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Four Postulates of Sustainable Urban Development


Alpine towns play a key role for a sustainable development of the Alps: Economic prosperity and innovation, good living conditions, effective provision of services, efficient mobility structures, climate and environmental protection depend very much on Alpine towns. Through strong urban-rural linkages, Alpine towns can act as drivers of socio-economic and ecological transformations for larger territories. Taking note of all their functions and developing them further is crucial for the quality of life in the Alps.

We have condensed all the findings of the two main parts of the ‘Alpine Towns’ report into four postulates for Alpine towns. We believe that these four postulates are fundamental for all places, and that they should mark the beginning of our change of perspective on the Alps.

1. Alpine towns have key roles beyond size

Alpine towns are often of small size but have a great significance for their surrounding areas: One might say that the population of an Alpine town should be multiplied by a ‘factor ten’ to get a sense of their importance compared to towns outside of the Alps. Even if the magnitude of this has yet to be empirically quantified, ‘key roles beyond size’ seems to be a peculiarity of the Alpine settlement system. This has political implications: Urban policies that only consider the population size of settlements do not fit the Alps.

The Alpine settlement system needs effective support: Services and amenities should cover the entire Alpine area. At the same time, they should be organised efficiently by building on the centrality and regional significance of towns. Policy-makers should develop customised urban offers that coordinate services over wider areas rather than ‘everything everywhere’ approaches: We call this balancing of services within the settlement system ‘decentral concentration’.

2. Alpine towns connect urban and rural territories

Alpine towns gather people, economic actors, ideas, resources and cultural activities. They interact with the Alpine nature and landscape, but they also connect to large agglomerations. They act as ‘brokers’ between rural areas and the main metropolises in and around the Alps. Due to this role, Alpine towns might not only mitigate adverse processes, but also pass on positive effects to their surrounding areas.

Alpine towns should thus receive special attention as ‘multipliers’ for the implementation of regional development strategies. Successful transformation relies strongly on capacity building and coordination within entire functional regions. Only if towns coordinate their efforts over larger areas and with multiple stakeholders will policies have positive effects and help to avoid unwanted trade-offs or competition within the spatial network.

3. Alpine towns stay front-runners

The Alpine settlement system can build on several socio-economic strengths: Alpine towns are comparatively wealthy, diverse, with a central position in Europe and unique potentials. Such potentials exist for all towns, regardless of their size. They need to be developed carefully and strategically, since Alpine towns will face particular challenges in the future.

Trying to maintain a status quo while ignoring potential tipping points leads to very uncertain prospects for the future. Alpine towns will rather have to play a pioneer role in addressing the climate crisis and the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts of increasing urbanisation. An early adoption of new strategies in the face of climate change and other transformation processes establishes first-mover advantages.

4. Alpine towns become networking hubs

Many development paths of Alpine towns seem to depend strongly on national affiliation. On the one hand, this can lead to a positive competition of ideas and approaches. On the other hand, the different political systems meet in the Alpine region with its many borders, where numerous towns come under pressure by increasing commuter, leisure and retail flows.

However, the cross-border dimension of the settlement system is still quite neglected. There are only very few intra-Alpine networks and connections beyond the Alps are skewed towards the metropolises on the Alpine fringe. Alpine towns might reinforce ‘soft’ cooperation to offset negative border effects and strengthen their voice in political and sectoral cooperation. Opportunities lie in transnational, European and global networks, in cooperation in functional areas and in involving the public.