No fond farewells to growth

An ordered retreat could solve the problems faced by remote mountain regions. But the political and social resistance to the idea is great. By Atlant Bieri

(From "Horizons" no. 109 June 2016)​​​

​Times are hard for the Swiss mountain regions. The economy is stagnating and people are migrating elsewhere. Various strategies for the future are being considered. But one of them has already been rejected several times: contraction. In other words, the planned downsizing of villages and regions. Early this year, scientists of the Interacademic Commission on Alpine Studies met in Bern to develop procedures for an ordered plan of contraction that would be fair to those affected. They want to put this particular approach back on the agenda. But it's a tricky business.

Replacing growth with contraction is a taboo topic, both among the population and among politicians. This is probably because the Alps were traditionally a profitable region, says Jon Mathieu from the Department of History at the University of Lucerne. He is engaged in intensive research into the history of the Alpine region. "For centuries, the Alps were situated between several highly developed European centres such as Venice, Milan, Munich and Lyon". This has been a huge boost to tourism, right up to the present. "Today, however, the Alps have lost their monopoly", says Mathieu. Travelling has become cheap. "This means that the Alps are now in competition with many different regions of the world". The income from tourism is also threatened by climate change – at least in the winter.

Agriculture is also under pressure. In Switzerland, three businesses a day close down, one of which is situated in the Alps. And there's one other branch of the economy that towns such as Andermatt could rely upon until the 1980s, but can do so no longer: the army. The Swiss Army is now closing down an armoury in Andermatt that used to provide an income to half the town's population.

Healthy contraction is expensive

It's migration that hits hardest in the villages. "Young people want leisure, culture, cinemas and entertainment. The countryside can't offer as much as the towns can", says Dieter Rink, a sociologist at the Helmholtz Centre of the University of Leipzig. The process that is taking place in the mountain regions is essentially the same as took place in the former GDR. After the Wall came down, many people left and moved to what was West Germany.

There were veritable ghost towns back then. Finally, the state stepped in and offered money to tear down empty houses on the periphery and to renovate old buildings in the inner cities. Since 2002, the federal government in Berlin has provided some three billion euros to offset the negative growth of towns in eastern Germany.

It would also be sensible for the Swiss state to fund the planned downsizing of villages in the Swiss mountains. But at present there is no means of enabling this. "No region at present has the option of calling a halt", says Stefan Forster, the head of the Research Division for the Countryside and Tourism at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences: "The regional policy of the federal government is based on growth, not on contraction. There's simply no discussion about that".

Terminologically challenged

The Office for Economy and Tourism of the canton of Graubünden has at least been trying. In 2009 it published a report entitled 'Strategies for dealing with spaces with little potential'. "They really just wanted to take a look at where the problem of downsizing was most urgent", says Forster. The result was a map on which these 'spaces with little potential' were marked in red. These included the regions Hinterrhein, Val Müstair and Schanfigg between Chur and Arosa.

"It was a fiasco", says Forster. "There was an outcry in the media. Local mayors were shocked". As a result, the project was shelved just after it saw the light of day.

The reason was that the concept of regional downsizing is not tolerated in Switzerland, unlike in Germany. Other places are also trying desperately to find the right terminology for the concept. In Germany, the term 'lean city' was invented. "But it hasn't caught on", says Rink. The EU also has a term for it in English, though it is somewhat cumbersome: 'Cities regrowing smaller'.

The USA is the only country that has up to now been successful in inventing palatable names for the process in question. Cities such as Detroit used to be thriving but are now in a process of decay. Local mayors there have come up with the label 'legacy city', which seems to hold on to what is good about a place, while at the same time ignoring what is negative.

Switzerland is still far from finding a term as positive as this. It's not surprising. The federal government, the cantons and the municipalities are all doing their best to counter the process of contraction in every way possible. "There is a constant pressure to innovate. People are holding meetings and brainstorming sessions", says Forster. "It means lots of money is being spent on new development projects that ultimately won't work anyway".

Growth at any cost

Andermatt is a good example. For six years, the Egyptian investor Samih Sawiris has been trying to build a luxury resort on its former military compound. He is planning several hotels, dozens of apartment buildings, several hundred holiday apartments and a golf course. But only one hotel has been built up to now, out of six that are planned. And the number of tourists visiting is very low. Forster doubts whether everything that has been planned on paper will be realised.

The biggest grand project in the Alps is the 'Heidi world experience' at Flumserberg – another region that is struggling with sinking numbers of tourists. A 'Heidi village' is planned, along with an alpine dairy, holiday homes, a restaurant and a playground. Also on the drawing board are two new hotels with some 180 rooms and an adjoining parking garage with 400 spaces. The canton of St. Gallen hopes that this project will entice more tourists to this peripheral region, but the investment costs are currently running at CHF 100 million.

When referenda are held for such projects, they are usually accepted, even when agricultural land has to be sacrificed in favour of a golf course or a hotel. "These regions have a particular interest in getting people to come who might hold back the process of contraction. And the population is prepared to make all kinds of concessions in return", says Rink.

Small is beautiful

Often it would be better if the monies in question were invested in an ordered process of economic retreat. Because however negative the concept of contraction sounds, it also has a positive side. If the number of school pupils in a village dwindles because people are moving into the towns, the children who remain get more out of their teacher. This improves their quality of education. "Of course, this means that the canton has to maintain more schools, and this too costs money", says Rink. "But other countries also manage this. In Finland there are many sparsely populated areas where the state runs small schools".

Outlying villages also have a charm of their own as alternatives that are far away from the rat race of the hectic, overpopulated cities where we live and work. "There are people who choose to go and live in these peripheral regions. They are young, highly qualified groups who can work from their laptops", says Colette Peter, the sociologist who runs the Institute for Sociocultural Development at the University of Lucerne. Despite these advantages, to this day there is no village that has consciously chosen the path of downsizing. There have been tentative forays, however, such as in Safiental in the canton of Graubünden. Safiental is characterised by hundreds of little barns in which the farmers used to store hay in years gone by. "The population doesn't yet know what to do with these historical buildings", says Forster. "But perhaps the next generation will have an idea as to what to do with them". This is why money is now being gathered to renovate them.

In this way, the barns can take a break and wait until a new use is found for them. This example also demonstrates what Mathieu thinks is crucial for the future of the Alpine communities, namely involving the local population in finding a solution, not forcing them to act. "That's the most important consideration of all".

Atlant Bieri is a science journalist.