As Switzerland’s population hits eight million, swissinfo.ch visits the town which has seen the greatest growth over the past decade. Zurich? Geneva? The booming suburb is in fact leafy Bassersdorf, whose population has shot up by 50%.
The day didn’t start well. Checking with the bus driver at Bassersdorf station, 20 minutes by train northeast of Zurich, that he was indeed going via a certain square, I was told he wasn’t sure – “I’m new here”.
I made a mental note to list that under “disadvantages” of a mass influx, but fortunately a sharp-eared passenger confirmed it was the right bus and a couple of minutes later I stepped out onto a quaint old square.
Admittedly it would have been quainter without the major street works – the main road appeared to be undergoing some sort of widening – but the historical buildings, mostly converted barns, betrayed the centre’s humble past as a farming hamlet.
Bassersdorf, which was founded in 1155, officially became a town in 2007, when a new family was surprised to make local headlines for tipping the population over 10,000. It’s now nudging 11,200, up from 7,500 in 2000 (and 2,150 in 1950).
By comparison, the city of Zurich has grown by 10% over the same period, Geneva by 7% and the capital Bern by a stagnant 1.1%.
Despite hitting the big ten thousand, Bassersdorf has stayed true to its name (“Dorf” is German for village) and you certainly wouldn’t move here for the nightlife.
Or the daylife. I visited on a sunny Thursday lunchtime and the town centre was dead. My journalistic instincts kicked in and I headed for the pub – in this case the Rütli Pub, which claimed to be “the point where people meet” but which didn’t open until 4pm.
The reason, it turned out, is that Bassersdorf is a typical commuter town, where people wake up and go to bed but spend their days working in nearby bigger cities.
“Bassersdorf is part of the Glatt Valley, the most dynamic region in Switzerland,” said mayor Doris Meier, who assured me that outside the holiday period the streets bustle with people.
“Other places fulfil the demand for work; we fulfil the demand for housing.”
Zurich airport at Kloten is just five kilometres away – something one is reminded of every other minute when a plane takes off or lands.
“A lot of people who move here work at the airport or in Zurich or Winterthur. They are mostly Swiss and are moving into single-family houses. It’s a relocating middle class,” said Meier, who herself moved here in 1996.
Indeed, the percentage of foreigners is only fractionally above the national average (23.1% versus 22.4%, 2010 figures), as is the unemployment rate (3.4% versus 3.1%, 2011 figures).
This is an affluent village/town. The cars are big and shiny and the shops seem to be either beauty salons/tanning parlours or good restaurants.
I walked around a bit more, contemplating a quick paddle in the flower-lined brook bisecting the town centre and popping into a couple of charming churches.
It is undeniably pretty, with a country village atmosphere. However, the sound of road works and aeroplanes was giving me a headache. I needed a drink and answers – in that order.
“I think people like living in the country, and here it’s quite rural,” explained Werner Wagner, owner of the Frieden restaurant and guesthouse. “Rent no longer plays such a big role as houses aren’t as cheap as they used to be. But Bassersdorf is booming – a new shopping centre is coming, the old road is being dug up…”
He says the population growth has definitely been positive for the restaurant sector, “but it’s hard for me to say. I’ve only been here two years”. Is no one born in Bassersdorf?
The Frieden guesthouse also has rooms to rent, but it’s hard to imagine any passing trade from tourists.
“Hardly ever. We have people who stay for a week or a month – longer periods. Occasionally someone has an early flight and stays here, but we certainly don’t live from tourists.”
Ati Michos, president of FC Bassersdorf, the local football club, sees the boom “only positively”, but admits there are a few problems.
“When you’ve got such growth in a village – and it is still a village – the authorities have to take measures,” he said.
“For example more people means more traffic. Then there’s the question of what is offered in terms of sporting amenities and things to do in your free time. That’s what people look at when they move. They say to themselves ‘there has to be a sports centre, a swimming pool for the kids, enough schools'. And this is currently a problem in Bassersdorf: there aren’t enough schools.”
Does he think it could grow even more? “I don’t think so. More and more people are saying ‘that’s enough – we don’t want to have 20,000 people here. We want to remain a village’.”
Meier disagrees. “Plans to build around the station which would result in another 3,000 people are currently on ice following a vote. But from a public transport point of view, Bassersdorf is so well positioned that we’d like to build around the station.”
Gathering my thoughts at the bus stop, I was joined by a seventysomething woman. Surely she could tell me how Bassersdorf has changed over the decades?
“I don’t know. I live with my son and his family who moved here five years ago.”
Cities and urban communities in Zurich and the Lake Geneva region have grown dynamically over the past decade, according to the Association of Swiss Cities.
Winterthur, Lausanne and the city of Zurich grew by 10-14% since the previous census – above the average national population growth of 9.2%.
The strongest growth – not counting communes which merged – was recorded by the commune of Bassersdorf in canton Zurich, which has seen its population rocket by 50.2% since 2000. It was followed by the Geneva communes of Plan-les-Ouates (46.4%) and Le Grand-Saconnex (38.3%).
One consequence of this has been the increase in cities and urban communities with overstretched property markets.
Between 2007 and 2011, the number of cities or towns with a vacant home rate of less than 0.2% rose from 12 to 27. In summer 2011, seven had a rate of less than 0.1%.
There were 7,971,300 people living in Switzerland at the end of March 2012 - a 1.2% rise over 15 months.
Some 23% of the total, 1,828,400 people, were foreigners. The majority of new arrivals at the end of 2011 were Germans (+12.6%), followed by Portuguese (+11,1%), Kosovars (+8,9%), French (+4,4%) and Eritreans (+2,6%).
Two-thirds of new immigrants since 2002 are aged 20-39 and 53% have a university degree.
Swiss birth rate: 1.48 children per Swiss woman. Population density on central Plateau region: 400 inhabitants per km2 – comparable with the Netherlands. 75% of Swiss people live in urban areas. Life expectancy in 2008: 84.4 (women), 79.7 (men).
(Source: Federal Statistics Office)