Introduction | Protected areas networks | Coverage and representativeness Designation and management

Protected area designation is the first important step towards achieving desired conservation objectives, but the adequate site management and targeted measures are the key factors for successful conservation. Designation of protected areas can be based on national legislation or on EU legislation, as is the case with Natura 2000 sites.

Designation of protected areas

In the EU, the Birds and Habitats Directives require Member States to implement targeted conservation measures for their Natura 2000 sites. Within six years of their designation as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs), Member States need to designate these sites as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and adopt conservation measures involving – if needed – appropriate management plans and other measures. Many Member States failed to meet the deadline of SAC designations, so the process is still ongoing. Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated under the Birds Directive need to be managed in accordance with the ecological needs of habitats of birds. Deciding on appropriate methods and instruments to practically achieve the conservation objectives is left to the Member States and local implementing bodies.

Countries can also designate protected areas according to their respective legislation. This results in a variety of designation types, ranging from national parks and protected forests to municipal nature parks, with different protection regimes and management measures. Through the annual Nationally designated areas dataflow, EEA collects information on these nationally protected areas. The chart below shows the number of different designation types that exist in European countries.


Internationally, to describe and categorise the different management approaches in individual sites, six protected areas management categories are usually used. These have been proposed and defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

  • Ia Strict nature reserve and Ib Wilderness area
  • II National Park
  • III Natural monument or feature
  • IV Habitat/species management area
  • V Protected landscape or seascape
  • VI Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources

Management effectiveness

Protected areas are the cornerstone of international and European nature protection. While protected areas are legally designated and acknowledged, there is a strong need to enhance the quality of their management to ensure that they achieve their stated conservation objectives and overarching biodiversity targets.

In the case of Natura 2000 sites, Member States are required under Art. 6.1 of the Habitats Directive to:

Establish the necessary conservation measures involving, if need be, appropriate management plans specifically designed for the sites or integrated into other development plans, and appropriate statutory, administrative or contractual measures which correspond to the ecological requirements of the natural habitat types in Annex I and the species in Annex II present on the sites.

More recently, specific targets related to the effectiveness of protected areas management have also been included in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 which calls for “Effectively manage all protected areas, defining clear conservation objectives and measures, and monitoring them appropriately».

A recent study commissioned by the EEA on the management effectiveness of the EU’s Natura 2000 network  conducted an analysis on protected areas management effectiveness (PAME) for the EU Member States. Results show, that methodologies for PAME assessments are well-established. However, most approaches focus on the early stages of the protected area management cycle (e.g. planning) rather than on actual conservation outcomes. Only 15 Member States reported so-called ‘repeat assessments’, and usually only for a small number of sites. Based on reporting to the Global Database of protected areas management effectiveness (GD-PAME) hosted by UNEP-WCMC, only 7.6% of all recorded protected areas in the EU have been assessed. This number is low and it is noteworthy that it only shows whether a management effectiveness assessment has been undertaken or not, but does not indicate the actual level of management effectiveness.

A comprehensive indicator on management effectiveness of protected areas is still missing, but it is expected that it will be developed soon both at EU level and globally within the framework of the CBD Global Biodiversity Framework.

Transboundary cooperationProtected areas that are joint across national borders have a long tradition in Europe. The oldest protected areas joining borders go back until the early 20th century. Situated in the Alps, the Italian Parco nazionale dello Stelvio (130,734 km2) and the Swiss National Park (17,032 km2) form one of the biggest connected protected areas in Europe.

Through the years, transboundary connectivity and cooperation has increased – especially for the last two decades of the 20th century (Vasilijević et al., 2015). In Europe, this can be statistically attributed to the establishment of the Natura 2000 network: in over 75% of the cases when two sites across a border are adjacent, at least one of them belongs to the Natura 2000 network. When looking at those adjacent protected areas that were designated in the same year, the share of Natura 2000 sites is even higher. In over 95% of the cases, at least one of the sites was designated as Natura 2000 site; in 73% of the cases, both sites are part of the network.


Connectivity between landscapes is vital to maintain healthy ecosystems as large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes (such as gene flow, migration and species shifts) rely on it (UNEP-WCMC et al., 2018). The importance of connected landscapes becomes even more relevant with changing climatic conditions. A change in climate can lead to a change in species mobility or changes in species abundances, distribution and composition, among other impacts (IPBES, 2019).

The EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030 calls for the establishment of a “truly coherent Trans European Nature Network” connecting protected areas with ecological corridors. To achieve the ambitious vision of such a nature network, additional action is urgently needed. This includes, inter alia, more effective transboundary site management e.g. via joint management plans, more initiatives and strategic support for broader management beyond single protected areas and a more systemic involvement of other key sectors, such as agriculture, urban development and planning.


    • IPBES (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 56 pages. ( UNEP-WCMC, IUCN and NGS (2018). Protected Planet Report 2018.
    • UNEP-WCMC, IUCN and NGS: Cambridge UK; Gland, Switzerland; and Washington, D.C., USA.
    • Vasilijević, M., Zunckel, K., McKinney, M., Erg, B., Schoon, M., Rosen Michel, T. (2015). Transboundary Conservation: A systematic and integrated approach. Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series No. 23, Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. xii + 107