Why scholars should avoid throwing out a 28-year-old baby with the bathwater: Applying urban regime analysis to Switzerland

By Sébastien Lambelet (University of Geneva, Switzerland)

Governing a city has always required some cooperation between public and private actors since both actors lack resources owned by their counterpart to govern effectively. This interdependence has been theorized in the late 1980s by Clarence Stone with the concept of “urban regime”. Simply defined, an urban regime is a longstanding coalition between the city government and some private actors that has defined a specific policy agenda and that has the capacity to mobilize the necessary resources to implement it. However, in recent time, the concept of urban regime has been heavily criticized by several American scholars who considered it unable to explain the increasing complexity of contemporary governance. By contrast, European scholars have increasingly referred to urban regimes since the concept allows them to take into consideration the declining role of nation states and the rise of neoliberalism that they observe in Europe.

Given this discrepancy between the two sides of the Atlantic, this article aims to test whether the concept of urban regime is really unable to explain contemporary urban governance dynamics outside America. To do so, it analyses the development of two Swiss cities (Zurich and Bern) since the turn of the millennium.

In Zurich, after two decades of highly politicized debates around urban development, an urban regime coalition has emerged at the beginning of the years 2000s. As a result, the renewal of the central business district (CBD) that had been blocked for four decades finally became a reality. The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), that had just been transformed into a limited company urged to make profit, decided to remove unused railway lines next to Zurich’s main station to build a new neighborhood called Europaallee. The railway company then entered in negotiation with the municipal government and obtained the right to build 22% more gross floor area than the municipal zoning law would normally admit. In exchange, the SBB paid for public infrastructure (streets, public squares) and gave architectural guarantees to the Municipality. In other words, the city government decided to share its legal resource and its democratic legitimacy with the SBB in exchange of the only requirement that the construction will be at no cost for the Municipality. Thanks to the support of the city government, the project was then accepted by the City Council unanimously and supported by 65.5% of the population after a referendum has been launched by neighboring inhabitants opposing the construction. First buildings were inaugurated in 2012, last ones will be finished in 2020. In the meantime, the urban regime SBB – Municipality of Zurich has also constructed several other projects based on the same resource exchanges (see Table 1).

In Bern, after decades of urban planning centered around public-public cooperation between the municipal, the cantonal and the federal governments, public-private cooperation finally emerged in the late 1990s after the federal government transformed important federal agencies into limited companies. To keep the national seat of these companies in Bern, the Municipality created the project Wankdorf-City that will host around 7,000 office workplaces by 2019. However, in contrast to Zurich, Bern’s municipal government took the lead during the planning. It first activated the land resource and the legal resource by creating a new land use plan on its own plots and then submitted the whole project from an early stage of planning to the voters. In February 2003, 86% of the voters supported the project and gave a large room of maneuver to the local government to choose the investors for the implementation. Then, the SBB and Losinger-Marazzi, one of the leading construction’s firm in Switzerland, were chosen as main investors and brought their financial resources and their construction expertise to the project. The first building were inaugurated in 2014. A second phase of construction has just started and will be finished in 2019. Meanwhile, the municipal government has started several other projects conducted in public-private cooperation (see Table 1). Private partners are not necessarily the same in all these projects, but resource exchanges between private actors and the municipal government always follow a similar modus operandi that gives the Municipality more influence within the coalition.


Therefore, my two case studies show that both Zurich and Bern have been governed by some form of regime since the turn of the millennium. Moreover, Bern’s city government is able to constrain private actors to accept its projects on a take-it-or-leave-it basis since its owns three fundamental resources: a) the land on which projects will take place; b) the capacity to modify law to provide projects with ad hoc legal bases; and c) the democratic legitimacy gained through the support of voters. This balance of power is what I call a PUBLIC-private regime. In contrast, in Zurich, all the projects have been initiated by the SBB as landowner. Then, Zurich’s city government decided to share its legal prerogatives with the SBB to establish the land use plans in common. So, the role of the government is simply to defend the project in the public sphere to get the support of the City Council and of the population, but its overall influence on the project is rather limited. Such a balance of power is what I call a PRIVATE-public regime.

To conclude, the empirical research conducted by this article shows that the concept of urban regime can perfectly be used as an analytical tool to analyze contemporary governance dynamics outside America. So, scholars criticizing urban regimes could continue their job to specify the concept further, but they should avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


Picture credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_throw_the_baby_out_with_the_bathwater

Thanks to more than a quarter of century of research, the urban regime concept provides an analytical model that is, to my view, more comprehensive and more robust than most of the types of urban governance that have been used by scholars recently (see: https://urbanaffairsreview.com/2017/03/10/accomplishing-agonism-in-urban-governance/). The older the violin the sweeter the music, isn’t it?


Read the article here.

Photo of Bern, Switzerland by Errol on Unsplash

Author Biography

 Sébastien Lambelet is assistant and PhD student in the Department of Political Science & International Relations and in the Institute for Environmental Governance & Territorial Development at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. His research concentrates around urban power and governance, land management and the implementation of urban policies. His PhD analyses how public and private actors cooperate and exchange resources to implement major urban projects in the 21st century. He recently published with some European colleagues a special issue of the online review Métropoles on this topic (see: https://metropoles.revues.org/5242).

For more information visit his profile on: https://unige.academia.edu/SébastienLambelet



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