May 29 2014

Must we Build More? The Town of Wengen, Switzerland says No

Is there a limit to the size of a city? In Wengen there is, and it has been reached. Due to the ban on secondary residences in Switzerland, construction has come to a halt in many tourist towns where second homes already occupy more than 20% of the housing stock. Is this an appropriate way to deal with expanding urban areas? Could there be better ways to preserve the natural environment and control urbanization, other than banning further building altogether?

Rapid urbanization is affecting many cities globally, leading cities to strive to curb urban sprawl and move forward sustainably. These include solutions such as greenbelts, increasing density, slum upgrading, and more, but rarely is further construction simply banned. True, the building ban in Switzerland does not halt all construction, but with such a low permanent residency, in Wengen secondary homes are the only source of future development.

Wengen wants to keep its rural areas rural, Wengen, Switzerland

Even when physical barriers are implemented to contain never ending cities, they often end up as a gap in development rather than a limit. Such was the case with the metropolitan greenbelt surrounding Seoul, in Korea, as unplanned development began to appear outside the belt. Will this happen to the surrounding towns of Wengen, spreading development to towns that haven’t yet reached the housing limit? Korea’s greenbelt eventually brought some advantages, namely more accessible green space and satellite commuter towns, but how will this turn out for Swiss ski towns?

Korea’s urban growth,Seoul, Korea

Population growth is inevitable and needs to be planned for rather than restricted. People come to Wengen as their home away from home and rental properties and hotels just don’t cut it. The same goes for larger cities, where people who can afford to own real estate want to, and there has to be multiple housing options for all income levels. It is often the lower income groups that cannot access the housing market, but in Wengen it is the upper and middle class holiday goers who are no longer allowed to buy homes. The ban is a loss to the local economy, as the construction industry is moving elsewhere.

But where will the market move to? Neighboring towns have also reached capacity and vacationers are still looking to buy property. Next door, Gimmelwald declared itself an avalanche zone so that no further development is allowed. Some locals want to limit development to preserve the beauty of the natural landscape, while others want their property values to increase. However, creating sustainable development shouldn’t mean stopping development as Wengen has done.

Could these construction limitations be a trend in rural Swiss towns in order to maintain a traditional identity or might building bans become more popular to combat unplanned urban development?

Credits: Data linked to sources, images by Tara Whelan.

Tara Whelan

Tara Whelan has recently graduated from a Master's in International Cooperation and Sustainable Emergency Architecture from the International University of Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain and is pursuing a career in humanitarian and social architecture. She is originally from Southern Ontario, where she completed her architectural degree in Toronto and has since gained experience across Canada and internationally, working on sustainable and community-driven projects. Her passion in design is inspired by nature as she promotes natural building and hopes to implement its principles in post crisis reconstruction schemes. An avid reader, traveler and blogger, she is excited to learn about and share architectural issues that affect local communities from wherever she happens to be.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 29th, 2014 at 9:28 am and is filed under Architecture, Community/Economic Development, Environment, Government/Politics, History/Preservation, Housing, Land Use, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “Must we Build More? The Town of Wengen, Switzerland says No”

  1. Kimberley Player Says:

    I agree that second home building can be a significant economic driver and that an uneven playing field can have the undesirable effect of redirecting growth to less-than-optimal locations. However, allowing unrestricted construction of vacation residences can also undermine communities. They are not necessarily accommodating population growth, more often an increase in income disparity.
    I’ve studied numerous ski towns in North America where the rise of a second home real estate market has simply priced locals out. This includes places like Vail where the majority of service sector workers must live 1+ hours away in more affordable locations. It also includes my hometown of Rossland, BC, where an influx of second home buyers has translated to fewer full-time residents and a resulting lack of demand for services such as schools and hospitals. In this case, the permanent community can disappear or significantly diminish.
    A balance needs to be found between keeping a place accessible to local residents and allowing for healthy levels of tourism, including vacation homes. I’m not sure if Wengen’s 20% rule is ideal but unlimited second home construction may not be either.

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