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How ‘10-minute neighborhoods’ could solve Switzerland’s housing problem

Housing prices have emerged as a significant concern for the Swiss public this year, as highlighted by a pre-election survey conducted by NZZ in October. A noteworthy 82% of Zurich’s population considers the housing shortage problematic or highly problematic, ranking it as the second most pressing issue.

Persistent Housing Shortage in Swiss Cities

The housing shortage is particularly acute in Switzerland’s major cities, Zurich and Geneva, driven by their economic importance and population growth. Both cities have grappled with a prolonged housing shortage, with vacancy rates currently standing at 0.53% in Zurich and 0.43% in Geneva.

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A vacancy rate below 1% is legally defined as a housing shortage, indicating a challenging situation nationwide, where only 1.15% of all apartments are on the market. While the accuracy of the vacancy rate as an indicator of apartment availability may be debated, it underscores a consistently tight housing market in Switzerland, a situation that has worsened in recent times.

Intense Debate with No Clear Solution in Sight

Political and expert discussions on resolving the housing crisis have explored a range of policy options, from Airbnb bans to preemption rights for cantons. At the request of the Social Democrats and the Green party, an extraordinary session was held in the National Parliament on « Housing and rents » this autumn. The session revealed a stark divide between left-wing and right-wing parties.

During the session, the left-leaning parties advocated for periodic rent controls and rent freezes in cases of abusive rent increases. In contrast, right-wing parties called for reduced state intervention and more lenient construction regulations to stimulate private market growth.

Everything You Need Within a Ten-Minute Walk

A potential breakthrough in addressing the Swiss housing crisis comes from ETH researcher and architect Sibylle Wälty. Her concept of ’10-minute neighborhoods’ proposes a novel approach to ease housing shortages by densifying existing urban areas, rather than encroaching on green spaces.

Wälty proposes that citizens should access all essential services within a 10-minute walk from their homes, including bakeries, supermarkets, public transport, restaurants, parks, and kindergartens. Ideally, workplaces should also be reachable within a 10-minute walk.

To implement these ’10-minute neighborhoods,’ Wälty suggests a population density of at least 10,000 people within 500 meters of a public transport hub, maintaining a resident-to-full-time employee ratio of 2 to 1. Additionally, these ‘10-minute neighborhoods’ must be strategically placed in central locations with robust public transport connections and an excess demand for housing.

The benefits of such neighborhoods include reduced reliance on private transport, easing traffic congestion, lowering emissions, and decreasing infrastructure costs. Existing examples, such as the Brupbacherplatz district in Zurich, the Breitenrainplatz in Bern or the Rue Dancet in Geneva, demonstrate the feasibility of this approach.

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Brupbacherplatz in Zurich

Let Cities Become Real Cities and Villages Stay Villages

However, it would be wrong to densify everywhere, as not every location is suitable for this strategy. According to Wälty, building more residential apartments on the outskirts without efficient public transport, amplifies motorized traffic and contributes to urban sprawl. Instead, regulations should focus on maximizing the potential for densification within cities, creating a more sustainable and affordable housing solution.

Meret Staub
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