Book Review

Urbanizing the Alps

Densification Strategies for High-Altitude Villages
Fiona Pia

The challenges society faces from urbanisation have been increasingly well documented, as have the benefits of building at higher densities. Indeed, the need for places to continue to adapt whilst giving more space to people walking and reducing our reliance on cars is widely accepted; the question now is how best to achieve this. Urbanizing the Alps picks up on this, framing the conversation directly around the unique challenges facing Alpine towns, giving the discussion another angle that is both interesting and informative.

A research-led study, the book dives into the complexities and growth of Alpine communities, taking into account the unique climate, topography and seasonal tourism associated with them. Pia begins with the challenges of urbanisation and sprawl, highlighting the need to change the narrative that often opposes densification. Indeed, it quickly challenges our perceptions of the idyllic chalet nestled alone upon a hillside, when the reality of piecemeal sprawl has already made this a somewhat different proposition. With some resorts having reached the limit of viable size, Pia suggests that the solution lies in higher density Alpine cities, a network of integrated compact cores connected by public transport. This description, and even the title of the book seems provocative, given the natural setting typically associated with such places, but with the benefits of compact development well-known, it succeeds in challenging the way we should be thinking about the future of Alpine settlements.

Pia explores five case studies: Verbier, Zermatt, Avoriaz, Whistler Blackcomb, and Andermatt, with the growth of each charted from their early beginnings before their ‘industrialisation’ as a ski resort, to the present day. Bold graphics complemented by scaled drawings ensure the case studies are easily interpreted, supported by in-depth research into the spatial arrangements, design and masterplans that have shaped these towns.

Using Verbier as the example, Pia moves on to establish a new model for Alpine urbanisation, integrating densification and public transport infrastructure through a closed loop cable-car system set around the perimeter of the town. It’s a familiar concept but delivered in site-specific circumstances. The challenge is to integrate the 500m long ‘inhabitable infrastructure’ hubs within the natural landscape, as well as creating spaces where people will be inclined to dwell. The benefits are rationally set out, with the hubs described as a series of civil engineering interventions rather than buildings. Yet their scale and rigid form contrasts sharply with the natural topography of the mountainside in the way a civil engineering project might find easier to overcome. They are also realised as clean and highly functional structures, perhaps lacking the visual complexity that we associate with their surroundings.

The question is whether densification and public benefits can outweigh any visual concerns. Ignoring for a moment that this is subjective, this consideration seems somewhat secondary to the argument put forward, which uses elements of the research study to support it.

The topic might be considered niche, but there is a lot we could learn from Alpine towns, such as why building more roads is not the answer; how public transport needs to be able to operate independently of external influences; the problems of sub-surface parking; and that electric cars do not solve congestion. What we need is an integrated approach to urban mobility and the lessons learned here could certainly be applied elsewhere.  

URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019

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Urbanizing the Alps  Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Jack Pritchard, Associate Urban Designer at Glenn Howells Architects