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Swiss initiative could set global precedence for environmental protection

This article was originally printed in the Feb. 4, 2019 issue of The Round Table. 

On Feb. 10, voters in Switzerland will be deciding on whether or not to pass their latest initiative, which deals with urban sprawl. Proposed by the youth wing of the Greens, or the Youth Greens, the initiative has two main parts.

The first part works to balance the amount of building zones in Switzerland. Basically, for every set amount of new building zone created in Switzerland, there must be an equal amount of land with the same agricultural potential declassified as a building zone, or set aside to not become a building zone.

Adding on to that, there also cannot be any new buildings or infrastructure built that is not classified as a building zone unless it is for the public interest (roads) or promotes sustainable agriculture.

The second part of the initiative is much less concrete than the first. Whereas the first part of the initiative has very clear standards, the second is more of a declarative statement without much teeth. It requires federal and local authorities to promote sustainable forms of living and working, which doesn’t set a standard or metric by which to judge that this is being accomplished.

In Switzerland, an initiative is similar to a referendum in the United States. However, Switzerland’s direct democracy system works in a slightly different way. The Swiss system of direct democracy requires a referendum before an amendment to the constitution can be added.

Voting citizens have many opportunities to vote on initiatives and there are three types of initiative. The first is a mandatory initiative, which is a popular vote initiative required after the federal parliament approves an amendment.

The second is an optional initiative, which can be requested by either 50,000 citizens or eight cantons. A canton is a member state of the Swiss Confederation. An optional initiative is to contest a new or revised law, and a simple majority decides its fate.

The third, and generally most attention-getting initiative, is the popular initiative. A popular initiative must be started by seven citizens who must then get the initiative backed by at least 100,000 signatures in order to be voted upon. In order to pass, they must have a double majority of the people and the cantons. The interesting part of a popular initiative is that the federal government can still reject part of, or the full, initiative as well as put forth a counter proposal.

The Urban Sprawl initiative is a popular initiative, which is by far the type of initiative which is the least likely to get passed. The initiative has strong support amongst left-wing Green and Socialist groups but fails to garner support amongst center-right grassroots groups and those in rural areas.

The initiative is intended to preserve the countryside and natural beauty of Switzerland, which has had growing problems with urban planning. A history of poor planning decisions and a rapidly growing population have led Swiss citizens to worry that urban sprawl and a disappearing landscape will lead to Switzerland losing its countryside.

In 2013 the federal government responded to these concerns by revising the Spatial Planning Act to define building zones so that they will meet the needs of the next 15 years and reduce the size of excessively large building zones.

Supporters of the Urban Sprawl initiative say that this does not go far enough. By only planning for the next 15 years, the country lacks a permanent decision and the foresight to plan for future needs.

Opponents of the Urban Sprawl initiative say that the 2013 revision already solves the issues associated with increased urban sprawl. They also rely on the classic environment vs economy argument to discredit the initiative. By freezing the amount of land zoned, they argue that Switzerland’s population and economy will not be able to grow and the country itself will be less competitive on a global level. They also argue that this will make properties split by canton lines and cantons who have already been conserving will struggle under this initiative because they have not been addressed in the initiative.

The this referendum could influence both other countries and global agreements if passed. Switzerland has the potential with this referendum to set a precedent to increase environmental protections. The initiative considers sustainable development and sustainable agriculture in the proposal, specifically adding language which does not prohibit growth in these areas. It also combats urban sprawl in a country which is well known for its beautiful countryside.

The agreement certainly has a definite stance and strong action against urban sprawl, the effects of which could be observed by other states and potentially modelled by them. However, the issue of population growth is one that needs to be considered. Supporters say that existing building zones will be enough to account for a growing population, but opponents are still skeptical. If these supporters can show that the initiative will allow for sustainable growth, they may have a chance of passing it, but it is key that they convince more center-right groups that this proposal is necessary. With increased global population growth and loss of countryside or environment on a global scale, Switzerland’s proposal could provide at the least, a study of whether or not limiting zoning works to preserve green spaces, and at the most a potential solution to urban sprawl.

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