According to Newman and Thornley (1996, pp. 27-76) Switzerland belongs to the Germanic family from both a legal and an administrative perspective. Planning systems in the Germanic family have firm roots in the Enlightenment, implying systematic order and codification. They are not based on the ideology of change, which is associated with the French code. An important characteristic of the Germanic family is its foundation in basic laws (including the constitution). This legal foundation clearly defines the responsibilities and powers that are delegated to various levels of government. The basic design is a federal body. Switzerland has three levels of government: the national or confederation, 26 cantons, and over 3000 municipalities (communes). Each level is involved in physical planning, but the main planning activities are at the level of the canton (ISOCARP, 1992, pp. 219-229).
The national spatial strategy Guidelines of Swiss Spatial Development provides a framework for plans prepared by the other governmental levels. Thus it can be seen as a reaction to the increasing competition between regions and cities in Europe. The strategy aims in particular at improving public transport between cities, trying to prevent congestion, and contributing to the attractiveness of Swiss cities. The settlement pattern in Switzerland is decentralized, which corresponds to the Swiss federal political system. It is thus not surprising that one of the main objectives of spatial planning is to maintain this polycentric urban pattern. The projected linkage of existing cities in an efficient manner by a new railway system known as Rail 2000 is a key element in this plan. As Switzerland is also fiscally highly decentralized, the financing of infrastructure must be raised not only by the national government but also (and especially) by the cantons and communes.
The federal guidelines leave room for the cantons to formulate their own laws regarding building and planning. Thus the cantons produce their own spatial plans to reflect their specific circumstances. Once approved by the Federal Council, the spatial plans (guiding plans) are binding upon all levels of government. These plans are the main instrument of spatial coordination in the country. Based on the guiding plans, the canton can give directives to communes and approve their plans. The communes, for their part, regulate spatial development through zoning plans (including building codes), which have to apply to the entire area. The zoning plan is binding upon landowners. However, landowners can challenge a zoning plan in a court of appeal and, if necessary, present their case to the Federal Court of Law.
At the local level there is a unique role for the (local) referendum. It may constitute a conservative element of some relevance. Though the planning literature does not consider it to be very important (ISOCARP, 1992, pp. 219-229; Newman and Thornley, 1996, pp. 62-63), for projects such as railway station area redevelopment the local referendum appears to be a significant tool, typifying the decentralization of the system. Such projects are only partially subject to opportunities and restrictions imposed by the national planning system. It is especially the negative effects of redevelopment that are most acutely felt at the local level. Therefore it is not surprising that, next to the instruments derived from the national planning system, a local referendum can be of additional importance.
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