Keeping pace with the population boom

Zurich's Prime Tower could be the shape of things to come Keystone

A million more people will be living in Switzerland by 2035, all expecting to enjoy high standards of living, affordable housing and quality transport links.

This content was published on April 14, 2011

Federal and cantonal authorities are adopting new strategies to cope with the rising tide of residents, driven by increasing numbers of foreign workers, as house prices spiral upwards and complaints mount about crowded trains.

Switzerland is hardly about to fall apart at the seams and has coped with large influxes of migrants in the past. But the latest batch of entrants, mainly taking advantage of open borders between Switzerland and the European Union, have sparked a debate about the merits of having so many people arrive at one time.

One of the key words in the debate is “balance”: the balance of finding more living space without eroding green space, providing housing for all income groups, of serving business and leisure interests.

Geneva has found itself at the sharp end of population growth, attracting large numbers of new businesses and workers to the city. Property prices have been driven up six-fold in the Lake Geneva region in the past 24 years while traffic jams have grown longer.

Spreading the load

Philippe Steiner, head of urban planning projects for canton Geneva, admitted that long term population growth estimates, set a few years ago, already appear to be outdated.

“Population growth in these areas has been very dynamic, much faster than in other parts of Europe, and faster than we had planned for,” he told

Geneva has teamed up with canton Vaud and the part of France bordering Switzerland – an area that includes the Cern European Organization for Nuclear Research – to devise a coordinated strategy to build 19,000 new homes and create 24,000 new jobs by 2030.

“Geneva is attracting a lot of new companies and jobs, but it is a small area and the cost of land is much higher here than in France,” Steiner told “We hope this cooperation will spread the population growth as well as profits.”

With the cost of houses spiralling in Geneva, there seems little doubt that the supply of new homes needs to be increased. Erecting new homes is not only a costly business, but comes with restrictions, such as the requirement for new construction zones to include at least 50 per cent of social housing if built on former agricultural land.

High rise dilemma

Furthermore, the drive to densify living space in Geneva city is restricted by constraints on the height of buildings. A recent suggestion by canton Geneva’s head of construction, Mark Müller, to raise the height of buildings has met with strong political opposition.

Such restrictions also apply in Zurich city centre, but planning permission has been given to construct high rise buildings in peripheral industrial areas. The highest building, at 126 metres and 34 floors, the Maag Areal Prime Tower is expected to be completed this year.

Geneva and Vaud are not the only Swiss areas to join forces on urban planning projects. In January, the Swiss Heritage Society awarded the Wakker Heritage Prize to nine municipalities in Lausanne West for their efforts to build the region up in a sustainable manner.

Construction is also stepping up in Basel, home to expanding pharmaceutical, chemicals and biotechnology clusters. The Roche Tower will end up as the tallest building in Switzerland, standing at 175 metres when it is completed in 2015.

Researchers estimate that demand for new jobs in the Basel region will reach 40,000 for the major industries alone by 2020. The city council has put forward plans to create 5,000 new homes inside the next ten years.

Expanding rail network

The major nationwide construction plans around Switzerland must not come at the expense of quality lifestyle, experts warn. One of the keys is to include leisure and cultural space, incorporate shops and improve transport.

Swiss Federal Railways is well aware of the magnitude of the task that confronts it. Federal Railways estimates that it needs to invest SFr20 billion ($22 billion) in new rolling stock and another SFr40 billion in infrastructure upgrades by 2020 – and the money is not yet available.

“Given the mechanisms currently available, there is clearly going to be a substantial funding gap,” it stated in its annual report.

The number of passengers using Zurich’s main station is expected to increase from 360,000 to half a million by 2020. A second station in the city is expected to be fully operational by 2015.

A new rail link through the alpine Gotthard pass is expected to take more traffic off the roads by the time it is opened in 2017.

Another task is to make sure that locals on lower incomes do not get squeezed out of housing markets in cities and towns.

Last year Zug became the first canton to set aside special “reasonably priced housing” zones, in contrast to Obwalden that had to abandon plans to set aside prime real estate for the wealthy to build luxury homes.

Population growth

The Federal Statistics Office published figures last month that forecast a rise in the Swiss population from 7.86 million in 2010 to 8.84 million in 2035 – a 12% increase in numbers.

Canton Vaud is expected to see the biggest growth (23.8% to 882,000), with Fribourg (+20.9% to 335,000) and Aargau (+19.3% to 725,000).

Canton Geneva is also expected to see large numbers of new inhabitants arriving, up 18.2% to 542,000 while Zurich’s population will expand 15% to reach 1.6 million.

The numbers are being driven by large numbers of foreign workers arriving from the European Union. In the race to stay internationally competitive, Swiss companies are demanding more skilled workers.

A record 100,000 foreign workers moved to Switzerland in 2008, and while numbers have dropped slightly, they are steady.

The proportion of non-Swiss inhabitants of the entire population has risen from 3% in 1850, to 14.8% in 1980 and now stands at 23%.

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