When a small Swiss town held out against the planners

The citizens of Versoix voted against a project forcing the administration to hold a referendum

October 21, 2017 04:20 pm | Updated March 18, 2018 01:01 pm IST

 Residents show their neighbourhood to urban design students in Versoix, Switzerland.

Residents show their neighbourhood to urban design students in Versoix, Switzerland.

Versoix is a small town of 13,000 people on the edge of Geneva in Switzerland, along the lake Léman that gives the region its beauty and elegance. Like all places in the vicinity of a bigger city, it too has become part of the larger story of Geneva, giving its residents a deeper urban connection. Yet, the need for maintaining the scale of the neighbourhood remains as important to its residents as the urban linkages. This delicate balance is played out in the form of local dialogues about the choices the town has to make for its future.

About three years ago, the local municipality drafted a development plan, addressing primarily housing needs — a big concern for Switzerland, with its strict land use laws, limited estate to build on, and a rapidly growing population (thanks to immigration from other European countries). Typically, the plan involved high-rise apartment blocks using the standard ground plus eight or ten typology that has come to define contemporary housing architecture all over the world.

Democracy at work

However, this being Switzerland, with its dynamic and animated local democratic system, there was a twist to the tale.

People living around the site collected a thousand signatures against the plan, enough to force the municipal authorities to hold a referendum. 65% of the citizens of Versoix voted against the project. They felt the planned large monolithic buildings would damage the neighbourhood’s character, and that the new project would erode the green and forested landscape. They also demanded a genuine public consultation about the shape of the future neighbourhood.

Versoix is predominantly middle-class and has a mix of old families and expats working in the international organisations that are a big presence in Geneva.

The millionaires live in other areas, as Versoix has a big factor going against it. It falls in the direct flight path of the airport and thus faces the constant noise of aircraft. This is what keeps the town largely middle-class.

Residents do not often manage to stall development projects for such a place, even in Switzerland, with its exemplary democratic system. But this time the civic authorities responded with credible sensitivity to the referendum. They facilitated the creation of a process through which residents could come together to create an alternative vision for themselves.

Local associations and residents started to exchange views. They presented their own stories and projected possible futures along with students of architecture and planning. The authorities kick-started a path towards a plan that will emerge as a set of concrete choices in a few months.

More than just voting

From the project manager of the planning department, to the mayor of the town, to the opponents of the plan, everyone mingled with each other in the process, which, actually did something significant — it shifted the space of democracy from merely voting to getting actively involved and participating to create a vision and plan.

As Hannah Arendt once said, “The booth in which we deposit our ballots is unquestionably too small” because it reduces complex issues to binary answers and deprives people of individual expression. This is why what is happening in Versoix is significant. It is testimony that involvement of local residents can become a tool to realise projects rather than a hindrance.

The ongoing process has several challenges. It still has to address the pressing issue of housing. It has to respond to the varied needs of the local residents. It has to balance the ideals of a green and ecologically sound neighbourhood with that of a well-connected and inclusive one. It has to satisfy the larger urban needs of the region while preserving its own dynamics. But, whatever emerges of the process, it will serve as a useful lesson for those facing similar struggles the world over.

In the story of civic life, size does not matter, will and intention do.

The writers are co-founders of urbz.net, an urban network that’s active in Mumbai, Goa and beyond.

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