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Thriving Spaces: Sustainability and Spatial Development

Thriving Spaces: Sustainability and Spatial Development - Priority themes sustainability research
Immagine: Hansjakob Fehr

Using six priority themes, the "White Paper on Sustainability Research" outlines Switzerland's most urgent research needs in order to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Mobility, housing, and individual choices profoundly impact patterns of land use, both in Switzerland and abroad. The concept of thriving spaces relates to how we perceive, use, change, restore, and protect our spaces, and how lifestyle choices and economic activities can be reconciled as part of a sustainable whole. Changing course will require being inspired by the best examples of sustainable land use and developing a shared vision of the way forward.

Key unresolved questions

Envisioning thriving spaces: The concept of thriving spaces as presented here is very broad. The essential elements of this concept need to be fleshed out in greater detail to provide a basis for public debate, planning, and policy.

Key questions are:

  • How do different actors – including citizens, planners, and policymakers – perceive the value of the space in which they live? What role does the aesthetic dimension play in this respect?
  • How can we link spaces to well-being, and what are the meanings and narratives of well-being in the context of thriving spaces?
  • What are joint visions of thriving spaces, and how do they address the concerns of sustainable development and the 2030 Agenda as well as the need to maintain natural diversity and associated natural resources?

In Switzerland, federal planning law is designed to encourage inward urban development, including better use of vacant land, higher densities, and the creation of attractive urban green and blue spaces. Yet the consumption of land via urban sprawl remains high (0.69 m2 per second in Switzerland), fuelling continued loss of green spaces and biodiversity. In particular, effective instruments are lacking that recognize and protect the quality of landscapes outside of settlement areas. In addition, spatial development also needs to tackle social divides, e.g. the consequences of gentrification. Overall, questions around social diversity, quality of life, sustainable habitats, and spatial development must be addressed.

This leads to the following questions:

  • What are appropriate, socially inclusive strategies, concepts, and instruments to address densification and inward settlement development, protect and revalue unbuilt areas, ensure adequate biodiversity, and safeguard essential ecosystem services?
  • How can the quality of life in urban areas and other living environments be improved for everyone, in particular the socially disadvantaged?
  • How can the instruments of spatial planning be put to work in the service of climate protection and adaptation to climate change ?

Rapid demographic changes, such as those triggered by inward migration or industrial decline, can lead to economic disruption and social and political unrest. Recent research illustrates that linguistic divides are disappearing in Switzerland. However, the language-based Röstigraben is giving way to new regional divides between cities and agglomerations, on the one hand, and smaller rural communities, on the other. As a result, social inequalities between and within regions are rising. Overall, spatially manifested frictions, such as the urban–rural divide, have been increasing in recent years and need to be better understood. Differences in consciousness and other roots of the problem – often related to social, cultural, and economic opportunities (or lack thereof) – need to be addressed. We must particularly consider how global challenges such as mass migration and industrial restructuring are linked to these locally manifested political divides.

Key question include:

  • What are the drivers and social consequences of the urban–rural divide? What are the roles of globalization, digitalization, demographic changes, etc., and who are the “winners” and “losers”? How does social inequality manifest itself spatially and what are the implications for thriving spaces?
  • How can we build better links between urban/core and rural/peripheral spaces? What form could sustainable urban–rural/core–periphery partnerships take?
  • How can we solve these issues without exhausting natural resources?

Current lifestyles lead to excessive consumption and resource use, both in Switzerland and abroad. High levels of resource consumption and mobility lay claim to ever more land and cause pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. We need to understand how we can foster more sustainable lifestyles despite structural constraints and strong public demand for mobility. Structural conditions that induce mobility can be found in the ways our economies have developed (tertiarization, location of industries, models of work, etc.). Individual behaviour and incentives (infrastructure, low-cost fossil fuels, and subsidies, etc.) have encouraged unsustainable mobility. New solutions are needed to transform these complex underlying conditions.

Concrete questions:

  • What are key causes of unsustainable lifestyles? What are the underlying institutional, political, and structural arrangements that lock them in? How can widely accepted sustainable lifestyles be fostered?
  • What are new visions for how communities can meet essential needs and enable well-being (e.g. the “15-minute city” in which all necessary functions such as work, shopping, leisure, etc. are walkable and accessible on foot or by bike)?
  • Can such visions enhance or even replace our current ideas about how to develop urban and peri-urban spaces? What can we learn from the COVID-19 crisis to reconceptualize mobility in sustainable ways?
  • Will digitalization (e.g. teleworking, integrated mobility services, “industry 4.0”) lead to further land consumption or will physical proximity assume a new role in the context of an increasingly digitalized society?

Many aspects of spatial development entail (e.g. ecological) costs that are not internalized. In some cases, political actions such as subsidies produce costs that are not accounted for. Examples include the use of pesticides that spread into surface and ground waters, or transport systems that create noise and emit pollutants. Internalizing such external costs and creating positive spillovers are key to move forward. Measures such as congestion pricing, carbon taxes, and payment for ecological benefits appear to have great potential. One way of moving forward may be to establish positive incentives for creation of ecological benefits. We should also consider new approaches such as that of a “sharing society” or circular economy and how they could reduce externalized ecological costs.

Questions include:

  • What are the external costs, including those arising abroad, resulting from our economic and private activities related to use of space, especially for ecosystems, their diversity, and the ecosystem services they provide?
  • Which framing conditions are needed to create cost transparency and internalize external costs related to how various actors use land and space? Which incentives have the potential to create ecological benefits?
  • How can the internalization of external costs be implemented politically, e.g. road pricing in the case of mobility?

It is predicted that built-up areas in Switzerland will suffer from more frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves and heavy precipitation, which will lead to increased surface runoff. On the one hand, sustainable urban development should include measures that facilitate adaptation to these effects of climate change. On the other, further measures for climate protection must be taken in order to increase the resilience of the biosphere. These measures include reducing CO2 emissions and strengthening ecosystems in urban areas by increasing their biological diversity. Blue and green areas as well as smart urban layout will be key to keeping such areas liveable.

Important questions are:

  • How can built-up areas be developed based on their natural surroundings and landscape in order to adapt to climate change and assist climate protection?
  • How can spatial development be supported by dialogue between experts from a broad range of academic and non-academic fields with different perspectives on the implications of climate change?
  • What are concepts of resilience for thriving spaces that enable adaptation to climate change?

Taking action in sustainable urban development is not easy. New governance and planning approaches capable of identifying and resolving conflicts of interest need to be developed. Observing the principle of participation in decision-making, citizens need to be proactively engaged in these processes. Such participation could raise awareness about how human activities are dependent upon, and also influence, nature. In addition, experts from science and practice – including fields as diverse as urban planning, architecture, political science, biology, geography, etc. – need to be engaged in respective partnerships. They need to help decision-makers and citizens in understanding the complex nature and relationship between the various topics associated with thriving spaces. In addition, such approaches could also help to build a shared understanding of the importance and relevance of transformative change for each individual and society as a whole. Experimental instruments such as test planning, real world laboratories, and pilot projects that promote public participation need to be mainstreamed.

Concrete questions:

  • How can we as a democratic society develop the necessary decisions for sustainable land use and thriving spaces?
  • How can citizens be more strongly engaged in sustainable urban development?
  • How can pilot formats like test planning, real-world laboratories, and pilot projects be used for collectively realizing desirable, sustainable thriving spaces?
  • What new governance approaches are needed to address conflicting goals and interests?
  • How can inclusive processes to realize thriving spaces be shaped, and how can climate protection and adaptation to climate change be made integral parts of them?

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Video: Social innovations in the Swiss mountain area (Thriving Spaces: Sustainability and spatial development).

The term "Thriving Spaces" describes places where both biodiversity and people thrive: they are resilient, capable of regeneration and promote human well-being and social relationships. Good examples of such sustainably oriented spaces are regions where social innovations take place. Social innovation is the term used to describe an association of diverse people who share a vision and pursue a common goal. There are many of these, especially in peripheral areas. In the video, the two doctoral students Samuel Wirth and Pascal Tschumi report from the research project at the University of Bern on social innovations in the Bernese Oberland.
This video was created by students of the Multimedia Production course in the Corporate Communications module at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. The multimedia projects were created as part of a collaboration between WWF Switzerland and the three Multimedia Production classes at the Universities of Applied Sciences in Graubünden and Bern.

Priority theme: Thriving Spaces: Sustainability and Spatial Development