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Urban sprawl threatens Swiss heartland

Is Switzerland's rural heartland under threat?

Switzerland's countryside is being swallowed up by its cities, according to a new study, which predicts that an urban belt will one day stretch from Zurich to Geneva.

The authors of “Urbanscape Switzerland” also argue that the existing authorities are not well equipped to deal with this urban sprawl.

The spread of cities into their surrounding countryside is not a new phenomenon, of course. Nor is it uniquely Swiss. But the study’s authors believe that the Swiss are still uninformed about the changes going on around them.

“The main purpose of this book is to open up a discussion,” says Dr Angelus Eisinger of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ).

“Many Swiss people still believe they are living in a largely rural country, but in fact more than 70 per cent of them are inhabiting areas that are a mixture of the urban and the rural.”

The study, produced by the “Avenir Suisse” think-tank, claims that distinctions between cities and countryside are becoming increasingly blurred.

Disappearing land

With 11 hectares of agricultural land disappearing every day in Switzerland, there are obvious concerns for the environment. But the new report concentrates mainly on the social problems and demands thrown up by urbanisation.

One such problem concerns the rapid and “unplanned” birth of several agglomerations – effectively, new towns or even cities which have grown directly out of urban sprawl.

Since they have no official identity of their own, these large entities are only represented at a political level by the various former “villages” whose space they have now consumed.

As part of his contribution to the new book, Professor Alain Theirstein of the ETHZ examined the case of Glatttal, a booming development centred around Zurich’s airport, with more than 170,000 residents.

Growth rates

“In terms of its population and employment growth rates, Glatttal could be called Switzerland’s fourth biggest city,” Theirstein points out.

“Yet it has no local authority of its own and, viewed from the outside, is no more than a cluster of eight or nine small communities within canton Zurich.”

Clearly the urban spread throughout the Glatttal region would never have happened, if people hadn’t wanted to move to the area. But Theirstein says the attractions of this “invisible city” shouldn’t distract from the problems it faces.

“It’s at the centre of Switzerland and it’s arguably the country’s most dynamic hub in terms of the economy, financial services, technology and, of course, the airport so, yes, people want to live and work there.


“But there are also disadvantages with traffic congestion, the noise from the airport and the lack of co-ordination seen in the development of the built-up area.”

Nor is Glatttal an isolated case, according to the study which highlights similar population sprawls around Basel, Lake Geneva and the Italian-speaking south of Switzerland.

Possibly the most alarming suggestion, though, comes in the study’s warning that Switzerland’s heartland is in danger of becoming one huge urban mass, stretching in a cross-shape from Geneva to Zurich and from Basel to Lugano.

If that sounds fanciful, the report points out that almost 70 per cent of the Swiss population are already living in this central area which accounts for less than 40 per cent of the country’s land mass.

Not too late

Few of those living in this increasingly urban Switzerland are likely to rush out and buy the “Urbanscape” book whose academic studies and graphics are clearly aimed at the specialist market, although the authors hope that the arguments will filter into a wider public discussion.

Only in that way, they argue, can the current trend be reversed.

“Things can still be changed, if that’s what people want,” insists Thierstein. “But we need a planning policy that is more anticipatory as well as stricter national regulations.

“In addition we need small communities to abandon the idea that they can determine their own destinies without listening to the needs of their neighbours. If all these things come together, we can achieve much more sustainable development.”

“Urbanscape Switzerland” is published in German and in English by Birkhäuser publishers at a cost of SFr88.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

The Avenir Suisse think-tank was founded in 1999 by 14 Swiss firms, including Novartis, Nestlé and UBS.
Its reports concentrate on social and economic developments in Switzerland.
The “Urbanscape Switzerland” report includes 11 separate studies on Swiss urbanisation.

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