Candidate: Zurich

Location: Switzerland

Category: European City of The Year

Year: 2019

Assessment Summary

Zurich is regularly ranked as one of the best cities in the world to live and work by organisations such as Monocle and the Economist Intelligence Unit, and for good reasons. The city has traditions of both innovation and cooperation (for example home to Zwingli, Lenin, Einstein, and the original Dadaists). Though it is notoriously expensive, local wages are also quite high, so the main disparities are in wealth. An exemplary public transport system, and the major role played by housing cooperatives help keep the city in balance. The city is run by a left/green coalition, and in recent years rules have been relaxed, for example on opening restaurants, and every space seems fully used.

Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland with a population of 425,000 in an agglomeration of 1.4 million and is German speaking. Some 40% of construction has taken place in Greater Zurich. The city’s development is rooted in being a ‘free city’, with no king or aristocracy. Instead medieval guilds transferred the cooperative practices that had enabled people to survive in the mountains. As the largest Swiss railway junction, it attracted industry in the 19th century. The great range and quality of city centre shops and the excellent transport links have in turn attracted tourists to base themselves in the city, and enjoy its cultivated, if expensive, facilities. Its neutrality and banking practices has made it one of the world’s leading centres for managing private finance.

Zurich was traditionally renowned for its engineering industries, such as Brown Boveri, but was hit in the 1990s by the closure of traditional engineering works in the Northern part with the loss of some 40,000 jobs. Almost the whole industrial area has since been redeveloped for mixed uses, along with some imaginative reuses of old structures. Thus, part of a former set of railway workshops is being developed by Swiss Railways to provide production space for businesses serving local needs. Similarly, a former ship yard is now an arts centre, while a former turbine factory contains retail as well as housing and commercial space.

Zurich’s success has been attributed to its consensual approach to planning. Zurich’s plans are based on a Spatial Development Strategy with eight sub-strategies ranging from safeguarding space for business and the knowledge industries to planning the city and region together. The Strategy 2035, produced in 2015, seeks to answer three key questions: What will we live on today and tomorrow? How do we maintain our quality of life? How do we organise ourselves?

The Spatial Development Strategy for 2020 aimed to safeguard business, and secure sustainable growth by growing the city and the region together. It has also sought to safeguard space for knowledge-based businesses, while achieving densification that is both socially and ecologically acceptable. An exceptionally high-quality public transit system makes it unnecessary to use a car. Housing is generally mid-rise around streets not towers. Most people live in rented apartments, with Switzerland having one of the lowest rates of owner occupation. Demographic change, an aging, but increasingly mobile and independent older population, more single households, patchwork families and a more diverse urban population are key drivers for innovation in housing, such as cluster flats. The City’s policy following a referendum is that a third of housing should be affordable or ‘Cost-Price’ and over time coops are some 20-30% cheaper than private rented flats (which helps as people become older). As well as reusing old buildings, there is a commitment to cut energy use, most of which is from renewable sources, especially water. For example, the More Than Housing coop used spare heat from a nearby bank of computer servers or data hub, and restricts people owning cars.

There is a marked contrast between ‘public realm’ in the form of adopted streets, which tended to be utilitarian and lacking in planting or street furniture, compared to private courtyards (open to the public) which were well-landscaped (sometimes lavishly so) and cared for. A repurposed railway viaduct now provides a running and walking route with smart artisanal and fashion shops in the arches. Similarly, there is a memorable riverside walkway system with lidos old and new. People look very relaxed and spend a lot of time outside in the Summer.

New offices have been built alongside stations by international Starchitects and could be anywhere. In contrast the housing cooperatives have used local architects and extensive consultations to create distinctive places to live and work that are future-oriented. These are supported by City Council policies for the provision of sites, and a commitment to increase the proportion from a quarter to a third of all housing.

A national referendum in 2013 resulted in stricter restrictions on Greenfield development. All the surrounding area is protected as forests and mountains. A high degree of political autonomy – including tax-setting powers – creates a competitive climate between local governments. These factors combine to encourage inward development and densification within existing settled areas. At the same time, high environmental standards, and demographic changes (ageing populations, more singles and a greater diversity of households) are leading institutional landlords, including cooperatives, to redevelop many established neighbourhoods.

More than 31% of residents are not Swiss and the nation is based on diversity, self-reliance and collaboration in the face of much stronger neighbouring countries. Rules on immigration are relatively strict. EU/EEA foreigners are only granted a five-year residency permit on the condition of gainful employment. Children have to conform, for example by walking to school. Finding affordable housing is a significant challenge, but if employment, residency and housing can be solved, Switzerland and Zurich in particular, provides a very inclusive, liberal environment.

As well as being very walkable, with no barriers and few signs, Zurich has the most frequent train service in Switzerland. Most residents live in the middle area, and benefit from the very high quality integrated and punctual public transit system Modern trams go everywhere and are very frequent, and hence are used by everyone. There is an abundance of “shared space” and an extensive pedestrianised network in the Old City. Even though non-locals may occasionally find themselves straying into the path of a car, the system appears to work very well. Cars, cycles, trains and people simply go about their business in a natural way and no fuss.

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