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Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The Swiss have long stood apart -- from their traditional neutrality to their refusal to join the European Union.
A growing movement is now resisting the world’s rush to cities. The campaign has fused with groups opposed to immigration in the run-up to a Nov. 30 referendum that would cap the annual net influx from abroad to 0.2 percent of the population.
“The unregulated immigration has reached proportions which from an economic as well as ecological perspective are no longer justifiable,” reads the initiative, which aims to keep Switzerland from being “covered in concrete.”
Mountains, lakes and woods take up more than half of Switzerland. With the population almost doubling to 8.1 million since the 1950s, including about 2 million immigrants, cities have increasingly sprawled. About 74 percent of the population lives in urban areas, according to Swiss statistics. New York has about the same number of people living on a surface that is 50 times smaller.
Ecopop, the name of the group promoting the referendum, says it opposes xenophobia and racism. It argues that natural resources are under increasing pressure from overpopulation and that Switzerland must limit immigation to avoid excessive urbanization and to preserve agricultural land.
The initiative would cut migration to Switzerland by more than half, from the 0.5 percent rate estimated by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research institute. It’s not the only European country where immigration is a hot-button issue: U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron wants reduce net migration to below 100,000 by 2015, which is less than 0.2 percent of the current British population.
It’s Switzerland’s second referendum on immigration this year. A measure in February calling for quotas, without providing specific numbers, was approved by voters. In April, the federal government in Bern imposed immigration quotas on workers from central and eastern EU countries -- a decision criticized by EU officials.
Switzerland is losing about one square meter of agricultural land per second, according to the Swiss Federal Office for Spatial Development. The office said argicultural land was cut 5.4 percent to 36 percent of total area between 1985 and 2009.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050 two-thirds of the world population will live in cities, up from 54 percent today.
In Switzerland, as elsewhere, the solution is increasing the density of settled areas. There are now only three buildings taller than 100 meters. In London alone, there are 52 buildings and structures -- including the London Eye Ferris wheel -- bigger than that.
The tallest building in Switzerland will be the Roche Tower in Basel, which on completion will be 178 meters. That doesn’t even make the top 20 in Europe.
“Today, half of the apartments in the city are inhabited by just one single person,” said Thomas Kessler, the head of the cantonal and city development unit there. “On average, there are 1.9 people per apartment, and floor-space consumption has increased to 45 square meters” from less than 30 square meters in 1970, said Kessler.
In Zurich, Switzerland’s biggest city, half of the new buildings built in the past five years were four stories or lower, including a ground floor and three top floors, according to research by Joelle Zimmerli, a sociologist and owner of the planning company Zimraum.
“How can you build only four stories in a city where there is such high demand for living space?” she said in a phone interview.
Kessler argues the discussions around too much immigration are signs of an “affluence problem,” reflecting the country’s prosperity.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga agrees, calling the proposal xenophobic. “The initiative treats people as a problem that needs to be fought,” she said last month.
This time the measure looks less likely to pass. An Oct. 24 poll of 1,206 voters by researcher gfs.bern showed 58 percent oppose the initiative, with 35 percent supporting it and a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
If the vote does pass it could stem economic growth as companies would be faced with a shortage of skilled workers because of the restrictions on immigration, UBS economists said on Nov. 10.
Kees Christiaanse, a Dutch national who chairs the architecture and urban design course at Zurich’s ETH university, noted that in the Netherlands, the population density per square meter is more than double that of Switzerland.
New zoning guidelines drafted by federal officials last year with cantons and cities may provide a basis for more unified planning, providing the first such national blueprint on shaping residential estates and associated infrastructure.
Switzerland also revised planning rules on May 1 requiring cantons to increase density in building zones to ensure they cater for the anticipated growth of the next 15 years. Cantons have five years to implement the laws.
“If people really are the problem, then there is just one solution: lower the wealth,” Kessler said. “But nobody wants that.”
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