More densely populated urban areas call for more urban quality

28/May/2015

If urban sprawl is to be stopped, the use of developed areas needs to be intensified. The results of the now completed National Research Programme "New Urban Quality" (NRP 65) show new ways of remodelling suburban areas. Developing building and land use in suburban areas will improve quality of life and efficiency in the densely populated Swiss plateau.

To stop urban sprawl and protect landscapes, suburban areas in Switzerland need to develop inwards. This strategy is widely accepted and has political backing. But implementation poses many challenges because greater density does not automatically produce a good quality of life. The expected re-development will affect large portions of the Swiss population: Switzerland has become a largely urbanised country in the last hundred years and developed areas are continuing to expand. There now is a need to improve urban quality in Switzerland. In this context, the National Research Programme "New Urban Quality" (NRP 65) is presenting its results and recommendations.

Urbanisation of suburban areas

The research focus of NRP 65 lies on urban quality in suburbs. Urban agglomerations, where around 73% of the Swiss population live, will need to be remodelled into cities with high urban quality. The motto of spatial development in the future needs to be "Love for the city rather than for the countryside", if we aim for energy efficiency and good use of space.

"Suburban areas are unfinished settlements", says Jürg Sulzer, president of the Steering Committee of NRP 65, professor at Dresden University and former urban planner of the city of Bern. He adds that these areas need to be urbanised in order to achieve a new urban quality: "We need to promote the urbanisation of suburban areas." He emphasises that this is not only a planning issue but also a social and political challenge: "Only few people benefit from the exceptional quality of life offered by historical inner cities. We need to improve the quality of life in suburban areas to promote social cohesion."

What does urban quality mean?

Urban quality focuses on key questions of well-being and quality of life in relation to living spaces. The emphasis of new urban quality lies on social and use-related density, short distances in cities and a special quality of urban experience. Also important is the identification of citizens with their built environment.

Depending on the town or city, urban quality can take on a different meaning. The particularities of each place and the needs of its inhabitants have to be taken into account. A research team has elaborated seven urban qualities to develop urban profiles and to discuss future urban development: centrality, accessibility, usability, adaptability, appropriation, diversity and interaction.

The researchers of NRP 65 have also developed modelling and visualisation platforms that make it possible to take account of subjective user perspectives. They make it possible to visualise and discuss how the needs of different users or owners impact spatial areas.

Recommendations to remodel suburban areas

The synthesis products of NRP 65 include two publications which present research results as well as recommendations. Jürg Sulzer summarises: "The urbanisation of suburban areas will be one of the core tasks of the 21st century." The first steps towards this remodelling, he adds, need to be taken today as the process will take more than half a century to complete. The recommendations include:

  • We need a campaign for the design of public spaces. The creation of clearly structured public spaces needs to become the backbone of remodelling built spaces.
  • Higher density of use in urbanised neighbourhoods needs to be compensated through new approaches to open spaces and concepts such as urban gardening and farming.
  • The small-plot structure of traditional neighbourhoods with detached houses offers the opportunity to gradually increase the intensity of use in small-unit structures.

 

Brigit Wehrli, former head of urban development in Zurich and member of the Steering Committee of NRP 65, has been in charge of elaborating practice-oriented recommendations helping to make urban quality a reality: "In terms of larger development projects, there is no lack of ideas targeting good quality. But these ideas are often eroded and neglected in the planning process. In spatial development, we need planning and decision processes that are transparent, easily understandable und discursive."

A scientific approach across disciplinary boundaries is key; it needs to be combined with participatory opportunities for those affected by the development and good overall urban planning. Furthermore, a sense of place is of great importance: councils need to make sure that public interests are considered in private projects. Collaborative platforms make it possible to visualise planning processes step by step so that long-term targets and impacts can be communicated to politicians and the broader public. Suburban remodelling needs to be based on clear visions of the future that incorporate criteria such as diversity of use, aesthetic expectations for urban spaces and "distinctness".

This is a challenge for cantons and local authorities as well as property owners, private developers and investors. Cooperative planning processes with early involvement of the authorities, owners, neighbours and other stakeholders deserve more support. They are essential for achieving the necessary density and quality of urban areas in Switzerland.


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Two synthesis reports summarise the research results of NRP 65 "New Urban Quality":

Sulzer, Jürg and Desax, Martina (Eds): Stadtwerdung der Agglomeration. Die Suche nach einer neuen urbanen Qualität. Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürich, 2015 (available in German and French)

Wehrli-Schindler, Brigit (Ed): Urbane Qualität für Stadt und Umland. Ein Wegweiser zur nachhaltigen Raumentwicklung. Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürich, 2015 (available in German and French)

The vision of Giubiasco 2020 - 2030 shows how suburban areas can become urbanised. The key aspects of the project focusing on this suburb of Bellinzona are: buildings are oriented towards public spaces (e.g. parks, roads), business and living areas are mixed, industrial areas are repurposed. Development of agricultural land is to be avoided at all costs.
© Accademia di architettura di Mendrisio/USI

Dietikon, a typical suburban area in Switzerland, could be transformed from the typical jumble of houses in 2015 (at left) into a coherent urban development in 2080 (at right). Perimeter block developments allow for increased density. The quality of life in the new city is underpinned by houses that are oriented towards public spaces and thus support the urbanisation. If this approach were adopted, the area would accommodate 50,000 instead of today's 30,000 inhabitants without any greenfield developments.
© Han van de Wetering / Atelier für Städtebau

 

The main thoroughfare is developed into a "corso" that is lined with trees and buildings with eight to ten storeys. Suburban areas become urbanised and more attractive for investors. Maintaining small plots allows individual house owners to invest and contributes to the diversity of houses.
© Han van de Wetering / Atelier für Städtebau

Contact

 

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jürg Sulzer
President of the Steering Committee of NRP 65
Phone 079 756 92 20
E-mail juerg.sulzer@bluewin.ch

Daniel Saraga
Head of Science Communication
Swiss National Science Foundation
Wildhainweg 3
CH-3001 Bern
Phone 076 465 21 72
E-mail daniel.saraga@snf.ch