A tram to revitalize downtown Neuchâtel

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Computer image of Neuchâtel’s lakeshore tram line after the proposed renov
Computer image of Neuchâtel’s lakeshore tram line after the proposed renovation. © EPFL-LAST

Downtown areas of mid-sized cities are facing a growing challenge in maintaining their appeal. Taking Neuchâtel as an example, EPFL researchers have identified concrete steps these cities can take to make sure their downtown area remains attractive for years to come.

Mid-sized cities around the world are facing a real threat of decline in their downtown areas, and Switzerland is no exception. EPFL’s Laboratory of Architecture and Sustainable Technologies (LAST) was commissioned by the Neuchâtel branch of Cobaty, an international building-industry association, to study possible options for the future of downtown Neuchâtel. The researchers were asked to find concrete urban solutions that would ensure downtown Neuchâtel remains vibrant and attractive. We spoke with Emmanuel Rey, an architect and urban planning expert and the head of LAST, who just published a book on this project.

How are the challenges faced by downtown Neuchâtel typical of those faced by other European cities?
The areas surrounding mid-sized cities are growing and expanding, but paradoxically, their downtowns are at a standstill, losing their energy and vitality. That means downtowns must increasingly compete with suburbs to attract residential, cultural and business activity. These cities are also grappling with costs that exceed their spending capacity - yet they struggle to raise funds and generate enthusiasm for renovation projects. But many of their public spaces, especially pedestrian areas, are partially obsolete because they were designed with a car-centric vision of city life.

In your book, you give three strategies that cities can adopt to revitalize their downtown. What are they?
Becoming the home of a prestigious building or high profile social or cultural event, like the Théâtre de Carouge or the Images Vevey Festival, can help rejuvenate a city by giving it a strong identity and character. Bilbao is often cited as a prime example: its once desolate downtown area was turned around completely by the opening of the Guggenheim Museum. Another strategy is to build housing in strategic areas and using innovative architecture - such as urban villas, apartments with rooftop gardens and residential buildings with novel features. An example here would be the recently completed Kalkbreite cooperative, which is a multigenerational housing complex in Zurich. And the third strategy is to renovate public spaces and promote green transportation. This is where we see the biggest gap between city residents’ expectations and what mid-sized cities currently offer. Downtown Sion, which has been remodeled to allow cars and pedestrians to coexist peacefully, is an example of this type of strategy.

What approach did you take for the city of Neuchâtel?
Cobaty - which is an international association of individuals and organizations involved in construction, urban planning and the environment, and that aims to improve the quality of today’s buildings - gave us free rein on this project. But we didn’t want to outline a utopian vision. Based on a Master’s project being carried out at our lab, we developed projections looking one generation ahead - that is, to the 2030s?2040s. We first had to redraw the contours of the city’s downtown, because by then it will extend well beyond the historical center and probably stretch from the tram yard in the west to Microcity, EPFL’s Neuchâtel campus, in the east. That’s what’s now called the greater downtown area. Then we identified the city’s main points of interest, which attract lots of people: the Ecoparc district near the train station, the university, Microcity, the Jeunes-Rives park and La Maladière stadium. Even though these sites are relatively close to each other, it’s not easy for pedestrians to get from one to another. Obstacles arising from road traffic make moving between them on foot less appealing. Then we looked at projects already underway and ideas that people had brought up, even casually, and decided to use some of them.

A main pillar of your recommendations for Neuchâtel is extending the lakeshore tram line (Littorail) by 2030...
We believe this tram line could become the backbone of a revitalized downtown. Our idea is to build attractive public spaces around the new tram stops, and to replace the underground link between Place Pury and the lakeshore with an above-ground one. Investing in this rail-line expansion would also enable the city to create new hubs, such as at Quai Philippe Godet and Rue de la Pierre-à-Mazel, with innovative residential buildings and spaces for shops, offices and cultural activities.

What additional measures do you think the city should take alongside the extended rail line?
Neuchâtel could use the opportunity created by building the new transportation infrastructure to make green transportation seamless across the city center, thereby making it more attractive. It could also build more housing in the downtown area. Other options would be to build park-and-ride stations around the city limits and create 30 km/h zones along the tram line so that different transportation methods can function smoothly and effectively side by side. In our approach we talk about urban ‘intensity’ rather than ‘density,’ since density is often purely quantitative. Our research aims to not only increase the urban density of Neuchâtel, but also enhance its quality of life and make it easier for people to meet and make the most of their city under the best possible conditions. And our approach can obviously be applied to other European cities of the same size.


Intensities Urbaines: Une vision prospective pour le centre-ville de Neuchâtel, preface by Thierry Oppikofer, Federal President of Cobaty, Lausanne: EPFL, Laboratory of Architecture and Sustainable Technologies, 2017, 78 pages.
A copy of the book can be obtained from Cobaty at info [at] cobaty-ne (p) ch