Land-use policies have long been recognized as important driving forces of urbanization, but little research has been conducted on the interrelationship of actors, policy decision processes and changes in the built environment. In this paper, we use the advocacy coalition framework to analyse policy decisions that affected the development of the built environment in three Swiss municipalities between 1970 and 2007. We found that all three municipalities experienced the same major policy changes, namely a new definition of the role of urban management (1970s); the adoption of an environment- and problem-oriented approach in land-use planning (1980s) as well as an increased emphasis on public participation and intra-municipal coordination (1990s). Although national laws and actors have shaped the crucial driving forces of urban change, local actors, their coalitions and the local distribution of resources crucially determined these decisions in the study period. Our findings suggest that a stronger focus on local actors, their coalitions and resources could greatly improve our understanding of spatial development processes in Switzerland. For instance, as land ownership turned out to be a crucial resource, Swiss municipalities could benefit from engaging more actively in the land market.