Urban planning and sustainable development: the eternal dilemma for modern towns and cities

Written by Giliane, Loan et Loïc, Switzerland, 17-19-23 years old

In 2023, more than ever before, a frenetic race to reconcile ecology and urban space is underway. As a UNESCO-protected town that also needs to modernise its ageing infrastructure, La Chaux-de-Fonds finds itself facing a sizeable challenge: how can it preserve its historic heritage while ensuring modern, sustainable urban development? Marc Jobin, project manager at “Objectif: NE”, suggests some areas for reflection. Creation of green gardens? Reducing the use of tarmac? What solutions would help the canton?

The current position

There is no better illustration of the situation than the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Following a devastating fire in 1794, the town was entirely rebuilt on the basis of a grid system and is the only example of its kind in Switzerland, except for the neighbouring town of Locle. This unusual model – combined with its famous urban design, which was based on the needs of the watchmaking industry – would earn the town a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2009, helping to protect the heritage that makes La Chaux-de-Fonds what it is today. Such protection can, however, prove an obstacle when urban planning changes need to be made to support sustainable development – and even if authorisation were granted, making the changes needed would not always be straightforward because of the ancient and fragile nature of the buildings. Simply installing a solar panel can become an administrative headache, more than it already is, depending on the degree of protection assigned to the building.

Apart from the potential problems caused by the restrictions associated with UNESCO protection, La Chaux-de-Fonds also faces other issues. As Marc Jobin, project manager at “Objectif: NE”, notes, La Chaux-de-Fonds is a growing town and, like many others, it is facing problems of “suburbanisation”, an American term that refers to the expansion of the urban area towards a town’s outskirts. Residents increasingly move out from the centre and the quickest and least expensive means we currently have of simplifying their travel is to build new tarmacked roads. However, bitumen is known for creating heat islands because of its very dark colour and its capacity for storing heat coming up from the ground below. Marc Jobin also mentions the lack of planting and green spaces in the heart of the town centre, which can have a significant effect on residents’ morale and well-being.

Crack on a building in the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds. © Loan Rochat

UNESCO heritage protection

As mentioned earlier, the rules implemented by UNESCO are designed to protect heritage and avoid the deterioration of monuments by subsequent abuse. Unfortunately, some homes no longer comply with current building standards and some towns that have been granted UNESCO protection do not have permission to renovate them. There are, however, some potential solutions.

For example, changes made inside buildings, such as adding a second door or installing double glazing, can provide better thermal insulation. This limits the amount of energy wasted and therefore keeps costs down. However, if a building no longer meets safety standards and puts other people’s lives in danger, the only solution is a complete renovation, which runs counter to the rules imposed. Fortunately, completely changing a building is not the only option for sustainable development. Instead of targeting UNESCO-protected monuments, we should focus more on neighbourhoods as a whole, so that we have several solutions available to us.

Preventing heat islands 

The sharp rise in urbanisation since the 1950s has resulted in a proliferation of tarmacked surfaces, not only because they are easy to produce but also because they are relatively inexpensive. However, bitumen tends to store heat because of its dark surface, increasing the surrounding temperature overall. This results in “heat islands” but a number of solutions to prevent them have already been tested in other countries.

The city of Los Angeles in the United States, for example, came up with the idea of brightening some of its tarmacked surfaces by painting them white. Theoretically, changing the colour of tarmac in this way should allow it to store less heat, and the technique has proven effective, reducing the temperature in the test areas by a few degrees. Making these surfaces lighter would therefore be an effective and relatively inexpensive solution, but unfortunately it is not enough to prevent heat islands entirely. Towns must implement additional measures to achieve this and in so doing, respond to their residents’ physiological needs.

Encouraging green spaces

Creating an urban ecological network is universally recognised as part of the fight against global warming. Questions about citizens’ health have been raised because of the loss of biodiversity and space in many towns and cities. Several tangible projects, including cooperative gardens, urban farms or planting unused areas, would allow today’s towns to produce their own fruit and vegetables, while also removing pollution from the atmosphere. The purpose of these initiatives, which defend the introduction of several collaborative developments into the urban landscape, is not only to encourage social integration and mutual support within the community, but also to reduce the level of CO2 in the surrounding air and improve the morale of residents in the local area.

In Neuchâtel canton, for example, there are already several examples of collaborative gardens proposed by local people. This kind of initiative shows that any contribution to sustainable development, however minimal it may be, can have a significant impact on our future.

In summary, the actions mentioned show that it is quite possible to protect urban heritage and not undermine it in the name of ecology and sustainable development. In cases where it is impossible to touch protected buildings, there are additional solutions, such as creating green spaces or lightening tarmacked areas, so that the urban space as a whole can move towards improving its carbon footprint and therefore its impact on sustainable development.


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