement area remained stable and grew minimally to 2.9 %. This is partly due to new protection regulations and the World Heritage Site status, which limit and regulate the development of the Curonian Spit (Traškinaitė 2022). A comparison of the ratio of settlement area to agricultural area shows that the proportion of settlement area has increased significantly over time. On the one hand, this shows the decreasing importance of the use of marginal land, on the other hand, it results from the absolute expansion of the settlement area on the Curonian Spit.

At the end of the development described here, the Curonian Spit presents itself in its present form, whereby the settlement areas have always played a subordinate role. The landscape is dominated by the predominant spit forest, which, after more than 200 years of almost complete disappearance, is clearly the dominant form. Over the period under review, the proportions of sand and forest have almost reversed. Other forms of vegetation were largely displaced by the forest.


Arbušauskaitė, A. (1993): Demographische Veränderungen auf der Kurischen Nehrung nach 1945. In: Annaberger Annalen.
Drėmaitė, Marija, Migonytė, Viltė, Mankus, Martynas u. Vasilijus Safronovas [Hrsg.] (2020): Neringa. Architektėros gidas. Vilnius.
Gerhardt, P. (1900a): Festlegung des Dünensandes. In: Gerhardt, P., Abromeit, J., Bock, P. u. A. Jentzsch. Handbuch des deutschen Dünenbaues. Berlin. 327–423.
Gerhardt, P. (1900b): Zweck und Geschichte des Dünenbaus. In: Gerhardt, P., Abromeit, J., Bock, P. u. A. Jentzsch. Handbuch des deutschen Dünenbaues. Berlin. 279–326.
Lendvai-Dircksen, Erna (1941²): Wanderdünen. Bild einer Urlandschaft. Bayreuth.
Mager, Friedrich (1938): Die Landschaftsentwicklung der Kurischen Nehrung. Königsberg.
Pluhařová-Grigienė, Eva (2017): Die Migration der Bilder. Das Memelgebiet in fotografisch illustrierten Büchern (1889-1991). Das östliche Europa Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte 5. Köln.
Sereika, Remigijus (2020): Curonian Spit Travel Guide. Vilnius.
Sietz, Henning u. Mariola Malerek (1996): Kurische Nehrung. Laumann-Reiseführer. Dülmen.
Solger, F. (1910): Geologie der Dünen. In: Solger, F., Graebner, P., Thienemann, J., Speiser, P. u. O. Schulze. Dünenbuch: Werden und Wandern der Dünen Pflanzen- und Tierleben auf den Dünen, Dünenbau. Stuttgart. 1–179.
Traškinaitė, D. (2022): Value of the Curonian Spit Cultural Landscape. In: Samalavičius, A. Site, Symbol and Cultural Landscape. Newcastle upon Tyne. 94–106.