Participation in a Road Development Project in Albisrieden/Zurich

Erika Schläppi and Kelly Bishop, Ximpulse GmbH

Relevance of the Practice

This practice is an example of a participatory process relating to a road development project in an urban neighborhood. The process includes informal and formal participatory elements throughout the planning and implementation phases. It involves local political authorities, technical services, citizens, interest groups and the private sector in a variety of roles and shows the interplay and linkage between formal and informal mechanisms of participation in an urban setting.

Description of the Practice

Albisrieden belongs to Switzerland’s largest City, Zurich, and together with Altstetten is part of district (Kreis) 9, which is the largest of the 12 districts of Zurich. At the end of 2018 Albisrieden counted 22304 inhabitants. In 2014 25.6 per cent of the residents were foreign nationals. Most foreign nationals are Germans, followed by Italians and Portuguese.

In 2009, when the renovation of the road superstructure as well as the tram lines were due, the Engineering Office wanted to take the opportunity to improve the utilization of the space along the main road of Albisrieden. The Engineering and Waste Disposal Department Zurich (Tiefbau und Entsorgungsdepartement Stadt Zürich) and the Engineering Office (Tiefbauamt) of the City planned to make changes to the main road, which lies in the heart of the district. There are numerous shops, restaurants and a post office on this road, which is also used by a bus and a tram line. According to the Communal Structure Plan Transportation(Kommunaler Richtplan Verkehr), this road belongs to the pedestrian zone.

The Legal Background

The procedure is predominately laid out in the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich (Strassengesetz (StrG), LS 722.1). According to Article 12(2) of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich, the City Council is responsible for drawing up new municipal road projects (Article 48 Cantonal Act on Municipalities (Gemeindegesetz (GG), LS 131.1) and Articles 48 ff Communal Statute (Gemeindeordnung (GO), LS 101.100)). Article 71 (b) GO assigns the construction and maintenance of roads to the Engineering and Waste Disposal Department Zurich (Tiefbau und Entsorgungsdepartement Stadt Zürich). Article 13 of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich foresees the participation of the public before a decision on project funding is made. This can be done by a public orientation meeting (Orientierungsversammlung) or a tabling of the project (öffentliche Auflage) and the public can comment on the project proposal. Further Article 16 of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich envisages that the project proposal is publicly tabled for a formal objection procedure, which is set out in Article 17 of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich.

The competences for financial decisions on project proposals are further laid down in Article 104(1) GG and Articles 41(c) GO as well as Article 105 GG and Articles 39 (c) Rules of Procedure of the City Council (Geschäftsordnung des Stadtrats, AS 172.100).

Participation in the First Stage of Project Planning

Between autumn 2009 and July 2013 the City Engineering Office (Tiefbauamt) together with the Traffic Service Department (Dienstabteilung Verkehr) elaborated a project plan for the new road. In a first step, the City Engineering Office assessed the needs of the residents and other interest groups (e.g. the local public transport company) in order to develop a first project idea. Of course, the project was also bound to many other legal and policy requirements at the federal, cantonal and municipal level.

Members of City Parliament suggested to involve the residents in an early stage of the project, because they anticipated some tension between the different interest groups. The City Council usually decides to have public information meetings if the project entails major changes and if they anticipate that there are various divergent interests at stake. In this case, the City Council decided to invite the public to an information meeting on 4th December 2012. All the local residents were invited along with other interest groups, such as the Business Association of Albisrieden as well as Protection and Security Zürich (Schutz und Rettung Zürich) and the school board (Schulpflege Schulkreis Letzi). In addition to the first information meeting, the City invited citizens and representatives of interest groups to four roundtables, with a view to discuss conflicting and converging issues and find compromises among the key stakeholders. During the phase between 2012 and 2013 it was possible to compromise on various issues, however, even after these roundtables the Business Association of Albisrieden did not agree with some key features of the project.

Participation in the Decision-making on the Project

After the technical planning process was completed and the project proposal was established the second phase of participation took place. The power to decide on the main parts of the funding of the project is with the City Parliament. According to Article 13 of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich the project proposal was publicly tabled on July 5, 2013 for comments, which practically coincided with a formal petition of the Business Association of Albisrieden. On July 3, 2013 it launched a petition urging the executive authorities to give up the project.[1] The petition had been signed by 3,200 residents.

The City Council answered to this Petition on 4th December 2013. It did not agree with the view of the petitioners and addressed each point of concern in detail and explained why it does not agree. The City Council rejected the petition and referred to the possibility of objecting to the finalized project according to Article 16 and Article 17 of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich once the project would be submitted to the objection procedure (see below). In accordance with Article 13(2) of the Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich a detailed report states the replies to the arguments that were brought forward at this stage (Einwendungen), which have not been considered in the finalization of the project.

Later, two members of the City Parliament handed in a postulate (according to Articles 44 Gemeindeordnung (GO), LS 101.100, City Statute) with a view to again counter the arguments of the Business Association and urge the City Council to finalize the project taking up the views that were, according to them, coming out of the participatory process that had taken place (see Postulat Pascal Lamprecht (SP) and Markus Baumann (GLP), 20 April 2016, GR no 2016/135). Mr. Lamprecht, one of the authors of the postulate, explained their motives as follows: ‘in our view, the petition of the Business Association of Albisrieden did not reflect the wider opinion that had been expressed during the round tables. Nevertheless, they were able to mobilize a lot of people and gathered 3200 signatures. We wanted to counterbalance this by handing in a postulate and make sure that what had been agreed and discussed during the round tables during the informal participation process was adequately reflected in the final plans of the project’.

Because of the petition and remaining disagreement between the various interest groups the head of the Engineering and Waste Disposal Department Zurich decided to hold an additional round table with selected members of the District as well as members of the City Parliament, in order to discuss the still existing differences and to find a solution. Based on these discussions the project proposal was again revised. The City Parliament that is competent for financial decision of this size then took the funding decision, under the reservation of the formal objection procedure that still has to determine the final shape of the project.

Participation in the Objection Procedure

According to Article 16 StrG the detailed project was publicly tabled in its revised version from 31 March to 2 May 2017 for the objection procedure. This involves the stakeholders that are directly concerned by and have a legally protected interest in the project (e.g. neighbors). Within the 30 days appeal time period, there were 13 objections against the project that are still pending. The decision on implementing the project will be taken by the City Council after the objections have been considered and the finalized project plans have been adapted accordingly.

Assessment of the Practice

A number of conclusions can be made from this practice. First, a variety of participatory processes are available at different stages of a construction project, starting with the assessment of needs, project design, planning to the funding decision and the judicial appeal procedures against the project decision. These procedures are time consuming. In the present case, several years will have been passed from the project idea to the finalized project.

Second, while public participation procedures invite all citizens to participate, the reality is usually different, also in the present case: Only a small number of already engaged or specifically concerned citizens effectively participated in public hearings or submit their opinions. Is this affecting the legitimacy of the result? Or is the possibility to participate enough?

Third, the participatory process involves interest groups that differ in their political weight. The Business Association of Albisrieden is a well-connected and established local organization, which was able to use the instruments in their favor, gather a large number of signatures to support their position. The formal petition right of the Association and the possibility to engage in the formal participation process gave them leverage. Some members of the City Council tried to counterbalance this weight, on behalf of the interests of their own constituency – and for the sake of equal participation. The City Council lastly takes the responsibility to decide on the project and balance the (possibly contradicting) interests of participating groups.

Fourth, the formal instruments of participation forced the authorities from the beginning to take up the interests of the Business Association, in order to avoid a formal objection of the Associationlater in the process, which can cost time and money. In general, the formally established participation processes seem to have influenced the authorities’ decision to give greater consideration to informal participation at the very beginning of the project. These gave the public various entry points (invited spaces) into the project development process.

Fifth, space for participation was available in various forms at different stages of the process, so citizen groups did not feel obliged to ‘invent’ more spaces. Sixth, the City Council is relatively independent of cantonal or federal authorities to decide how they include citizens and/or directly concerned residents in the participation process, allowing them to adapt their approach to the perceived needs of the particular case. The judicial appeal procedure (open for directly concerned residents) ensures that the legal framework is respected.

Seventh, participatory processes may have a negative effect on the accountability of elected decision-makers who can always say that their project was ineffective because it had to take up bad ideas that they are not responsible for. Eight, communication and information are key to participatory processes, particularly on complex projects.

Representation and legitimacy are a key challenge for formal and informal participation processes: Who is invited to participate? How are group representatives selected? Who is effectively taking part? This is even more an issue in more closed forms of participation: In the present case, the local authorities invited a certain selection of citizens and interest groups to the round tables, without transparent selection criteria.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Cantonal Act on Roads of Zurich (Strassengesetz, StrG), LS 722.1

Cantonal Act on municipalities (Gemeindegesetz, GG), LS 131.

Rules of Procedure of the City Council (Geschäftsordnung des Stadtrats), AS 172.100

Directive of the City Council of Zurich to the Municipal Council (Weisung des Stadtrats von Zürich an den Gemeinderat), GR no 2018/433 of 14 November 2018 <>

Postulate of Pascal Lamprecht (SP) and Markus Baumann (GLP), 20 April 2016, GR no 2016/135 (extract of the substantial protocol of the 144th Council session, 8 February 2017) <>

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications: Statistik Stadt Zürich, ‘Quartiersspiegel 2015: Albisrieden und Altstetten im Fokus der Statistik’ (City of Zurich, 16 June 2008)  <>

[1] See Engineering Office, ‘Petition Against the Planned Restructuring of the Main Road of Albisrieden’ (Extract of the Protocol of the City Council of Zurich from 4 December 2013, 1088).