Towards flexible planning in Swiss urban densification practice - Just, or just compact?



flexible planning, temporary use, densification, affordable housing, Switzerland




For many years, 'temporary use' has been utilised by municipal planners as a flexible and informal planning instrument to reactivate urban brownfields (Castells 1983; Bishop & Williams 2012). Recent examples of the Swiss urban densification context show, however, that 'temporary use' has recently changed its strategic function from being a catalyst for revitalization to testing new uses (Galdini, 2019), particularly in cities with high population growth and affordable housing shortages. Residential temporary use approaches (e.g., container or DIY-living, tiny houses), in particular, are increasingly applied by city councils and municipal planning authorities to transform industrial areas into mixed-use housing zones (Honeck 2017), providing a flexible planning solution to cope with contemporary affordable housing and land scarcity (Debrunner & Gerber 2021).

In this paper, we investigate the following questions: (1) How do municipal planning authorities apply temporary use as an approach to deal with scarcity of land and housing?  (2) What actors are involved, and what strategies and objectives do they follow? (3) What challenges and recommendations result for sustainable land use and affordable housing policy? To answer these research questions, we follow a qualitative case study design of the Swiss City 'Kloten' (Steinacker area), where a 50ha transformation area owned by approximately 50 private landowners is planned to be densified. This example stands representative for 122 industrial zones in Switzerland, aiming to be transformed into mixed-use housing zones.

Results help us to reflect on effective land use planning approaches through the adaptation of flexible planning instruments, notably temporary use. We discuss the results in comparison with international case studies (e.g., London, Amsterdam, Helsinki), to elucidate prerequisites encompassing legal, planning, procedural, and other dimensions that must be satisfied to enable a sustainable transformation from an industrial area to a mixed-use zone.


Author Biography

  • Gabriela Debrunner, ETH Zürich

    Gabriela Debrunner has a PhD in geography and environmental social sciences with a focus on spatial planning and political urbanism. She works as a postdoctoral researcher, lecturer and research associate at the Institute for Spatial and Landscape Development IRL at ETH Zurich. She is associated at the Chair of Spatial Development and Urban Policy SPUR (Prof. Dr. David Kaufmann). In her research, Gabriela Debrunner deals with the overarching question of how socio-​economic inequalities in an era of green transition in cities can be reduced and governed.


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Debrunner, G., & Gerber, J.-D. 2021: The commodification of temporary housing. Cities, 108, 102998.

Galdini, R. 2019: Urban re-use practices in contemporary cities: Experiences in Europe. Cities, 87, 103–105.

Honeck, T. 2017: From squatters to creatives. An innovation perspective on temporary use in planning. Planning Theory & Practice, 18(2), 268–287.