Switzerland is a landlocked country lying across the north and south side of the Alps between (clockwise) Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Italy, and France. Its geography is divided into three major geographic areas: the Alps, the Swiss Plateau, and the Jura.
About half of the country’s surface is over 1000 m above sea level. The Swiss Alps contain 48 mountains higher than 4000 m, of which the Dufourspitze (4634 m) is the highest. The lowest point in Switzerland is Lake Maggiore (193 m). Switzerland has around 1500 lakes and 1400 glaciers covering 6% of the country’s territory and holding 6% of Europe’s fresh water. Across the different European watersheds, the Swiss Alps are the source of several major rivers (including the Rhine and the Rhone).
Whereas the Alps cover the largest part of the country’s territory (about 60%), about two-thirds of the Swiss population live within the banana-shaped Swiss Plateau between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance. Accordingly, most major cities are situated here, including Geneva, Lausanne, Fribourg, Bern, Zurich and St. Gallen. The Plateau’s population density is about 450 inhabitants/km2, which is roughly the same as in the Netherlands. For spatial planning, this leads to the provocative, but not completely unfounded statement: Switzerland minus the Alps equals planning reality (Loderer 2015).
Switzerland does not consider itself a nation-state, but as a consociational state (‘nation of will’): Swiss identity does not stem from a mutual ethnic root, common language, or religion, but from a shared belief in intercultural values such as political freedom, direct democracy, and federalism. The modern state was founded in the context of liberal-democratic upheavals in Europe in 1848, but its historical origins go back to the confederation founded by the Federal Charter in 1291. The country has four official languages: German (primarily spoken by 62.1% of the population), French (22.8%), Italian (8.0%) and Romansh (0.5%). Many people are bilingual either by mother tongue or due to the distinctive language education in schools. 24.3% of the population does not have a Swiss passport. Most foreigners are from EU member states (65.9%), the largest groups being Italians (14.8%), Germans (14.1%), and Portuguese (12.0%); a minority is from non-EU European states (17.0%) or from countries outside Europe (16.9%). Two-thirds of the population in Switzerland are affiliated with a Christian church (36% Roman Catholic, 24% Protestant Reformed, 6% other Christian denominations). About 26% of the population state that they have no religious affiliation.
Political, legal and governance
Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy with a strong separation of powers. The two-chamber parliament (Federal Assembly, composed of the National Council and the Council of States) decides on new laws and controls the Federal Council. The 200 members of the National Council (representing the population) and the 46 members of the Council of States (representing the cantons) are elected every four years. Swiss people have to vote on every amendment to the Constitution and can even initiate its change (popular initiative). Furthermore, they can demand that a referendum be held on a law passed by parliament before it comes into force. The Swiss usually have four referenda a year on 10 to 20 political issues.
The executive power is held by the Federal Council, which is composed of seven Councillors with equal rights (collegial principle). The Federal Council is chaired by the President of the Confederation who has representative duties, but no head-of-state role (primus inter pares). Contrary to most European governments, the Council is not formed on the basis of a coalition-opposition principle, but is assembled to balance all larger parties represented in the parliament, the different parts of the country (linguistic regions), and sex (consociationalism). This system is intended to ensure continuity and stability.
Neutrality is a core value of Switzerland. Accordingly, the country is reserved in joining international organisations. Switzerland is not part of the European Union (due to a narrow rejection in a referendum in 1992 with 49.7% voting in favour of joining), but has a tight network of bilateral agreements and participates in the Union’s single market. Switzerland is not a member of NATO, but cooperates within the Partnership for Peace framework. However, the country was a founding member of the EFTA (1960), the OECD (1961), the OSCE (1975), and the WTO (1995). It has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1963 and the United Nations since 2002.
|Name of country||Switzerland
officially: Swiss Confederation
|Capital, population of the capital (2021)||Bern (de facto), 134,290 (Bundesamt für Statistik)|
|Surface area||41,290 km² (World Bank)|
|Total population (2020)||8,638,167 (World Bank)|
|Population growth rate (2010-2020)||10.39% (World Bank)|
|Population density (2020)||218.6 inhabitants/km² (World Bank)|
|Degree of urbanisation (2015)||33.27% densely populated areas (European Commission)|
|Human development index (2021)||0.962 (Human Development Rerports)|
|GDP (2019)||EUR 615,360 million (World Bank)|
|GDP per capita (2019)||EUR 71,759 (World Bank)|
|GDP growth (2014-2019)||9.40% (World Bank)|
|Unemployment rate (2019)||4.39% (World Bank)|
|Land use (2018)||6.83% built-up land
27.4% agricultural land
31.65% forests and shrubland
3.6% inland waters
(European Environment Agency)
|Sectoral structure (2017)||73.7% services and administration
25.6% industry and construction
0.7% agriculture and forestry
(Central Intelligence Agency)
Administrative structure and system of governance
Switzerland is a three-tier federal country consisting of the Confederation, 26 cantons and 2,172 municipalities. According to the federal structure, public policies that are not explicitly assigned to the Confederation by the Federal Constitution are conducted by the cantons. They in turn delegate these policies as far as possible to the municipalities (principle of subsidiarity). The national level is mainly responsible for foreign and security policy, customs and monetary matters, and defence. Cantonal policies include central policy areas such as political systems (e.g. official language, voting system, citizenship), taxation and the public budget – and spatial planning. Typical tasks of the municipalities are the provision of schools, welfare, and infrastructure – and zoning.
In hardly any other country globally do the people have as many decision-making rights as in Switzerland. Referenda are held three to four times a year, and parliamentary elections are held every four years. Around 45% of voters exercise their right to vote in each federal referendum. Depending on the subject, the turnout is higher or lower. Everyone with Swiss citizenship from the age of 18 is entitled to vote. In a few cantons and municipalities, people as young as 16 can vote. In two cantons (Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden), the traditional way of voting is still conducted: instead of voting via ballot paper or postal vote, eligible voters meet in the main square and vote by show of hands once a year.
People can demand a vote on amending the Constitution if they can present signatures by at least 100,000 people entitled to vote collected within 18 months (popular initiative). Furthermore, voters can use a referendum to demand a public vote on certain decisions of parliament (e.g. on a new law). For the referendum to take place, 50,000 valid signatures are required, which must be collected within 100 days. A vote also takes place if eight cantons demand it.
While these elements of direct democracy are essential for the political culture, most issues are decided by parliament or the government. Between 2015 and 2019, voters decided on 33 political topics. In the same period, parliament passed 464 enactments, including 134 federal laws and 94 federal decrees. Furthermore, the parliament is in charge of electing the government, the members of the federal courts and the Attorney General. Parliamentary work is organised in nine sectoral committees organised by policy area (including ‘Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy’) and two supervisory commissions.
Unlike most other parliaments, the Swiss parliamentary system has three particular characteristics:
- Parliament consists of two chambers with the same competences and responsibilities. Both chambers must pass laws with the exact wording for them to come into force.
- Parliament is composed of several parties, none of which has a majority. Thus, the parliament does not have a constant, consistent majority and a constant, consistent opposition. Instead, changing majorities form depending on the decision and depending on which parties agree on individual issues.
- The Swiss parliament is a so-called militia parliament, meaning the members exercise their office part-time and continue to pursue a professional activity outside of parliament.
The federal administration consists of seven ministries with about 38,000 employees and a total budget of around CHF 74 billion (around EUR 70 billion). The Federal Office for Spatial Development is responsible for planning policy and reports to the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC). DETEC is one of the smaller ministries and has about 2,300 employees and a budget of CHF 12.6 billion (2019) (approx. EUR 11.4 billion).
Due to vast differences in geography and culture, federalism is essential. The 26 cantons form the second level of government. Each canton has its own constitution and legislative, executive and judicial authorities. All cantons have a unicameral parliament. The number of members in each cantonal parliament varies, and in most cases depends on the number of inhabitants. Currently, it ranges from 50 members in the canton of Appenzell Innerhoden (16,000 inhabitants) to 180 in the canton of Zurich (1.5 million inhabitants). The cantonal government consists of five or seven members, depending on the canton. Each canton has a two-tier court system.
The smallest political unit in Switzerland is the municipality, which forms the third level of government. There are currently around 2,172 municipalities, but the number is decreasing slowly due to merging tendencies. About one-fifth of the municipalities have their own parliament (municipal council), particularly those with more than 10,000 inhabitants. On the other hand, four-fifths are familiar with direct democratic decision-making (municipal assembly), in which all residents with voting rights can participate. This means that members of parliament do not represent the people, but the electorate makes decisions themselves and elects the executive.
The Swiss political system is based on a strong separation of powers and globally unique elements of (semi-)direct democracy.
Legislative procedures can be initiated by the parliament (parliamentary initiative) or by a canton (cantonal initiative). In the case of a constitutional amendment, it is also possible for ordinary citizens to initiate an amendment as long as the effort is supported by 100,000 valid signatures from persons entitled to vote.
The relevant department will then be commissioned to draft a law. The initiators are responsible for the management of this process, which usually also involves expert commissions. The drafted version can be commented on by the government, parliament and the public at large. The text is revised as often as needed until both chambers of parliament approve the law in separate votes. In most cases, the law will come into force some months later. For each law, a referendum can be called if an appropriate number of voters request it within 100 days (50,000 signatures needed) (facultative referendum). In this case, the law is submitted to the electorate and requires a majority at the ballot box before it can come into force. Usually around eight to ten federal laws are voted on via referendum each year. Amendments to the constitution must be submitted to the people for review in any case (obligatory referendum). Usually around two to four constitutional amendments are voted on each year. On the cantonal and municipal level, similar legislative procedures exist.
On a national level, the administration is organised in seven departments, each of which is chaired by a Federal Councillor. The seven Councillors form the Swiss national government, called the Federal Council. The Federal Council acts as one collective body. Each Councillor has the same rights – there is no head of government with the power to issue directives. Decisions taken by the Federal Council by majority vote must subsequently be represented before parliament and the public by the head of the department responsible (principle of collegiality), even if he or she actually rejects the decision taken. Since the responsibility of the Federal Council extends to all issues across all departments, each Federal Councillor has considerable opportunities to have a say and influence beyond their department. However, the Council decides on minor, executive questions and cannot initiate a law. Major political decisions are taken by the parliament only. Due to this robust implementation of the separation of powers, the government’s influence on politics is smaller than in other countries. Switzerland is the only country in the world to run such a system instead of a Westminster system or a presidential system. To ensure the separation of powers, Councillors cannot be a member of the Federal Assembly. Councillors are elected by the Federal Assembly for four years. Recently, several political efforts have been made to change the system towards a direct election by voters, but this has not found the political support needed so far. Since a parliamentary vote of no confidence is not provided in the Constitution, Federal Councillors cannot be removed during the legislative period. It is not customary for an incumbent Federal Councillor to not be re-elected. In consequence, the actual term of office is rather long (about 10 years on average).
The Federal Council is assisted by the Federal Chancellor. The Chancellor heads the Federal Chancellery (FC), the staff office of the Federal Council. On cantonal and municipal levels, similar structures exist. The cantonal governments are usually called the Executive Council or State Council. On a local level, the government
On a national level, Switzerland has several judiciary courts serving as the highest instance, most importantly the Federal Court (in Lausanne), the Federal Administrative Court (in St. Gallen), and the Federal Criminal Court (in Bellizona). Judges are appointed by the Federal Assembly for six years.
Switzerland has no Federal constitutional court, such as the German Bundesverfassungsgericht or the Italian Corte Constituzionale. According to Article 190 of the Swiss Constitution, all federal laws are legally binding for all courts and all authorities. Therefore, they cannot be invoked for incompatibility with the Constitution and cannot be declared invalid by the courts. In practice, the Federal Court can give non-binding statements on the (non-)constitutionality of laws and the legislator might amend the law. Constitutional changes have to be approved by Swiss voters in any case.
Judiciary structures exist on a cantonal level serving as first and second instances. For historic reasons, cantonal courts are usually called District Courts (first instance) and Supreme Court (second instance). In some areas of law, these are preceded by arbitral tribunals. Municipalities have no judiciary power.
Spatial planning system
In Switzerland, spatial planning is closely connected to the overall goal of preventing land take in order to protect agricultural land. Although municipal planning activities and building codes have been in existence in most cities since industrialisation and since medieval times in others (e.g. in Bern since 1405), and the first proposal for a national settlement law was made in 1920, the modern planning system in Switzerland stems from debates during and after World War II. In order to maintain the country’s capacity for food self-sufficiency during times of military besiegement and trading barriers, domestic agricultural land was to be protected by coordinating land use. The first supra-local plan (Plan Wahlen) was developed in 1939 to increase agricultural land from 180,000 ha to 350,000 ha as part of the war preparation (‘cultivation battle’). Thus, the first administrative department responsible for coordinating land use was the Federal War Office for Food within the Military Department chaired by Friedrich Traugott Wahlen, who subsequently became a Federal Councillor.
After the war, Switzerland underwent enormous economic development, which within a short time frame ‘overran’ the traditional, rural society (Gilgen 2012: 34) and gave rise to wealth and a modern, urban way of life. Technological progress, improvements in living standards, and rising individual aspirations led to major construction activities and changes in land use. Remote parts of the country were developed, while at the same time many people moved to the cities, which grew to an unprecedented extent. All of this resulted in an intensification of land use and the fraying of cities.
In order to steer developments in an orderly manner and thus counter the ‘housing cancer’ (Meili 1967, quoted in Koll-Schretzenmayr/Schilling 2008: 19), the distribution and use of land had to be regulated urgently. A debate arose about the necessary political-administrative steering and control mechanisms to counteract housing shortages, land speculation, and urban sprawl (Knoepfel et al. 2012: 418), including popular initiatives questioning the extent and limitation of private land ownership. Alarmed by the initiatives of the political left, bourgeois-liberal politics advocated to amend the constitution and insert a constitutionally protected guarantee of ownership – even though private property had been legally secured in the Swiss Civil Code since 1907 and in the Cantonal Constitutions since the 1840s.
The debate led to a ‘historic compromise’ (Knoepfel et al. 2012: 419) that was approved by the Swiss voters in 1969. The Federal Constitution was complemented by two new articles: spatial planning was established as a public field in Article 22quarter (today Art. 75 SC), while private property was constitutionally protected in Article 22ter (today Art. 26 SC). This solution represents the great importance of private property rights for the free democratic state while at the same time stating that land ownership is not an unlimited right but should also serve the public good. The use of land is therefore free within the framework of the legal system. In terms of sustainable spatial development, the public interest demands controlled settlement growth in order to strive for a compact, decentralised form of settlement.
To implement this new legal competence, planning laws were needed on the national level (to lay down planning principles) and on the cantonal level. Accordingly, the 1970s were noted for political debates on how to establish planning as a policy field. The first national planning law was approved by parliament in 1974. It included far-reaching instruments for local planning authorities to control land use (requirement of a building permit, zoning, and the separation principle) and to ensure plan implementation (e.g. added value capture, building obligation, expropriation). However, economic lobbyists called for a referendum. Swiss voters narrowly rejected the law in 1976 (48.9% in favour) and it did not come into force. In 1979, parliament passed a new version of the law that kept the fundamental principles but was softened in terms of the property-interfering instruments. This time, no referendum was called. The Federal Spatial Planning Act (SPA) came into force on 1 January 1980, laying down the principles of planning to the present day.
Apart from some minor amendments, the system and its legal basis remained unchanged until the early 2000s when the political pressure for reform increased. The debate was triggered by the Galmiz case that impressively demonstrated the weakness of planning to protect green space in the event of economic pressure to undermine it (Hengstermann/Gerber 2015). As a consequence, a popular initiative was launched by nature protection organisations to reinforce planning’s competences within the constitution. The Federal Council preempted this amendment by presenting a reinforced version of the SPA that was passed by parliament in 2012, approved by Swiss voters in 2013, and came into force in 2014. The revised law put a stronger focus on inward development, including stricter requirements for municipalities to zone, measures to promote the availability of land, and more precise minimum requirements to added value capturing.
Constitutional framework and legal basis
Since 1969, spatial planning has been anchored in Article 75 of the Federal Constitution. The overall constitutional planning objectives are: (a) to ensure the appropriate and economic use of land, and (b) to ensure properly ordered settlements. The constitutional article determines that planning lies within the cantons’ field of competences. However, the Confederation lays down binding principles, and supports and coordinates cantonal efforts (framework legislation). The actual legal basis is embodied in the Federal Spatial Planning Act (SPA), 26 cantonal planning laws, and municipal building codes. Furthermore, the laws are accompanied by executive ordinances, such as the Federal Spatial Planning Ordinance (SPO) and its equivalents on cantonal level. The type and extent of admissible land use are regulated by the municipal building codes.
On a national level, planning is administered by the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE) as part of the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC). The office is responsible for the legal supervision of planning conducted on cantonal level (in particular cantonal planning laws and structure plans), the development of principles, strategies and draft laws promoting sustainable spatial development, and coordinating settlement and transport aspects in urban centres and agglomerations. Furthermore, it coordinates the spatial impact of the government’s activities (Sectoral Concepts and Sectoral Plans) and serves as the coordination point for international cooperation. Recently, the responsible department (ARE) has been trying to coordinate national planning by developing a nationwide plan (Territorial Concept Switzerland) (see below).
On a cantonal level, similar offices exist. They prepare the cantonal planning activities (in particular the structure plan). Furthermore, they are responsible for the legal supervision of planning conducted on the municipal level. In some cases, they are responsible for zoning plans and building permissions as no further planning tier on municipal level exists (e.g. in urban cantons such as Basel-City and Geneva).
The administrative structure on the local level depends on the municipality’s size. As about half of Swiss municipalities have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, the smaller ones typically do not have a specific planning department. They often apply generic building codes. Planning decisions are taken by a committee in an honorary capacity. The preparation of technical documents and administrative processes are outsourced to private planning offices. Larger municipalities and cities have building codes and run planning departments – which, however, very often take advantage of outsourcing planning administration to private offices, too.
In planning practice, the Zoning Plan is the most important planning instrument. In combination with the municipal building code, it contains all regulations for land use for an entire municipality. It is directly legally binding and forms the legal basis for the building permission. The zoning plan must comply with the superordinate structure plan of cantonal planning tiers. As a law-like document with direct effect, the zoning plan must undergo a public participation process and finally be approved by local voters in a mandatory referendum. It is usually valid for 15 years.
For specific projects of high relevance (e.g. shopping centre) or specific areas of high importance (e.g. village centre), a special land-use plan is needed. It contains more detailed regulations and has to be agreed on by the cantonal government and approved by the municipal parliament as well as local voters in a separate procedure.
Some cities combine these public law instruments with private law instruments. The cities of Basel and Biel/Bienne are known for their long-term land banking policy – owning a remarkable share of their own territory (20–35%); not selling any public land; and providing the land by long-term land leases only (Gerber et al. 2017). Other cities, such as Zurich, have intense cooperation agreements with cooperatives offering about 20% of the city’s housing stock.
Drawing the big picture – planning by soft power on the national level
In 2012, the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE) presented the first ever spatial plan for the entire country (the so-called Territorial Concept Switzerland). It contains a spatial vision for sustainable development and calls to improve collaboration across administrative borders and between 12 different action areas. The concept is driven by the idea of diversity and solidarity between the different regions and their contribution to maintaining the country’s international competitiveness. The country’s splendid scenery and the high quality of settlements are to be promoted by carefully treating the land as a scarce resource. The country’s spatial pattern is based on a polycentric net of small villages and larger cities. Different sectoral policies (such as transport, energy, and the environment) are to be coordinated.
Although developed by a federal institution, the Concept was signed by the 26 cantons as territorial visions fall within their legal competence. The document is not legally binding, but serves as an overall orientation framework in policy and across the planning actors, and is referred to in many planning reports.
Setting priorities and balancing conflicting demands – the cantonal structure plans
Cantonal structure plans are considered the heart of Swiss planning as they coordinate planning activities from national to local level and across different spatially relevant sectoral policies (Schmid et al. 2021). They typically contain a spatial vision of how the canton shall develop over the next 15 to 30 years, how different (conflicting) activities are to be reconciled, and what the temporal priorities and instruments for actual implementation are.
The current structure plan of the canton of Aargau stems from 2011. Usually, it is updated every 10 years but to comply with the revised legal framework from the national law, the plan was revised and updated exceptionally in 2015.
The plan is composed of two parts:
- The cartographic part (called the ‘Spatial Concept’) describes the functions of the individual areas and municipality types, anchors the agglomeration policy and the rural area policy, and defines the main directions and strategies of the canton’s spatial development.
- The written part (called the ‘text’) contains six overall leitmotifs. They are translated into measures in 28 strategic priorities within six sectors of planning: settlement, landscape, mobility, energy, supply, and disposal. Each strategic priority results in between one and five measures.
As the Canton of Aargau is predominantly characterised by different spatial patterns, the measures taken differ. For the agglomeration of urban patterns along the central axis (being within commuting distance to Zurich), numerous measures aim to improve connectivity with public transport, densification measures, and decentralising economic development. In the more rural parts, the focus is on adapting to an ageing population and climate change. This results in condition-based measures (e.g. cantonal coordination of retail development) and performance-based measures (e.g. the objective that recreational green space shall be accessible within 15 minutes without a car from every dwelling) (Hartmann/Albrecht 2014).
The measures have three different levels of binding nature: Determinations are directly legally binding and are to be implemented in every planning activity by the public authorities. For measures relating to intermediate results, the final political decision has not been taken yet (e.g. voting is outstanding). However, public authorities have to consider these in their planning and must not do anything predetermined or make them impossible to achieve. Long-term planning will be listed as pre-orientation, which the public authorities have to consider as far as possible at earlier stages.
Implementing planning – the zoning plans on municipal level
Roughly every 15 years, a municipality prepares its future spatial development. In 2018, the city of Thun started the process of revising its municipal zoning plan stemming from 2002. Prepared through 18 analytic reports on different sectoral policies and an overall masterplan, a first draft was presented to the public in 2019. Following numerous discussions with inhabitants, politicians and special interest representatives, a revised version was presented 1.5 years later. The new plan has to be verified by the cantonal planning authorities (compliance-verification only), passed by the municipal parliament, and approved by voters before it comes into force and regulates building activities for the next 15 years. As a municipal law, the municipal electorate is entitled to vote (local residents with Swiss citizenship, usually from the age of 18).
Thun is characterised as predominantly a residential town with decent economic facilities. Compared to other urban centres, density is low in Thun. The new plan aims to promote affordable housing and economic development without further outward new zonings – as new zoning would fail to comply with national and cantonal planning law. Instead, several areas in Thun will be upzoned, allowing the landowners a higher floor-area ratio on their property.
|Institution/stakeholder/authorities||Special interest/competences/administrative area|
|Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE)||Administrative body responsible for spatial planning within the national government.|
|EspaceSuisse (VLP-ASPAN)||Association of Spatial Planning in Switzerland
EspaceSuisse focuses on legal questions on all levels, and consults municipalities in zoning processes.
|Federation of Swiss Urbanists (FSU)||Association of professional planners in Switzerland
The FSU focuses on questions of urban design, planning processes and planning practice.
05_Fact Sheet Cantonal Level.pdf (811.55 KB)
06_Fact Sheet Municipal Level.pdf (1.08 MB)
Fact Sheet National Levelpdf.pdf (849.04 KB)
Attachment 1: Administrative borders in Switzerland
Attachment 2: Orthophoto of Switzerland
Attachment 3: Topography of Switzerland
List of references
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