Combating Alpine Sprawl with Gondolas

Urbanizing the Alps: Strategies for the Densification of Mountain Villages / Birkhäuser

Beyond the 14 million residents of the Alps, the region receives nearly 120 million visitors a year. Continued sprawl into mountain ecosystems, which are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change, threaten their long-term environmental health as well as the communities at lower altitudes that rely on their snow melt for water.

In her new book, Urbanizing the Alps: Densification Strategies for Mountain Villages, Dr. Fiona Pia rejects the picturesque chalet, set apart in nature, as a model for Alpine development, instead calling for walkable, compact villages accessible via gondolas. Graphic analyses offer visual insights into the planning strategies (or lack thereof) in five alpine villages.

An inspection of the immense sprawl of Verbier, a Swiss town that began expanding in the 1930s with the rise of recreational skiing, provides the basis for Pia’s critique. The town has nearly 3,000 residents, a number that swells to 35,000 during the winter season. Some 90 percent of the properties here are categorized as residential. Many are designed as chalets despite their uncharacteristic proximity to one another. Verbier has expanded from its core up the mountainside. Pia likens the expanding roads to a “principal network onto which are grafted a multitude of capillaries.” Matched with a disconnected pedestrian path system, the result is overcrowded roads.

Collection of individual chalets in Verbier / Wikipedia

Some 64 percent of residential property in Verbier is classified as second homes. At the beginning of 2016, the Foundation Franz Weber Second Homes Initiative went into effect, denying construction of new second homes in communities that already have over 20 percent second homes. This limits the economic model on which many Swiss alpine villages, including Verbier, were developed.

Pia states: “Verbier is reaching its limit of sustainability” due to the “depletion of building plots, major mobility problems, climate disruption, and the prohibition to build new second homes.”

Four other towns — Zermatt, Switzerland; Avoiraz, France; Whistler-Blackcomb, Canada; and Andermatt, Switzerland — are studied in a similar fashion.

Sprawl of Whistler Blaccomb, Canada / Google Earth

Sprawl found in four of the villages is countered by the hope of a new, sustainable approach to development in Andermatt, a village of around 1,500 people about 75 miles south of Zurich, which is undergoing a significant redevelopment project to improve walkability and create new social spaces. The Egyptian billionaire-led, 1.8 billion Swiss Franc redevelopment of the village, which began in 2007 and will run through 2030, is adding new cultural and sports centers, six high-end hotels, and vehicular and gondola transportation capacity to the city core. The architecture and plan of the new development mimic the existing feel of the village.

Using the ideas developed through these analyses, Pia returns to Verbier, proposing a series of chair-lift nodes that could form a ring around the city to alleviate traffic congestion and offer access to nearby housing and cultural spaces. Each of the five chair-lift bays are located on land owned by the city. The two eastern-most bays would connect to the surrounding landscape, establishing a network of towns along the mountainside. Although certainly an expensive investment, the result is a feasible plan that creates a village accessible without a car.

Under current conditions, chair-lifts connect sprawled-out communities / Birkhäuser
Proposed ring of transportation nodes surrounding Verbier / Birkhäuser

The balance of clear and consistent graphic diagrams accompanied by explanations of their social, economic, environmental viability leaves the reader aching for a solution to these towns’ plights. While Pia offers a specific solution for Verbier, accompanied by a series of guidelines, these could be used to increase density for alpine communities across the globe.

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