Spatial Planning Act: Resisting urban sprawl on building land in Switzerland

Building density instead of urban sprawl: The new framework for spatial planning.

The implementation period for the revised Spatial Planning Act in the cantons comes to a close at the start of May. The act is intended to halt urban sprawl and promote building density. This will have consequences for future land-use designation in Switzerland.

Spatial Planning Act combats urban sprawl

Combatting the progress of urban sprawl is an important issue in Switzerland. The loss of farmland in favor of residential areas and public thoroughfares is endangering habitats for flora and fauna. In addition to this, decentralized expansion of settlement areas leads to considerable costs in terms of infrastructure and transportation. With the Spatial Planning Act, the federal government aims to promote inward development. One central aspect is the management of building zones, which may only comprise as much land as will be needed over the next 15 years.

The cantons had until the beginning of May 2019 to adjust their structure plans to the new Spatial Planning Act and have them approved by the federal government. Before that, municipalities had been subject to a moratorium on new building zones. As a result, there was no increase in the area of building zones between 2012 and 2017. In the same period, however, the population grew considerably. Consequently, the average building zone area per inhabitant fell from 309 square meters to 291 square meters, while the gap between urban and rural regions remains wide. In the highly developed major centers, densification has set in, with 124 square meters of building zone area per inhabitant. The size of the building zone areas in tourist municipalities, by contrast, is above average, with 662 square meters allocated per inhabitant.

Densification reduces the building zone area per inhabitant

Densification reduces the building zone area per inhabitant

Building zone area per inhabitant in square meters

Source: Federal Office for Spatial Development, Credit Suisse

Building land reserves are unevenly distributed in Switzerland

Despite the moratorium on new building zones, in Switzerland there are still reserves amounting to an estimated 11 to 17 percent of the total building zone area. However, these undeveloped areas are distributed unevenly across regions: There are large reserves in the Western Swiss cantons of Valais, Geneva, Fribourg and Vaud, in particular, while in the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Zurich, they are considerably smaller. Credit Suisse experts estimate that the existing building zone reserves in the greater Zurich area will be completely developed in fewer than ten years if building density is not increased. Building reserves could also be used up in fewer than 15 years in some parts of Vaud, Fribourg, Aargau, Thurgau, Lucerne, and Schwyz without further densification.

By contrast, the existing reserves of 84 of Switzerland's 110 economic regions should meet anticipated building land requirements for at least 15 years. In regions such as these, the Spatial Planning Act stipulates that new building zones are only possible if an area elsewhere is declassified as a building zone. However, the cantons are allowed a fair amount of scope in calculating their future need for development land. Nevertheless, some cantons (Uri, the two Appenzells, Graubünden, Schaffhausen, Jura and Valais) recognize that their development zones are disproportionately large based on federal regulations. These cantons must designate a portion of their building land as on reserve, and not available for development for a certain period, or must reclassify the land. In the remaining cantons, the structure plans provide for such measures to be taken at a local level.

Building land in Switzerland is most scarce in Zurich

Building land in Switzerland is most scarce in Zurich and its environs

Number of years until building land reserves are fully exploited, without densification (Credit Suisse estimate, as of 2018)

Source: Credit Suisse, Federal Office for Spatial Development, Swiss Federal Statistical Office

Spatial Planning Act imposes strict conditions on new building zones

Essentially, cantons that have their revised structure plans approved by May 1, 2019 are free to designate new building land again. However, vacant lots should first be developed and underused spaces utilized more effectively. New building zones may be granted where the need for development exceeds 100% of reserves over the next 15 years. Additionally, the land must be likely to be developed within the 15-year period. In eight cantons, however, a general moratorium on the creation of building zones applies until further notice, as these regions have not implemented the requirements of the Spatial Planning Act by the deadline (Geneva, Glarus, Lucerne, Obwalden, Schwyz, Ticino, Zug and Zurich.)

The structure plans for the cantons also include statements on the spatial distribution of future population growth. Agglomerations are expected to grow more than rural areas. Municipalities must also adhere to minimum densities for residential and mixed-use zones in order to drive inward development.

The effects of the Spatial Planning Act on landowners are varied

The new spatial frameworks also have an impact on landowners. Those who own farmland, hoping for rezoning to development land, are among the losers. Owners of undeveloped building land in municipalities with disproportionally large building zones are at risk of declassification – in the worst case, without compensation.

Many landowners of both developed and undeveloped land may profit, however, from efforts to increase density as rezoning to higher density – an increase in the maximum permissible utilization of the land – often increases the value of the land considerably.

Cities called upon in the fight against urban sprawl

It must be ensured that there is a sufficient supply of building land across the board in Switzerland. Densely populated urban regions face the greatest challenge, as there is very little land remaining that is suitable for designation as building land, and rezoning often provokes political resistance. This means that densification in the agglomerations is inevitable.

It is now up to cities to ensure a high quality of development despite densification. If they do not succeed, living standards will decline and the divide between rent prices in the city center and in the surrounding areas will widen further. The loss of appeal of living in cities would shift development pressure to the outer suburbs and rural regions, further promoting urban sprawl.

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