City focus: Geneva

Marcus Lawrence
- Leadership - Nov 27, 2019

Geneva, Switzerland’s second-largest city and the capital of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, is sometimes referred to as the ‘Capital of Peace’. As the host of the European Union’s United Nations Office, the home of the International Red Cross, and the birthplace of protections for non-combatants in war, the moniker is certainly justified. Geneva is also a favourite location for the international headquarters of numerous multinational businesses, drawn by the strength of its infrastructure, its highly-educated population, proximity to ascendant African and Middle Eastern markets, and the superlative quality of life the city offers. Among those with major offices in the city, Geneva counts such names as Microsoft, BNP Paribas, Dell, Facebook, JP Morgan Chase, Rolex, SITA, PepsiCo, Ralph Lauren, Richemont and Bacardi among its corporate denizens. 

Akin to the country at large, Geneva is a stunningly beautiful place, bordered by the Alps and offering views of their tallest peak, Mont Blanc. As a result, Geneva serves as a hub for skiing enthusiasts, with the world-renowned slopes Chamonix, Flaine, Avoriaz, Les Contamines and La Clusaz all within a 90-minute drive. Straddling the French-Swiss border, Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) completes the region’s topographical reputation for immaculate wildness with clear, crystalline waters, dark forests along its shores and no shortage of wildlife. The lake hosts a series of regattas and yacht races each year, including the Tour du Lac. Conducted around the 166km perimeter of one of Western Europe’s largest lakes, the Tour stands as the world’s longest non-stop rowing regatta.

Despite being Switzerland’s second-most populous city, its population in 2018 stood at just 201,741 across its 15.93km2, according to the Swiss Federal Office for Statistics. For comparison, Bern, the busiest Swiss city and de facto capital, is home to 1.034mn. Owing to its diminutive size and small population, it is known to some as the world’s smallest metropolis. It is, nonetheless, remarkably cosmopolitan, with just 52% of those counted by the Federal Office in 2018 being Swiss. With some claiming that 187 different nations are represented by citizens across the wider Canton, the breadth of spoken languages in the region – beyond the official French, German and Italian – is enormous, with Geneva.info stating: “you can hear just about every other language in Geneva if you listen hard enough, from Albanian to Zimbabwean”. As the city is just 4km from France, it is also widely known as the primary French-speaking city of Switzerland along with being renowned for its French-influenced cuisine and architecture.

Historically, Geneva began as a Celtic settlement before being taken by the Romans and established as a Roman city in 58 BC. Moving into the Middle Ages, it is documented that a tsunami rose from Lake Geneva in 563 AD that destroyed much of the city and claimed the lives of innumerable citizens. Known as the Tauredunum event, the tsunami was supposedly triggered by a rockfall at the opposing end of the lake to Geneva itself. The rockfall, it is believed, caused a collapse of a sediment layer which subsequently set the giant wave in motion. Analysis of the lake’s sediment cores by researchers at the University of Geneva suggests that this was neither the first tsunami-esque incident on Lake Geneva nor the last. “It’s certainly happened before and I think we can expect that it will probably happen again sometime,” said Guy Simpson, a geologist from the University of Geneva, according to Nature in 2012. The findings are applicable to large lakes around the globe, highlighting the little-known threat posed to lakeside populations irrespective of their proximity to fault lines. 

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In more recent years, Geneva has benefitted from its status as an early financial centre in a now famously finance-oriented economy, and enjoys a workforce comprised of highly-educated and internationally-minded professionals. Outside the fiscal world, the city’s traditional watchmaking industry remains, whereas its historic textiles manufacturers have largely disappeared. The city also enjoys a thriving chemical industry that supplies luxury fragrance manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, along with an agricultural base specialising in wine, dairy, wheat and rapeseed. 

Tourism, naturally, is no small matter across the city and the lake, with one of the world’s strongest concentrations of state-of-the-art hotels, chalets and restaurants along with plenty of provision for a. wide range of budgets. Beyond the natural beauty of the Canton, Geneva and neighbouring Lausanne are replete with museums, sites of architectural interest, and medieval streets and plazas.

A facet of Geneva’s touristic offering that is not so easily missed is the emblematic Jet d’Eau. On display all year old, the 140m-tall water column springs from Lake Geneva and began as a safety valve further downstream for the local hydraulic power plant in the 1800s. Its beauty afforded it a prominent and permanent relocation to the city’s shoreline. The jet, itself a common symbol of Geneva, is similarly evocative of the Swiss proclivity for the elegant blending of the natural and industrial. 

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