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“We probably build too much in this country”

Verbier is one of the places already affected by building restrictions Keystone

Under pressure from critics of urban sprawl, the federal authorities want to tighten legislation to restrict the total amount of building land. Urban planning expert Pierre-Alain Rumley looks at the dilemmas of the contentious vote.

On March 3, the Swiss will vote on whether to limit building land. Changes to the law would force cantons and communes to reduce building plots, which were previously measured too generously and to compensate their owners.

The revised planning law is contested by business, home and real estate associations and the rightwing Swiss People’s Party. In Switzerland, one gets the impression that one can build pretty much anything anywhere.

Pierre-Alain Rumley: Well neither is true actually. New construction work is an expensive investment in Switzerland, but it’s true that we probably build too much in this country.

If you look at the lack of housing, especially in city centres, you can’t really say we build too many homes. But undeniably we build too many individual family houses, second homes and not enough apartments to rent or which are average priced.

You can’t really build anywhere you want, as you can only build on six to seven per cent of the entire Swiss territory, and only in specially selected areas.

But it’s true that the way our environment is structured – with small communes, villages and hamlets – makes you think we build in too many different spots at the same time, and this just adds to the impression of urban sprawl.

In 2008, the environmental group Pro Natura handed in 109,422 signatures supporting a people’s initiative  which condemned loopholes in urban planning legislation and demanded that the total area under construction in Switzerland does not increase for 20 years.

The government and a majority of parliamentarians rejected the initiative, which they deemed too extreme and too inflexible. In its place they put forward a counterproposal in the form of a revision of the federal zoning law.

The cantons would have five years to apply the revised law, to reduce development zones which were too big and reimburse landowners whose land may be transformed into an agricultural area. At the same time, owners who make money on developed or sold land must pay a 20% tax.

As parliament accepted this counterproposal in summer 2012, the 2008 initiative was withdrawn. But the counterproposal was contested by a referendum backed by USAM [the association of small Swiss hotels, inns and restaurants and association of small and medium-sized companies] and the Swiss People’s Party.

It will therefore be up to the Swiss public to decide in a vote on March 3, 2013. What long-term solutions do you see for improving urban planning in general?

P.-A. R.: We have to construct more compact buildings. We know that most jobs are in city centres, so we have to increase the density in the centres to reduce the amount of transport and distances people cover. We are currently overwhelmed by mobility problems: blocked in traffic jams, standing up on public transport – it’s even dangerous when you take your bike out.

But you have to be careful as the situation is not the same everywhere. Urban planning tends to be slightly better in Swiss-German regions than in the French-speaking parts of the country. I don’t really know why, maybe because the German-speaking cantons were quicker to discover the environmental and transport problems. That’s why Zurich, Bern and Basel are now much better placed than Geneva or Lausanne. At the same time, professional training in urban planning is much older and firmly rooted in Swiss-German cantons.

There are also differences between alpine regions. If you look at two tourist regions, canton Graubünden has been successful with planning, while in Valais it’s much more complicated. Valais has lots of areas where you can build as the communes have enjoyed considerable autonomy for a long time. It’s the only canton where 70 per cent of the population are home owners [the Swiss average is 40 per cent].



Tug of war over scarce building areas

This content was published on They will be voting on a government counterproposal to an initiative – since withdrawn – which had demanded that the total area of building land may not be expanded over the next 20 years. Instead, the revised law aims to restrict the accepted reserves of building plots in the cantons, which, along with communes, would…

Read more: Tug of war over scarce building areas How does Swiss urban planning compare with the rest of Europe?

P.-A. R.: There are no European comparisons, as that’s almost impossible to do. Intuitively, I would say the Netherlands has good urban planning, which probably dates back to an old tradition. The Dutch have always faced land problems and struggled with the sea; they are particularly sensitive to urban planning, unlike the Belgians.

Germany often demonstrates a very compact approach to urban planning, but not in Bavaria. Similarly the Austrian and Italian Tyrol regions have a lot of urban sprawl. If you look at Italian cities, when you go outside their historic centres they are extremely chaotic. French territory is huge so the various problems are not as visible as elsewhere. But coming back to Switzerland, I wouldn’t say it’s a total disaster. The federal authorities’ proposal is to give certain room for manoeuvre to the cantons. But traditionally the cantons jealously defend their rights, as do the communes, which implement urban planning projects. Is there not a risk of future tensions?

P.-A. R.: The cantons remain in charge of urban planning, as before, but the new rules are more precise and discussions will now focus on the size of the building zones.

The federal authorities won’t impose anything, but the cantons must now declare what they intend to do. The federal authorities are aware of all the figures and plan to ensure that the cantons reduce the size of their development zones. If they don’t, they will not be allowed to create any new ones.

1950: born in Couvet, canton Neuchâtel. Studied geography at Neuchâtel University and urban planning at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology.

1984-1997: Head of canton Neuchâtel’s urban planning department.

1997-2000: Professor of urban planning at Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

2000-2008: Director of the Federal Spatial Development Office (ARE).

2009: Member of the Val-de-Travers communal government, canton Neuchâtel.

2011-present: Professor of urban planning at Neuchâtel University. If the revised law is accepted, the cantons will have five years to amend their building zones, then it’ll be the turn of the communes. All this will take time. Meanwhile, campaigners are urging swift action, especially with the rate of population growth.

P.-A. R.: The revision of the law will take some time in the communes. But at the same time enough land needs to be put aside for the population’s needs, especially in cities.

The cantons are responsible for ensuring there is sufficient land available, but the law doesn’t stipulate how they can guarantee that well-located land comes onto the market. You must remember that the aim is to reduce the size of development zones while making resources available to build on well-placed land, so landowners need to be encouraged to do so.

(Translated from French by Simon Bradley)

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