As part of the 28 September referendum, the half-cantons of Basel Town (BS) and Basel Country (BL) voted whether to join forces as part of a larger – and more manageable – Greater Basel. While city voted for, the countryside voted against, but they did agree to develop more cooperation with each other. This is not the first time that Basel, which split in 1833, balloted on whether to get back together.
What the decision does illustrate, however, is the constant struggle between urban and rural development as cities seek to grow. As Swiss planners point out, there is an urgent need for communities to collaborate more readily when it comes to building new housing or preserving green spaces. “Cities need to consider themselves part of a region with a shared vision,” noted Roland Frank of BS’s urban development office.
Not only does this mean working with the four other Swiss cantons bordering the two Basels, but also neighbouring France and Germany. “We now have 196 Swiss, French and German communes working with each other,” said Frank. “This includes investing in French and German side infrastructure, such as tram links or parking places.”
One example is the proposed expansion of Basel’s Rhine harbour zone. Crucial to the region’s economic development, Roland said, it will not only “affect trade with the downriver port of Rotterdam, but also housing along the French border”. Basel’s policy is to make itself as attractive as possible not only for investment, but also as a place to live.
Similar problems exist with Switzerland’s other urban conglomerations such as Zurich, Bern and Geneva. Lausanne’s rapid expansion over the past 20 years has devoured most green spaces resulting in once quiet towns such as Renens, Crissier and Pully becoming part of an increasingly ugly urban sprawl. Even the beautiful lakeside town of Morges is being rapidly drawn into this orbit.
Rural communities, but also local city groups concerned by rampant development, are fighting back. This is prompting more imaginative ways for preserving local heritage or avoiding burying farmland or woodlands under concrete. Lausanne’s introduced policy of “densification” aims to reduce urban sprawl, but also results in property values being affected by ruined views or increased traffic along once quiet lanes. Developers, too, often hold onto permits for a limited number of houses, but then re-apply later with revised plans for more buildings.
One of the biggest challenges, however, is the “Arc lémanique” vision. Numerous Genevois and Vaudois find it difficult to consider themselves part of a region, particularly one that includes France. The 9 February vote curbing EU immigration is one result of this.
According to Christophe Bouvier, President of the Communauté des Communes of the Pays de Gex, which represents 87,000 residents and 27 communes, the Swiss and French need to work more closely with each other. “La France Voisine” should not simply be a dumping ground for housing. “Economically, Geneva – and to a lesser extent Vaud – benefits heavily from us,” he said. “But the Swiss need to share more in the investment of our infrastructure, such as roads and sanitation. We have to be more integrated with the ‘Greater Geneva’ vision.”
Bouvier, who is also mayor of Cessy at the foot of the Jura, noted that, not unlike the southern Alsace region with Basel, Paris does not recognize the Pays de Gex’s special relationship with Switzerland. “The government acts as if we don’t exist, but is quite happy to take our tax contributions, which we feel should go to the development of this very special region,” he said. “We have a long-term vision, whether cycle lanes or tram links, that respects the environment and ensures that we remain a quality region to live in. But we can’t do it on our own. If this experiment fails, everyone loses.”
Edward Girardet, Managing Editor