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Urban development emerges from wasteland

The Swiss are investigating ways to refurbish old industrial sites, such as this shipyard in Zurich Keystone

Hundreds of disaffected industrial zones could be re-used to help halt the disappearance of green land in Switzerland. But the transformation of former factory and military sites that started 20 years ago remains limited.

Switzerland is under pressure – demographic pressure, that is. This summer the population passed the eight-million mark, three million more than 50 years ago. But it faces other forms of pressure due to lifestyle changes.

Over the same time, the living space each person now needs has risen from 30 to 50 square metres on average. And the number of people who commute to work has also grown from 23 per cent of the national workforce to 60 per cent.

Population growth, living space and transport infrastructure are considered signs of a country’s prosperity, but they also come at a cost, especially for the environment.

Every second one square metre of land is lost to development as new houses, factories, train tracks, roads and other types of infrastructure are built. Switzerland is a small alpine nation where only one third of the territory is really occupied and used intensively.

Yet over the past few years new strategies have been investigated to make better use of the land. One of these is the transformation of hundreds of disused industrial sites, which have been abandoned after the closure of factories, military sites, and rail or air infrastructure.

First transformations

According to a recent government report, there are 380 disused industrial sites in Switzerland with a surface of over one hectare. They represent a total area of 2,500 to 3,000 hectares, the equivalent of the city of Geneva. Around 69 per cent of them have been abandoned since the 1970s, when many heavy industries closed their doors.

“Initially people were shocked by the closures and the job losses. We didn’t know what to do with these old industrial sites,” explained Martin Vinzens, head of rural and countryside development at the Federal Office for Spatial Development.

“Over time we began to realise that they offered investment potential. Many disused sites are in city centres and well located in terms of transport, telecommunications, energy and water.”

Over the past 20 years a number of Swiss cities have started to transform sites. Several dozen have already been turned into residential areas, offices, shopping centres, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and parks.

New districts have sprung up combining modern and industrial architecture, like the Flon neighbourhood in Lausanne, Escher-Wyss or Oerlikon in Zurich, Sulzer in Winterthur, and Eisenwerk in Frauenfeld.

New image

“To carry out these transformations, which we hope will serve as models, the image of those cities has had to change too. Urban centres have made huge efforts to improve their quality of life and become more attractive,” said Vinzens.

Between 1960 and 1990, Switzerland’s main city saw residents flee heavy traffic, noise and pollution. But special “green zones”, lower speed limits, pedestrian areas and new leisure opportunities have helped make cities more appealing and places like Zurich, Bern and Geneva have attracted new residents.

In some of the new urban zones located in former industrial sites, several historic factories have been preserved.

“The big hangar-like structures, brick facades, beams and steel pillars create a special urban environment. There is a kind of industrial romanticism which makes you almost forget the exhaustion and sacrifices of the people who used to work there,” pointed out Vinzens.

Hesitant investors

But this has still not seduced many investors. Only a small fraction of Switzerland’s disused sites have been reconverted, and with the closure of new factories, the total surface area available has remained the same for the past 20 years.

“In a city like Zurich many areas have already been altered, but very few in the suburbs and countryside where there is still a great deal of building land available and which would require lower investments,” explained  Lukas Bühlmann, director of the Swiss Association for National Urban Planning (ASPAN).

“Transformations are often quite heavy in financial and administrative terms,” he acknowledged. “They have to be compatible with local transport and the district, as well as with heritage protection regulations if there are historic buildings. And special clean-up operations must be carried out if the site has been contaminated by industrial activity.”

National vote?

Around 90 per cent of new building work takes place in green zones. There is hope a new federal law on territorial development, approved last June by parliament can help slow this trend.

Its new measures aim to limit or reduce the size of areas planned for construction. Cantons applying to build on new land now have to prove they have no other options such as the transformation of disused areas.

Meanwhile, a people’s initiative calling for a freeze on the total amount of building land made available for the next 20 years was registered in 2010.

If its backers manage to collect the required number of signatures and it is not withdrawn, there will be a nationwide vote on the issue.

“Whatever happens, one thing is sure,” said Vinzens. “Switzerland will be obliged to be as sparing as possible when it comes to deciding on the best use of land. And the transformation of disused sites will therefore become a topic that will be looked at far more in the future.”

There are some 380 disused sites over one hectare in size, covering a total area of 2,500 to 3,000 hectares.

Sixty-nine per cent of these are former industrial sites. The remainder are railway (14%), military (7%), air (2%) sites and others (8%).

According the Federal Office for Spatial Development, these disused sites could be used for 85,000 homes for 200,000 people, or 450,000 service sector jobs.

Cities and urban communities in Zurich and the Lake Geneva region have grown significantly over the past decade, according to the Association of Swiss Cities.
Winterthur, Lausanne and the city of Zurich grew by between ten and 14 per cent since the previous census – above the average national population growth of 9.2 per cent.
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 per cent since 2000. It was followed by the Geneva communes of Plan-les-Ouates (46.4 per cent) und Le Grand-Saconnex (38.3 per cent).
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 per cent rose from 12 to 27. In summer 2011, seven had a rate of less than 0.1 per cent.

(Translated from French by Simon Bradley)

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