Center for Regional Economic Development (CRED)

Land use policy and real estate

Core competence: Urban and regional planning

We analyze land-use planning as a public policy, the task of which is to steer spatial development. According to the Swiss Spatial Planning Act, the main goal of land-use planning is the economical use of land. Historically, this and other goals have been addressed through zoning divisions. This approach worked as long as land-use planning was oriented toward greenfield development. This context has changed radically: following the 2013 revision of the Spatial Planning Act, inward spatial development must provide a solution to urban sprawl through densification. At the same time, the quality of living must be guaranteed and housing prices must remain affordable.

We appraise the built environment as complex networks of rights and duties. The beneficiaries of legally protected interests and positions are often able to block or at least slow down a new project. We believe that a threefold change of perspective is necessary to understand current spatial planning challenges: (1) actors and their strategies must be at the center of the analysis; (2) an institutional approach must focus on the rules of the game that are activated by the actors. In addition to the spatial planning law, property rights play a central role in this context; (3) land must be viewed as a resource, the uses of which are often competitive. We are working on the development of this new approach with the conviction that scientific research can contribute to better spatial planning.

How effective are land policy instruments? A case study focusing on food discounters

Planning law contains a number of provisions relevant to property law, which are referred to as land policy instruments. These instruments are intended to ensure that land-use plans are implemented and thus that planning policy goals are actually achieved.

CRED: Raumentwicklung und Raumplanung / Urban and regional planning
Figure 1: Consideration of property in planning – plot structure shown on the Bernoulli plan in Basel (1946)

However, instruments do not produce positive outcomes automatically. They must be activated by the respective actors, in particular, the local planning authorities, and used strategically wherever possible. This project examines whether and how planning authorities use land policy instruments. The basic hypothesis of the project is that the use of land policy instruments makes the planning system as a whole more effective. Accordingly, the actual spatial development should correspond more closely to planning policy objectives whenever land policy strategies are implemented.

In order to obtain results that are valid across Swiss municipalities and cantons, and to reduce the varying influence of private actors, a quasi-experimental study design was implemented. Food discounter subsidiaries were used as units of investigation. On the one hand, these are highly space-relevant due to their business and location model as well as drivers of shopping and mobility behaviors of customers. On the other hand, the goals of the discounter chains and the opportunities to achieve them locally are almost standardized. Discounter subsidiaries are therefore exceptionally well suited to carry out comparative studies in different spatial contexts.

CRED: Raumentwicklung und Raumplanung / Urban and regional planning
Figure 2: Non-sustainable use of land. A discounter subsidiary on the green field

The empirical data collection was carried out in three steps, combining several methodological approaches:

  • First, a geographical analysis of all 275 discounter subsidiaries (2018) in Switzerland was carried out using remote sensing methods. This served to determine on a large scale the functional-spatial features and in particular the urban planning characteristics in comparison with the planning objectives. Subsidiaries were classified according to a reduced number of ideal types (discounter classes).
  • Second, we surveyed the use of land policy instruments in planning practice. The strategic importance and self-perception regarding the effectiveness of various land policy instruments were determined through a written survey of the municipalities where a discounter store is present. Again, a, ideal typical classification was developed (land policy types).
  • Thirdly, we analyzed the effectiveness of land policy instruments on the basis of 9 selected case studies. The selection was carried out according to a matrix combining discounter classes and land policy types. The expectations regarding the condition, strategy and effectiveness were verified by means of systematic site visits, document analyzes and interviews with selected actors.

The results of the project make it possible to better explain the difference between planning law, planning policy objectives and the actual spatial development. This makes an essential contribution to identify empirical mechanisms explaining implementation deficits of spatial planning policy. The project also contributes to the development of land policy research and to the formulation of practice-oriented recommendations for dealing with discounter subsidiaries.

Current projects

Working title Research question
Governing densification – The impact of performance-based planning on qualitative urban densification (SNF-Projekt GoverDENSE) (1) Which conditions lead to the success of densification processes taking into account all three – economic, ecological and social – dimensions of sustainability?

(2) How does performance-based planning help to overcome the obstacles to densification?

Jean-David Gerber, Thomas Hartmann (Wageningen University), Stéphane Nahrath (University of  Lausanne), Mathias Jehling (IÖR, Dresden)
ResiDENSE - Governance of Densification for Sustainable Housing Development and -Affordability in Cities (Dissertation) Which forms of governance can lead to socially sustainable housing development?
Gabriela Debrunner, Jean-David Gerber
Decentralized governance of natural resources towards sustainable management of environmental systems in Ghana (Dissertation) To what extent can decentralized governance promote sustainable resource management in Ghana? James Natia, Jean-David Gerber, Tobias Haller (ANTHRO)