Reflections on the popular initiative

Reflections on the popular initiative “Stop urban sprawl – for sustainable urban development (urban sprawl initiative)”

Federal Referendum of 10 February 2019

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

On 10 February, the Swiss people will vote on a single bill, the urban sprawl initiative, submitted by the Young Greens, together with a number of environmental organisations and several other parties (SP, Juso, Alternative Linke AL).
    Switzerland is a small country with high population growth, high immigration1 and a flourishing economy. Accordingly, the built-up areas are growing under the control of the Confederation, the cantons and the communes, but in the opinion of many citizens they are still not sufficiently orderly. In recent years, Switzerland has already taken various measures to counter urban sprawl, i.e. the zoning of more and more cultivated land. On 11 March 2012, for example, the popular initiative “Stop the boundless construction of second homes” was adopted by a narrow 50.6 % of the votes in favour, demanding that no new second homes should be approved in municipalities with a proportion of more than 20 % of second homes. In 2013, the people said yes to the revision of the Spatial Planning Act and thus decided that building zones may only meet the expected demand for 15 years. Building zones that are too large must therefore be reduced in size.
    In the opinion of the initiators of the urban sprawl initiative, however, these stricter regulations have not prevented new building zones from being established nevertheless. The initiative therefore calls for a zoning stop: “The initiative ensures that the landscape and quality of life are preserved. It makes up for the shortcomings of the revision of the Spatial Planning Act and makes it possible to deal with the land economically.”2
    The initiative and the most important arguments for and against are to be presented here.

Initiative text

The Federal Constitution is amended as follows:
Art. 75 para. 4–73
4 Within the scope of their responsibilities, the Confederation, cantons and communes shall ensure favourable framework conditions for sustainable forms of living and working in small-scale structures with a high quality of life and short transport routes (sustainable neighbourhoods).
5 The aim should be to develop settlements inwards that are in harmony with a high quality of life and special protection provisions.
6 New building zones may only be separated if another unsealed area of at least the same size and comparable potential agricultural yield value is zoned out of the building zone.
7 Outside the building zone, only site-specific buildings and installations for soil-dependent agriculture or site-specific buildings of public interest may be approved. The law may provide for exceptions. Existing buildings enjoy a guaranteed existence and may be slightly extended and slightly converted.

Sustainable neighbourhoods and housing cooperatives in the cities

On Federal Constitution Art. 75 para. 4 new:

The urban sprawl initiative calls for a significant improvement in the framework conditions for sustainable neighbourhoods.
According to the initiators, the federal government’s 2011 “Sustainable neighbourhoods” publication describes an “urban space with around 500 inhabitants, a local centre, generous green space and nevertheless very low land consumption. [...] Ideally, it [the neighbourhood] should be arranged in a ring or U-shape. A green inner courtyard or park brings the green space into the settlement. The separation from the street makes the living space and open space quiet. On the ground floors there is space for local businesses, ranging from neighbourhood pubs to grocery stores. There is also a kindergarten.”4
A really positive form of living together, although we already have the legal container for it: cooperative law in the Swiss Code of Obligations (OR). “The utopia has long since become reality”, the initiators correctly point out. In the housing cooperatives of various Swiss cities, many people have been living for a long time on relatively small plots of land and in modest apartments, but still in a bit of greenery. In recent years, however, many of these settlements have been demolished and rebuilt according to the above pattern. Whether or not a community culture develops depends less on the construction method than on the personal commitment of some active residents. And whether people want to live in densely built housing estates – with a larger green space instead of meadows and trees between the blocks of flats – is up to them.
In the countryside, the situation is quite different. As Hans Marti, farmer and advocate of the initiative, says in a personal conversation, some people in their place of residence and other communities do not like it when blocks of flats are built in the village after old detached houses have been demolished. Should more meadows and fields be built over instead? The urban sprawl initiative wants to counteract this by obliging cantons and municipalities to ensure the necessary framework conditions for more compact settlements, even in the vicinity of cities (for example, good public transport connections, permits for small businesses within the settlement).

Inward settlement development – does this require an initiative?

On Federal Constitution Art. 75 Para. 5 new:

In principle, many people support the idea that, whenever possible, construction should take place within existing building zones, i.e. in towns and villages rather than on greenfield sites. This is because in Switzerland, which is a small and relatively densely populated country with
25 % of its unproductive land (rock, glaciers, etc.) and more than 31 % of its forest and woodland, cultivated land is scarce and must therefore be used responsibly and in an environmentally friendly manner. This is also the most important objective of the urban sprawl initiative.
Paragraph 5 of the initiative text is intended, among other things, to make “a moderate increase possible, especially in low-density zones”. This means, for example, that a third floor could be built on top of a two-storey building, but not only for profit purposes, but “while maintaining or increasing the quality of life”. This is often not permitted in today’s building zone plans. “Exceptions are buildings that are particularly worthy of protection (e.g. historical buildings).”5
There is disagreement as to whether the new Spatial Planning Act (SPA) can also achieve increased inward settlement development, or whether the initiative’s more radical methods are needed. Here are the two opposing points of view:

  • Federal Council: Switzerland’s more recent building zone statistics show that the total area of building zones has remained constant since 2012, although the population grew from just under 8 million to 8.5 million during this period. According to the Federal Council, the implementation of the revised Spatial Planning Act is in progress: “The cantons must adapt their structure plans and have them approved by the Federal Council by the end of April 2019 with the stricter measures against urban sprawl. After this date, they will not be allowed to create new construction zones until their structure plan has been approved by the Federal Council.”6
  • Initiators: “The current spatial planning law continues to lead to a steady growth of the settlement area at the expense of green areas. The faster the ground is built over, the faster new building land is zoned in. This in no way stops urban sprawl. The urban sprawl initiative closes the gaps in the Spatial Planning Act by supplementing existing measures with effective landscape protection.”7

Zoning stop: necessary or too radical?

On Federal Constitution Art. 75 Para. 6 new:

The zoning stop is one of the most controversial points of the initiative: according to paragraph 6, new building zones would only be permitted “if another unsealed area8 of at least the same size and comparable potential agricultural yield value is zoned out of the building zone.”

  • Initiators: “This means that the total number of building zones remains constant. However, municipalities can exchange building land among themselves. This guarantees that the remaining reserves can also be used where they are needed.”9
  • Federal Council: “A rigid building zone stop ignores the needs of the population and the economy, as well as cantonal and regional differences.”10
    It would also leave open “how exactly building zones would be redistributed if new building land had to be created in a canton – whether only within the canton concerned or also beyond cantonal borders throughout Switzerland. The costs associated with the abolition and redistribution of building zones are also uncertain.”11

To ensure that the area of the fertile soil remains constant, the yield value of the soil would also be decisive in accordance with paragraph 6. The Federal Council specifies: “The agricultural yield value is calculated on the basis of soil quality and other criteria such as climate or slope gradiant.”12
Without being able to go into the possible procedure and the circumstances of the exchange of building zones in more detail, some tensions would presumably arise, i.e. some disputes would have to be fought out in court.
Another controversial question is whether or not housing prices would rise with the initiative:

  • Federal Council: “Where building land is scarce, there is a growing risk that land and housing prices will rise.”13
  • Initiators: “The initiative creates the possibility of creating more living space in many places by means of high-quality densifying. This keeps the living space affordable and at the same time stops urban sprawl. The existing reserves to be used are so large that they do not even have to be fully exploited.”14

Another question raised by both the initiators and the Federal Council is: “Are not the cantons and communes that have been careful with the land not being punished?”

  • The Federal Council affirms this and states: “This is unfair.”15
  • Initiators: No, because among other things “[...] progressive communities are much less affected by the initiative if they have already planned their settlement development sustainably anyway. These communities prove that the demands of the urban sprawl initiative can be implemented well.”16

Restriction of agricultural buildings outside the building zone

On Federal Constitution Art. 75 para. 7 new:

The initiative aims at restricting the permission of agricultural buildings outside the building zone. Some Swiss farmers find paragraph 7 too far reaching.
The formulation that outside of building zone shall only be permitted “buildings and installations at specific locations for soil-dependent agriculture” [highlighting mw] means, for example, vegetable and fruit products “if the plants are rooted in the soil”.17
This means that greenhouses with hors-sol production could only be built within the building zone, just as stables for cows, poultry or pigs, if most of the fodder is not produced on the farm, but bought in. While Markus Ritter, Director Swiss Farmers’ Association, speaks of an “unacceptable ban on all soil-independent production”, Markus Schwegler, member of the board of the Small Farmers’ Association, believes that “sustainable food production is absolutely bound to soil” (“St. Galler Tagblatt” from 9 January).
There are good reasons to agree with either of these opinions. However, it is difficult to expect parts of Swiss agriculture, which in any case can hardly compete with the low prices of foreign products, to construct buildings in the expensive building zone. A further difficulty for the building permit authorities would be to decide which farm produces enough products “rooted in the soil” and which does not. The comment of the initiators on this point rather leads to further uncertainties: “It is the task of the legislator, with an appropriate mix of regulations and exceptions, to make both local plant production possible and at the same time prevent entire areas from being covered with greenhouses. One possible means for this could be special agricultural zones.”18


The concern of the initiators and of the more than 110,000 citizens who signed the initiative is very legitimate in view of the fact that for decades there has been undue overbuilding of cultivated land, semi-natural landscapes and other green spaces. There is an urgent need to manage economically the scarcity of arable land in the small state of Switzerland. The majority of the electorate voted in favour of the revised Spatial Planning Act.
On the other hand, the opinion to give the new Spatial Planning Act a chance for a few more years and, if necessary, to amend the law, could also be agreed with. Another aspect to be taken into account is the high level of immigration (see footnote 1). Anyone who comes to Switzerland as a worker or refugee rightly enjoys all rights as a resident of our country, including the right to family reunification. However, if more and more people live here, this will necessarily result in an expansion of infrastructure: residential buildings, schools, roads, bus and train lines, etc. For this reason, the sovereign’s decision to control immigration once again independently must be taken into account when dealing with the scarcity of land. Furthermore, it’s economy that needs land: The creation of new jobs, which is welcomed by everyone, requires available space.
It is the privilege of every citizen in direct democracy to inform himself before this referendum as before any other referendums, weighing pros and cons, forming an own opinion. These lines are meant to be an aid.    •

1    Population on 31.12.1997 (before the free movement of persons agreement with EU): 7,096,465; twenty years later, on 31.12.2017: 8,484,130; increase of almost 20 % (19.5 %).
2    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet) on the referendum of 10 February 2019, p. 5
3    Federal Constitution Art. 75 Spatial Planning Par. 1–3 so far
4    Federal Office of Energy & Federal Office for Spatial Development. (2011). Sustainable neighbourhoods: Challenges and opportunities for urban development. For a more detailed description, see the initiative’s homepage. Sustainable neighbourhoods. <link https: initiative>
5    Homepage of the initiative, “Moderat aufstocken”. <link https: initiative>
6    Voting booklet, p. 7/8 with references to “Bauzonenstatistik Schweiz (2017)” (<link http: bauzonen> and to the latest version of the structure plans: <link http: richtplan>
7    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet) p. 13
8    Unsealed areas are meadows, paths, fields, gardens, etc., where the resulting water can seep away. “Sealed areas are in particular buildings and roads. Sealed areas mean that the soil loses its natural ecological function as habitat, reservoir and filter, as well as its ability to convert and degrade substances.” (Swiss Federal Statistical Office, Environmental Indicator – Soil sealing)
9    Homepage of the initiative. Define building zones to a reasonable extent.
10    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet), p. 5
11    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet), p. 10
12    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet), p. 9
13    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet), p. 14
14    Homepage of the initiative, notes. Ad par. 6
15    Abstimmungsbüchlein (Voting booklet),  p. 14
16    Homepage, Questions & Answers.
17    Homepage, Questions & Answers. Does the initiative harm Swiss agriculture?
18    Homepage, Questions & Answers. Does the initiative harm Swiss agriculture?

SVP farmer and politician backs Green initiative

mw. In a personal conversation, Hans Marti* reports that he supports the initiative out of concern for the ongoing overbuilding of Swiss soil. This has been under discussion for decades and now action is finally needed: “In the canton of Solothurn, the vacancy rate is over
3 %, i.e. there are over 4,000 empty apartments. In Huttwil, BE there are over 14 % empty apartments. However, construction is still continuing unabated. In Biberist, an extremely large amount of land is being zoned from the agricultural zone to the construction zone. The situation will not change as long as the investor has to pay negative interest on his money lying on the bank. The worst thing about it is that what has been concreted once will never be reversible.”

Current Concerns: With the urban sprawl initiative, wouldn’t the real estate companies in particular be the winners, which could rent out or sell the apartments more expensively because of the scarcity of supply?

Hans Marti: Rental prices rise when living space becomes scarce. But because the existing reserves are large enough, there will be no rising rents. Most real estate companies have recognised that there is no demand for compression without quality. The internal reserves are so large that we have enough living space, even if the population growth is higher than expected by the Federal Council. Moderate measures are sufficient to create even more living space, e.g. three-storey instead of two-storey buildings.

Wouldn’t we also have to include better management of immigration in order to counter the overbuilding of our small country?

Of course, we also have to bring immigration under control, that is my personal opinion.

Is it not too radical to demand that some agricultural buildings be located in the construction zone?

No, because farmers can still build the barn and the house in the agricultural zone. Hors-sol greenhouses over large areas, however, should be regarded more as industrial production. It is up to the legislator to create a balanced regulation here.

Do you think the urban sprawl initiative has good chances with the population?

Yes, because it is in everyone’s interest to stop urban sprawl and protect the country, including for our descendants. The main reason for rejection would be that the initiative comes from the Young Greens. That is why I support it, irrespective of party membership. What is needed is a regulation such as the one we have for forests: Every piece of forest that is cleared must be reforested accordingly.

Thank you very much, Mr Marti, for the interview.

* Hans Marti lives in Biberist, a commune of 8,775 inhabitants near Solothurn. He is a farmer and a former SVP cantonal councillor.

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