Transportation is the real urban planner

As building land reserves dwindle, cities should rely more on "inward development" says Hans-Georg Bächtold, CEO of the SIA.

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January 21, 2014, Jürg Zulliger (text) und Peter Tillessen (photos)

What is the cause of urban sprawl in Switzerland, Mr. Bächtold?
A major role was played by the state, which made plenty of land available for construction for a very long time. The dream of lots of living space and your own house with a great view became possible in the countryside.

Why did so many people turn their backs on cities?
Many saw cities as dirty places with poor air, lots of noise and small apartments. People who rejected that and wanted to give their children a healthier place to grow up moved to the countryside. It was a longing for an idyllic village life, a kind of Heidi mentality. Cities have changed a lot since then. Today they offer a much better quality of life. I hesitate to use the term "structural densification", and prefer to speak of "inward" development and the expansion of cities and urban areas.

What do you mean by the "inward development" of cities?
The opposite of previous trends when cities kept spreading out into the surrounding countryside and the urban areas claimed more and more land. To put it figuratively: it's about making city limits "watertight". Population growth should be absorbed within cities, where we should construct attractive buildings offering a high quality of living.

What is the impact of transportation?
Transportation is the true urban planner. The massive rise in private and public transportation was what made it possible to live in the country and work in the city. Today I have the impression that many people are tired of commuting.

Transportation routes are being expanded. With the opening of NEAT 2016 even Lugano will be within commuting distance of Zurich ...
There will probably be some individuals who live in Ticino and work in Zurich. However, the number of commuters will not continue to increase. Building land is no longer as available on the market, nor as easily accessible as 20 years ago. I'm sure many people are forced to commute. If they could, they'd prefer to live in a city with a 20 minute walk to work.

The state controls land planning and zoning regulations. What measures should it take?
The government must make cities more attractive! The environment is important: that means less noise and better air. And cities need public spaces, beautiful parks and recreation areas.

Do we need a different kind of land planning?
Land and urban planning were very technical for a long time. It was all about utilization figures and space management. We have to think more about the quality of the space, well-being, and people's desires and their sense of home.

Why are you for urban consolidation?
We don't have unlimited space in Switzerland. My father died at the age of 91 in a 160 square meter single-family home with a big garden. It's unlikely we'll be able to afford this way of life in future, either financially or socially. The next generation can look forward to longer life expectancy. And I believe they'll be more relaxed about property ownership. I think it's better to change how we live when we get older, and move to somewhere more suitable for this time of life.

People have talked about consolidation for years. But in Zurich, for instance, there are fewer residents per hectare than 40 or 50 years ago. Why is that?
When there are high-quality apartments and attractive outdoor and public spaces, more people move to the city. Paris has always been relatively densely built up with five- to six-storey buildings, and it has very attractive public spaces. Zurich's Niederdorf, a very dense quarter in the old town, has become a popular place to live.

Are there new examples of successful consolidation?
In Zurich-Affoltern there are several new buildings that use existing developed land more efficiently. At the SIA, I see the new "Klee" building by architects Knapkiewicz and Fickert as an excellent example. The seven- storey construction has excellent floor plans and attractive squares and courtyards.

There are 800,000 single-family homes in Switzerland. Do you see potential for more?
Single-family houses are a common form of housing in Switzerland, and they can be justified. It's a good idea to use a building better by adding another floor, an annex or a winter garden. People who feel comfortable at home are less likely to want to drive to the mountains on the weekend. Quantitatively, however, the greatest potential lies in inward development in urban areas.

Where do you live?
In the Enge neighborhood in Zurich. I walk to work in just 20 minutes: a car is unnecessary. What's important to me is the quality of the space, and also my time.


The market

Taking a breather

In the third quarter of 2013, the transaction prices of single-family homes in Switzerland increased 2.1 percent over the previous year. In Western and Eastern Switzerland they rose by roughly 5 percent, but fell in the Lake Geneva region (-1.3 percent) and Southern Switzerland (-0.6 percent). The situation has worsened since the previous quarter. Quarterly growth was below the longterm average in almost all regions; transaction prices decreased by 0.5 percent throughout Switzerland. The transaction prices of single family homes are not expected to rise significantly in 2014.


Urban planner  

Hans-Georg Bächtold (60) is one of the best- known urban planners. The father of three studied forestry and urban planning at the ETH. He has been CEO of the Swiss Association of Engineers and Architects (SIA) since 2009. Prior to that he was the cantonal planner and head of the planning office of the Canton of Basel- Landschaft.


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