Municipalities of Switzerland

Map of Switzerland showing cantonal, districts and municipal boundaries (2015).

The communes (German: Gemeinden / French: communes / Italian: comuni / Romansh: vischnancas), also known as municipalities, are the smallest government division in Switzerland, numbering 2,596 (as of February 2010).[1] While many have a population of a few hundred, the largest cities such as Zürich or Geneva also have the legal status of municipalities. The area of the municipalities varies between 0.32 km² (Kaiserstuhl, Aargau and Rivaz, Vaud) and 439 km² (Scuol, Graubünden).

Each canton defines the responsibilities of its constituent communes. These may include providing local government services such as education, medical and social services, public transportation, and tax collection. The degree of centralization varies from one canton to another.

Communes are generally governed by a council (sometimes called Municipality) headed by a mayor as executive and the town meeting as legislature. Most cantons leave the option for larger municipalities to opt for a parliament. In some cantons, foreigners who have lived for a certain time in Switzerland are also allowed to participate in the municipal politics.

Swiss citizenship is based on the citizenship of a municipality. Every Swiss is a citizen of one or several municipalities (known as the place of origin, lieu d'origine, or Heimatort). As at the cantonal and federal level, citizens enjoy political rights, including direct democratic ones, in their municipality.

Communes are financed through direct taxes (such as income tax), with rates varying more or less within a framework set by the canton. As among the cantons, there is a tax transfer among the communes to balance various levels of tax income.

Many municipalities are having difficulties maintaining the civil services they need to perform their required duties. In an effort to reduce expenses, some municipalities are combining together (through mergers or the creation of special-purpose districts). This restructuring is generally encouraged by the cantonal governments and these mergers are happening at an increasing rate.

"Cities" (villes or Städte) are municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, or smaller places which had medieval town rights. There is no specific designation for smaller communities such as "village" or "town".

Population No. of communes
in 2004 (%)[2]
>20,000 30 (1.1%)
10,000–19,999 89 (3.2%)
5000–9999 180 (6.6%)
1000–4999 1025 (37.4%)
500–999 555 (20.3%)
<500 861 (31.4%)
Total 2740 (100%)

Communes are numbered by the Swiss Federal Office for Statistics (see Community Identification Number#Switzerland). One or more postal codes (PLZ/NPA) can by assigned to a municipality or shared with other municipalities.

See also: List of cities in Switzerland

Lists of communes by canton

See cantons of Switzerland for the number of municipalities per canton.

List of communes by population

Largest municipalities (2011)[3]
Rank City Canton Pop.
1 Zürich Zürich 376,990
2 Geneva Geneva 188,234
3 Basel Basel-City 164,516
4 Lausanne Vaud 129,383
5 Bern Bern 125,681
6 Winterthur Zürich 103,075
7 Lucerne Lucerne 78,093
8 St. Gallen St. Gallen 73,505
9 Lugano Ticino 55,151
10 Biel/Bienne Bern 51,635

Smallest municipalities (2011)[3]
Rank City Canton Pop.
1 Corippo Ticino 12
2 Martisberg Valais 19
3 Mulegns Graubünden 29
4 St. Martin Graubünden 31
5 Bister Valais 33
6 Pigniu Graubünden 33
7 Selma Graubünden 33
8 Gresso Ticino 34
9 Cauco Graubünden 35
10 Monible Bern 37


The beginnings of the modern municipality system date back to the Helvetic Republic. Under the Old Swiss Confederacy, citizenship was granted by each town and village to only residents. These citizens enjoyed access to community property and in some cases additional protection under the law. Additionally, the urban towns and the rural villages had differing rights and laws. The creation of a uniform Swiss citizenship, which applied equally for citizens of the old towns and their tenants and servants, led to conflict. The wealthier villagers and urban citizens held rights to forests, common land and other municipal property which they did not want to share with the "new citizens", who were generally poor. The compromise solution, which was written into the municipal laws of the Helvetic Republic, is still valid today. Two politically separate but often geographically similar organizations were created. The first, the so-called municipality, was a political community formed by election and its voting body consists of all resident citizens. However, the community land and property remained with the former local citizens who were gathered together into the Bürgergemeinde. During the Mediation era (1803–1814), and especially during the Restoration era (1814–1830), many of the gains toward uniform citizenship were lost. Many political municipalities were abolished and limits were placed on the exercise of political rights for everyone except the members of the Bürgergemeinde. In the Regeneration era (1830–1848), the liberal revolutions of the common people helped to restore some rights again in a few cantons. In other cantons, the Bürgergemeinden were able to maintain power as political communities. In the city of Zurich it wasn't until the Municipal Act of 1866 that the political municipality came back into existence.[4]

The relationship between the political municipality and the Bürgergemeinde was often dominated by the latter's ownership of community property. Often the administration and profit from the property were totally held by the Bürgergemeinden, leaving the political municipality dependent on the Bürgergemeinde for money and use of the property. It wasn't until the political municipality acquired rights over property that served the public (such as schools, fire stations, etc.) and taxes, that they obtained full independence. For example, in the city of Bern, it wasn't until after the property division of 1852 that the political municipality had the right to levy taxes.[4]

It wasn't until the Federal Constitution of 1874 that all Swiss citizens were granted equal political rights on local and Federal levels. This revised constitution finally removed all the political voting and electoral body rights from the Bürgergemeinde. In the cities, the percentage of members in the Bürgergemeinde in the population was reduced as a result of increasing emigration to the cities. This led to the Bürgergemeinde losing its former importance to a large extent. However, the Bürgergemeinde has remained, and it includes all individuals who are citizens of the Bürgergemeinde, usually by having inherited the Bürgerrecht (citizenship), regardless of where they were born or where they may currently live. Instead of the place of birth, Swiss legal documents, e.g. passports, contain the Bürgerort (place of citizenship). The Bürgergemeinde also often holds and administers the common property in the village for the members of the community.[4]

Other types of communes

In addition to the political communes or municipalities, a number of other communes exist in Switzerland. These include:

See also

Notes and references

  1. "Répertoire officiel des communes de Suisse". Statistique Suisse. 2009-01-01. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  2. Official list of Swiss municipalities, p. 17
  3. 1 2 "Population résidante permanente selon l'âge, par canton, district et commune". Office fédéral de la statistique. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
  4. 1 2 3 Bürgergemeinde in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  5. Bäuert in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  6. Degagna in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
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