Smart cities on old sites

It should be digitised, intelligent even, and able to control its own systems: the smart city is a major challenge for urban development. Basel is currently forging ahead with its transformation of a former rail freight depot in partnership with the Swiss national rail operator SBB.

Former industrial areas, which have fallen out of use because of structural changes, relocation, or a reduction in the land required, are a particular focus of inner city development. SBB, which has large areas of track, maintenance depots, and terminals, is leading the way in regenerating the urban landscape of many places in Switzerland. Its projects include city developments like Europaallee in Zurich and the Neugasse mixed residential and commercial development, also in Zurich, and the transformation of the Wolf rail freight depot in Basel into a test site for smart cities.


Smart cities are based on digitisation, connectivity, increased flexibility, and continuous optimisation of all urban processes. To quote the scientist Vincente Cariabas-Hütter of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), commenting in an article on the website Netzwoche, smart cities “combine a high quality of life for their residents with efficient use of resources”. And that is precisely the future model that cities like Winterthur, Zug, and Basel are actively seeking to develop. Digital information and communication technologies, which redefine the city as a system modelled along dynamic lines, play a key part in this. By monitoring a wide variety of parameters, status reports, and trend forecasts obtained from sensors and comparing them with target values, complex city systems can, ideally, be redesigned to make them more active, sustainable, and fluid.


Basel should soon be able to demonstrate how this might look in practice. The test case for a Swiss smart city is being developed at a test site in Basel’s Wolf rail freight depot, which was built in 1876 when the site was still outside the city gates. The project, launched in 2019, is on track to begin construction in 2023, and the first spaces of the 160,000 m2 site should be ready for occupation in 2027. To ensure they meet these targets, SBB and the urban development department of the canton of Basel-Stadt have launched a cooperative planning process, which will involve as many groups as possible. They have also initiated a wide variety of innovative projects, with more than 60 partners joining Smart City Lab Basel, including the delivery company DPD, the location services provider Proxity, Urb-X, which builds high-level cycle paths, and Radschaft, which uses bicycles to collect organic waste for disposal. This reflects the priority given to aspects like the circular economy, the sharing economy, eco-design, and resilience in Basel’s smart city concept. To achieve its aims, Smart City Lab Basel connects key players from the fields of economics, science, administration, and the citizenry. It provides an environment for tests and experiments on major issues such as mobility, city logistics, resources, and social cooperation. The last of these aspects is vitally important since, ultimately, this is also a matter of acceptance, visible added value, and quality of life – of active participation. Carabias-Hütter believes that future scenarios must be produced and used as a basis for designing models, strategies, and plans of action to achieve these aims. So, since 2019, Smart City Lab Basel has also provided a platform for workshops, lab events, and virtual representations of the future city.


Four teams of architects in Basel have been commissioned to explore the development potential of Wolf, and two studies have now been combined into a development plan. These focus not only on the urban structure of the new district and its new buildings, but also on the integration of any of the existing building stock that proves suitable for repurposing. This is the aspect of the development that will lend authenticity to the district and brings key identifying features into play.


Since the transformation of the Wolf site will serve as a model for many more of SBB’s sites, the project is focusing on scalable and transferrable solutions. “Smart cities are not just about implementing individual projects, but managing a process of transformation to create new city systems,” says Carabias-Hütter.

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