There is no precise information on the numerical size of the Swiss population up to the century. XVI, in which according to estimates of the time the residents reached one million. The first precise data come from the first federal census in 1850: at that time Switzerland covered an area equal to the current one and had 2.3 million residents. Subsequently, the increase in population recorded moments of intense growth to which economic prosperity, the policy of neutrality and the subsequent industrialization process of the country were not unrelated: for these reasons, in 1930 they exceeded 4 million. The massive immigration of labor required by an economy which, rich in capital, lacked above all a labor force contributed significantly to this increase. According to iamhigher, the population density is approx. 184 residents / km², very high compared to an area with such a harsh morphology. Distribution is very uneven, depending on urban evolution and industrialization, as well as on environmental conditions. The latter determine in particular the low densities of the Alpine areas, which were sparsely populated even in the past (Graubünden, 27 residents / km², 2008 estimate).
Conversely, the Mittelland is affected by a constant demographic expansion. However, the distribution of the population is fundamentally influenced by the urban centers and the most industrially dynamic areas (2/3 of the population live in urban areas). In particular, the recent emergence of “counter-urbanization” phenomena has favored the development of small and medium-sized cities (also in the Alpine areas and in the S). In this way, real urban regions are taking shape not only at an inter-municipal level, but at an inter-cantonal and sometimes international level. The most important are the regions of Basel, Geneva and Geneva, Zurich, Bern and Lugano. These urban agglomerations develop around an urban center with directional functions, especially in the economic and financial field, around which smaller cities coagulate, joined together and with the center aggregated by spaces that are gradually losing their rural characters, to assume those of the urbanized countryside. Switzerland is a country of ancient urban settlements, most of which originated in the Middle Ages around monasteries and castles; market centers were articulated on the easiest communication routes, river or lake of the Mittelland: for example, Basel on the Rhine, Zurich, Geneva and Lucerne on the lakes of the same name etc. Even centers of modest demographic size have, due to the character of public and private buildings, a purely urban physiognomy. Urban concentration, however, is a product of industrialization and as such a phenomenon of our century, so much so that before 1900 no city reached 100,000 residents. Today there are eight main urban agglomerations (Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern, Lausanne, Lucerne, St. Gallen and Winterthur), which collect over 1/3 of the entire Swiss population. All have a historic center that is well differentiated from modern districts and each retains its own physiognomy. The most populated city is Zurich, an old market city, today the economic “capital” of the state.
Located on the northern end of the lake of the same name, Zurich has rapidly developed thanks to its central position with respect to the communication routes with Italy, France and Germany (it is the main railway hub of the country) and above all to the vigorous impulse of industries, banking, financial and commercial activities, which have made it a center of business of international importance. A little north of Zurich is Winterthur, an eminently industrial city that has nevertheless managed to preserve an interesting historical core. Second Swiss city, at a very short distance from both the French and German borders, is Basel, with important industrial settlements, especially chemical ones. It too is a primary railway and road junction, as well as an important river port (to the right of the Rhine) and an active tourist and artistic center. Lucerne presents an analogous union: home to several industrial complexes, it is one of the most popular and elegant tourist centers in the country due to its splendid position on the northwestern corner of Lake Lucerne and the beauty of its ancient buildings. In proximity to French-speaking Switzerland, there is Bern which, precisely because of its geographical location favorable to the two most important ethnic communities, was chosen as the political capital of the Confederation; it is here that the political and administrative life of the country takes place above all. The main centers of French-speaking Switzerland are Geneva and Lausanne both on Lake Geneva. The first, cosmopolitan center par excellence, is home to important international organizations and prestigious scientific research centers. Important centers, all in the Jura area, where the watchmaking industry is particularly widespread, are La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchâtel and Biel. The main city in eastern Switzerland, located near Lake Constance, is St. Gallen, which developed around a famous Benedictine abbey and is still a cultural center with a renowned university. There are countless Swiss towns rich in history, famous monuments, often also of an urbanism of ancient traditions, such as Friborg, Chur, Bellinzona, Locarno, Sion etc. In Italian-speaking Switzerland the most important city is Lugano, on the lake of the same name, a financial and tourist center.