Metropolitan Governance in Switzerland: Cooperation and Change

Metropolitan Governance in
Switzerland: Cooperation and Change
What does metropolitan governance look like in a small and heterogeneous
country with 7.5 million inhabitants consisting of 26 cantons and
2,700 municipalities? What happens to the strong commitment to decentralization
that offers the same opportunities to all regions? What role does
cooperative federalism and the autonomy of the municipalities play in the
future? These are questions Switzerland must address in the years to come.
In Switzerland, agglomerations – as cities and their surrounding municipalities
are called – and metropolitan regions are small. The largest
agglomeration is Zurich with 1.1 million inhabitants, followed by Basel and
Geneva with approximately half a million. The smallest agglomerations
like St. Moritz and Interlaken have only 10,000 inhabitants.
Agglomerations and metropolitan regions in Switzerland have rather
complex internal territorial subdivisions. The 50 agglomerations consist of
almost 1,000 municipalities. Parts of an agglomeration or metropolitan
region may be in different cantons or even in other countries. This, of
course, does not make cooperation any easier: not only do the different
countries insist on their sovereignty but the cantons and the municipalities
also claim autonomy.
Andreas Ladner / Thomas Minger
Within the federal system, Swiss cities are confronted with problems in
both the vertical and horizontal dimension. Vertically, they find it difficult
to place their concerns directly on the agenda of national politics, since
according to standard federal procedures there is no direct link between
the national and the municipal level. National politics are – so it is claimed
– more about dealing with the interests of far-away mountain regions
and small cantons than solving the problems of
the cities. Horizontally, the relationship between
the cities and surrounding municipalities is an
issue. Facilities and services provided by the
cities are used by a significant number of citizens
living outside the city and many of the problems,
such as regional traffic, planning and environmental
issues, cannot be solved independently.
The problems are further aggravated by the tax
autonomy of the municipalities. Around all the
big cities there are a quite a few municipalities in
which the tax burden is considerably lighter than
in the city itself.
Recent reforms of the Swiss political systems
have tried to improve the situation of the cities.
Three of these reforms are particularly significant.
First, agglomerations are now explicitly mentioned in the 1999
Constitution. Article 50(3) states that in their activities, the federal authorities
have to consider the special situation of cities and agglomerations. In
the eyes of the cities this gives them direct access to national politics. This
idea, however, is not viewed with equal enthusiasm by cantonal authorities.
Second, in 2004 Swiss citizens accepted a reform of financial equalization
and task allocation between the Confederation and the cantons. This reform
will not only balance out excessive production costs in mountainous
regions as the old system already did, but it will also allocate additional
money to those cantons suffering from high per capita costs for social
welfare and infrastructure due to problems of city centres. These problems
include high concentrations of elderly, unemployed, immigrants and drug
addicts as well as higher expenses for public security and public transportation.
Third, in 2001, federal authorities launched a strategy for the
agglomerations which should focus federal politics on the problems of
the agglomerations, improve cooperation in the vertical and horizontal
dimensions and promote the integration of Swiss cities into the network of
European cities.
Two basic challenges to metropolitan governance in Switzerland, however,
will remain on the agenda. Both are related. The first has to do with global
competition, the second with internal organization, solidarity and democracy.
If it is true that a country needs cities that compete in the global
Facilities and services
provided by
the cities are used
by a significant
number of citizens
living outside the
city and many of
the problems, such
as regional traffic,
planning and environmental
cannot be solved
economy and that global cities have to achieve a certain size, then it is
difficult to see how Switzerland will play an important role in the future.
Zurich (banks, insurance companies), Geneva (international organizations,
banks) and Basel (chemical industries) have their strong areas of specialization
but remain very small. If they have to become internationally
comparable agglomerations or metropolitan regions, their territory would
have to cover most of the country and would considerably disturb the
internal equilibrium.
The second challenge is about bringing together municipalities with
different standards of living and different tax burdens without infringing
on their autonomy and the democratic rights of the citizens. If an amalgamation
also means a higher tax burden, then no majority will ever approve.
And since Swiss citizens are used to deciding directly on many political
issues, smaller municipalities are always reluctant to join a bigger one
where they will be enveloped by an overwhelming majority.
First steps to address these challenges have been made. In 2001, the
three government levels created the tripartite Conference of Swiss agglomerations
to promote vertical cooperation in policy fields relevant for
metropolitan areas. This rather informal conference involves the Confederation,
the Conference of Cantonal Governments, the Union of Swiss
Cities, and the Union of Swiss Municipalities. For the first time, the strictly
horizontal Swiss federalism gave way to a partnership across all three levels
of government. For some observers it is the first sign of a trend away from
the traditional cooperative federalism towards multi-level governance.
And, as a result of the federal strategy for the agglomerations, the canton
of Bern elaborated a promising new model. In a regional conference, the
city of Bern and its surrounding municipalities are represented by their
mayors and there are votes held across all the municipalities belonging to
the region on important issues. Different weights are given to the mayors
and their municipalities, depending on the size of the municipalities. At
first, the conference limited its activities to transport, regional planning
and cultural activities. Whether these endeavours will be successful or not
remains to be seen. But if federal countries are less likely to have dominant
cities and are generally more inclined to find solutions when it comes to
integrating culturally, economically and socially different areas on democratic
grounds and for mutual benefits, who else but federal countries will
be able to sketch the way towards good metropolitan governance?
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