In the coming years, the world’s population will exceed the eight billion mark. Switzerland is growing too: an estimated ten million people will be living here in 20 years, many of whom will be drawn to urban areas. How can cities continue to be livable? Urban planners have no shortage of solutions.

February 10, 2021

Photo: Hamarikyu Gardens, a calm retreat in the heart of the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. The capital of Japan is home to numerous public parks, historic temples, and skyscrapers. Tradition meets modernity in the megacity with its 37 million inhabitants.

Growth and quality of life in harmony

Zurich West was dominated by agriculture and was practically unpopulated until well into the 19th century. When it was integrated into the city of Zurich in 1893, the municipality of Aussersihl was transformed into an industrial district filled with foul-smelling, smoking chimneys. One hundred years later, industry disappeared and people moved in. Since the 1980s, the district has become a fashionable, densely built-up neighborhood with residential and office buildings, shops, restaurants, museums, and art galleries.

The evolution of District 5 in Zurich is a typical example of urban development. This type of expansion and these new forms of urban living are known as urbanization. The trend is also evident in Switzerland as a whole. The population of Switzerland is growing steadily, and it is estimated that it will reach ten million by 20401, with a large proportion living in cities or in an urban environment. By 2018, 84.8% of the Swiss population was already living in urban areas.2

Urbanization slowing in industrialized countries

In most developed countries, including Switzerland, urbanization is already at an advanced stage. Because of this, and owing to the impact of COVID-19 on how we live and work, many people speculate that we are nearing the end of urbanization; experts, however, do not expect this to happen.3

On the contrary, urbanization continues to increase globally. While 56% of the world’s population lived in cities in 2019, the World Bank4 estimates that this figure will rise to nearly 70% in 2050. This applies, in particular, to many newly industrialized and developing countries, where urbanization is proceeding apace. In Switzerland and industrialized countries, urbanization is also continuing, but at a more leisurely pace and in other forms.

View of Sheikh Zayed street: Whereas the cityscape in 1990 was mainly characterized by desert, today, modern skyscrapers soar into the sky. Dubai evolved from a fishing village to a global metropolis in just a few decades.

The largest driver of global urbanization is migration. In the globalized world, many companies are moving their factories to Africa and Asia, and to China in particular. Millions of people are drawn to the cities in these regions every year with hopes of finding work and prosperity. And so, it should come as no surprise that most of the world’s megacities with a population of over ten million5 are located in the countries that comprise these regions.

The pressure of immigration means that urban growth in developing and newly industrialized countries is generally uncontrolled. This is likely to continue for several decades against a backdrop of further industrialization. Since the infrastructure of these countries has not kept pace with population growth, the living conditions of hundreds of millions of people remain precarious.

In Europe, we are familiar with this situation from our past: Starting in the mid-19th century, workers flocked to the cities where industries promised employment. As a result, these cities experienced a growth spurt. In response to precarious housing and living conditions, the concept of the “garden city” flourished towards the end of the 19th century. This idea encouraged the separation of work from housing and leisure. There are many examples of garden cities in Switzerland born out of this trend. For example, the Schorensiedlung, the first garden city in Switzerland, was built in St. Gallen in 1911, and in 1925, the famous Friesenberg garden city development was founded on the outskirts of Zurich.

In the second half of the 20th century, the economic boom of the 1960s led to the growth of cities and conurbations. This development presented spatial planners with major challenges and resulted in the first spatial planning law being introduced in 1979. The aims of this and other laws were to regulate the settlement of the land and to ensure that land was efficiently managed as a resource.

The increasing deindustrialization of cities and rapid population growth as a result of immigration since the turn of the millennium have provided fertile ground for new ideas about urban development. Cities needed to change in order for people to feel comfortable living there. City planners around the world took up these challenges and developed new concepts and visions for the city of the future. This idea represents compatibility between humans and nature and is intended to accentuate the greatest strength of urban life – the close proximity of home, work, culture, and social life to one another.

1960s suburban idyll in Zurich. The construction of the Europa Bridge paved the way for urbanization at that time.

A postindustrial city for people

Danish architect Jan Gehl is an award-winning urban planner. In his urban development projects, he pays particular attention to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, seniors, and families. His philosophy is that optimized urban infrastructure should be used to enhance the quality of urban life. He is less concerned about the actual buildings and more about the space between them, which is where people move around and experience quality of life. In line with this principle, Gehl applied these ideas in his hometown of Copenhagen, which has since appeared regularly at the top of the rankings of the most popular cities.

According to Jan Gehl, a livable city is characterized above all by public meeting places. These are car-free spaces with benches, fountains, and street cafés. In addition, these spaces must offer protection from traffic, wind, and the weather. A study by Gehl Architects6 shows that cities with these kinds of public spaces have had an almost magnetic appeal for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. More urban oases of this kind inevitably mean that cars must give way to bicycles and that more funds must be invested in public transportation in urban centers.

The transformation into the city of the future goes hand in hand with new technologies and changes in the way we use buildings and urban spaces. A survey by the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research7 anticipates that more than 20% of the workforce will regularly work from home in the future. If this trend continues, hybrid buildings that can be used for residential purposes and as a workplace could see an upturn. It can also be foreseen that office space will be converted into living space or other usable space. Lastly, we are also seeing a trend toward less individual motorized transportation, which could in turn create more space for pedestrian zones or for terraces in front of restaurants.

Paris: the “15-minute city”

Many of these kinds of developments are already taking place today in a number of Western cities. But there are also visions that go far beyond this. One of these is the principle of the “15-minute city.” The aim of this idea is to bring residential neighborhoods, offices, shopping areas, schools, medical practices, and theaters closer together in the future in order for the city to be able to meet all of people’s needs in a small area. Carlos Moreno, a specialist in smart cities at Sorbonne University in Paris, is behind this vision.8 His approach is to change urban spaces in such a way that everyone can reach whatever they need in their own neighborhood on foot or by bicycle within a quarter of an hour.

The 15-minute city is a blueprint for optimized urban organization. If residents can reach everything they need within a 15-minute radius, this in turn will reduce traffic. Furthermore, if people rediscover their city on foot or by bicycle, this will benefit shops and restaurants. At the same time, the 15-minute city includes the use of buildings for living and working, thus reducing the amount of time spent commuting. But Carlos Moreno goes even further: he envisages that buildings could be used for multiple purposes, so that schools, for example, could be used for other activities on weekends.

Carlos Moreno won over Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo with his vision. She is backing the radical implementation of this approach to urban planning. Paris is on its way to becoming a cycling city: The plan is for all the streets in Paris to be bicycle friendly by 2024. A total of 72% of public parking spaces, around 60,000 in total, are set to disappear on the grounds that two-thirds of city residents currently do not own a car. What has been dubbed the “ecological transformation” of Paris is intended to improve air quality and local residents’ quality of life.

Achievable visions or utopias?

There is no silver bullet for reinventing and restructuring cities. The true test still lies ahead for many visions of the city of the future that have been euphorically received by the public. Because the radical rearrangement of cities is unlikely to be attainable in the short term, these at times utopian visions of the city should mainly be regarded as food for thought intended to suggest a possible way forward.

For example, Swiss sociologist Dr. Joëlle Zimmerli doubts whether the 15-minute city will be implemented with all its radical features. In particular, she questions the car-free approach. “Places are also brought to life through mobility. Not everyone can go shopping by bike, and stores and restaurants have to receive deliveries.” This is why, currently, the future of Western cities mainly lies in their renewal from the inside out, which involves continually optimizing the existing structures. We don’t know what our cities will look like in 50 years’ time. But who would have thought at the start of the 20th century that today’s world would be possible?

The main business street in Ginza, Tokyo’s shopping and entertainment district, in 1939 and today. Building density in the megacity of Tokyo has increased vertically in particular.

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