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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

The Degrowth City?

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

We need to put Degrowth and Urbanisation together

The phrase ‘without growing’ seems to imply stasis, or ‘inactivity’. This impression probably stems from our tendency for biological metaphors - stasis, as Plato the ‘good doctor’ diagnosed, is a real disease; it afflicts ‘the city’ causing plagues and civil war.[1] For Plato a city could also be degenerate and unjust. He provided a cure: the ideal city, which as the Republic established, was static and governed by reason, with a fixed (and therefore controllable) number of inhabitants. It was balanced and unchanging – provided you were the ‘ideal citizen’ Plato required. The body politic has always promoted whichever power is making the diagnosis.[2] By seeing sickness, Plato could introduce change, given ‘The bare assertion that the city was sick simply established the existence of the disease, leaving scope for the possibility of a more hopeful prognosis’.[3]

I was struck to find the continuation of this discourse in planning today. The city and the economy are sick. There are many 'doctors'. Marco Dall’Orso at Arexpo argues, following the UN Sustainability Goals, that we must innovate by moving ‘towards the ideal city’, on a ‘virtuous trajectory’. He asks, ‘What characterises an ideal city and how do we get there?’ Unsurprisingly, ‘An Ideal City is vibrant, authentic, inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. His cure: the city must become a ‘green-tech machine’.[4] The Republic has inspired a tradition of ideal cities - none of which was apolitical – and green-tech/smart cities belong alongside it. [5] When we speak of 'smart buildings' and 'resilient regions' do we speak of the city or the body?

Songdo in South Korea makes this point clearly. [7] Not only because inhabitants coo over ‘how much Songdo has grown’, but also because the kind of ‘just’ ‘resilient’ and ‘sustainable’ which Songdo achieves is inflexible - the smart city requires over-determined architecture and technologies at odds with social innovation.[8] This is the wrong type of sustainable - a ‘closed system…in harmonious equilibrium…[which] has paralysed urbanism’.[9] Thus the ‘Smart City’ requires creative destruction to avoid the kind of ‘stasis’ which Plato wished to cure.[10] Cities themselves are technological remedies for the vitality of our planet, and there are 'green' technologies. But making the city more technologically complex does not necessarily establish pathways towards a sustainable future. Indeed it might reduce them. [6]

The technologies we choose surely depend on the values of their users, which determine 'innovation' (von Hippel, 1986). 'Degrowth' seeks to disrupt a value system based on economic growth, thus it aims at the 'planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being' (Hickel 2020). 'Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a Degrowth society might look like'. Whilst I am not a Degrowth scholar, I do know about the history of urban planning - particularly Modernist 'growth mania'. It seems that until we decouple urban planning from growth, it will be impossible to decouple the economic growth - innovation paradigm. Planning, a complex and interdisciplinary system, has presupposed urban and economic growth. However, as Donatella Calabi stated, (at the first International Conference on the History of Urban and Regional Planning in 1977), planning is ‘neither vice nor virtue, it is merely part of the superstructure of institutions built on the foundations of the economic organization of society’. To reorganise the economy is to reorganise urban planning; the two reinforce each-other.

How do we put degrowth into planning? Degrowth in the city does not equal a return to medievalism or abandonment, but a change in the urban mentality. Hence Varvasouris and Koutrolikou argue that ‘scholarship should develop theoretical and practical proposals, in an effort to rethink what degrowth means as an urban form of life’.[16] Can urban planning and degrowth work together, to change the focus from financially incentivised, commodity-producing activities to human creativity? [11] Can urban morphology be post-growth, in that it reflects objectives other than economic growth? [12] These are big questions – but Degrowth literature has only just begun to address urbanisation. As planners Angelos Varvarousis and Penny Koutrolikou have stated, ‘the relation between Degrowth and the city is still underdeveloped’. [13] STS studies have explored how localised, inexpensive and democratizing technologies might enable post-growth social innovation. [14] Urban planners indicate that infrastructure could complement these technologies; Wächter (2013) argued that 'spatial planning institutions have a decisive role in the transition process'. Others have called therefore for Degrowth studies to address ‘space’ and planning mechanisms as technology. [15] Ferreira and von Schönfel, in the ‘Manifesto for an Interdisciplinary Alliance’, argued that the gap between planning and Degrowth must be bridged with a joint research agenda. [17]

‘How can we Build a Radical Urban Degrowth Agenda for Future Cities?’ [18] One can approach this topic in multiple ways. An STI approach would investigate which technologies and infrastructures are used in planning, how and why they are prioritised and how they are governed - thus policy making and monitoring. Such an approach could be applied to the initiatives which have 'accelerated' urbanisation towards the SDGs - as Raworth and ‘the Doughnut’ have shown in Amsterdam. Policy analysis would identify what Paul Chatterton labels as ‘the structural conditions’ which ‘lock us into the corporate growth agendas’, and promote spaces in favour of local mobility, energy networks and economic life. [19] Chatterton's 'Bio City', with images by James McKay, offers an alternative mode of construction.

Equally, one can also look bottom up, to identify grassroots modes of urban re-organisation through appropriation or re-use. STS and innovation studies have asked how the city is being ‘used differently’ and creatively to promote new social arrangements with ‘horizontal’ values [20]. Degrowth activists reclaim space; urban gardens, as Dalia Milian Bernál has shown, convert abandoned plots to link local food production and consumption. [21, 22] These alternative economies operate without financial incentives thus represent a form of 'non-commercial innovation'; food is cooked anonymously for the community, for example. In Leipzig, tenants are restoring vacant buildings for free in return for ‘one euro rent’. Such case studies provide, as Jonathan Este has written, ‘an opportunity to look afresh at urban planners’ traditional toolboxes’. [23] That said, these initiatives are in part successful because they are styled as self-led acts of rebellion. The real question seems to be how urban planners might learn about the spatial impacts of their goals from Degrowthers, and vice versa. This requires an integrated approach.

For this conversation to open up more broadly we need images and symbols. Chatterton argues that the ‘civic middle’ – the city-neighbourhood structures and people which lie between the state and grassroots approaches, are essential to making Degrowth urbanism work. The ‘civic middle’ can only be mobilised with outreach. Both ideas and institutions shape the city hence we must start to visualise a city without growth. We must push against a tradition of ‘the ideal city’ (conceptualised rather dully by Marco dall’Orso, see below). Can we think of a ‘circular’ or ‘Doughnut’ city’? Or does the circle just get bigger? Could we think of the city as part of a forest (VanderGoot 2018)? Just as attitudes to the economy of the future need to change, so the ‘city of the future’ should be re-imagined, in physical and conceptual ways. Imagination prevents passivity and can challenge the nineteenth-century imaginary, which suffused the city with a socio-economic ideology. As put forwards at the Town Planning Conference in 1910:

The city as a whole will be traversed by wide roads radiating from the centre and partly occupied by elevated platforms kept continually in motion, so that by this means rapid intercommunication between the several zones will be assured. These platforms will be terminated by revolving turn tables erected over the point of intersection of the principal streets. Lastly, the city will be planted with large parks and flower gardens, forming centres wherein rest, health and beauty may each be pursued… The conquest of the air will herald the reign of universal peace and wealth. The cities of tomorrow will be more readily susceptible to transformation and adornment then the cities of yesterday. They will be built with superb towers which will attract these giant birds from every point of the horizon: and before long, perhaps our great capital cities will raise their beacons to a higher and yet higher altitude, competing with the very clouds themselves.[24]

These were not the cities of ‘now’, as this planner argued: "To bring these dreams within the range of practical possibilities would require the expenditure of enormous sums! And it is for this reason that the carrying out of such a project must be relegated to some date within the far distant future." Is that ‘distant future’ today? In 1910, it was believed that "It is merely a question of money, and the amount can be calculated." Putting Degrowth into planning and so reconceptualising the ‘the Degrowth city’ itself, is a means to mount a challenge to this idea.

Dall'Orso, 'a virtuous trajectory'.

*not like this


Urban planning fits into both STI and STS study agendas. An STI approach would investigate which technologies and infrastructures are used to pursue the SDGs, how and why they are prioritised, how they are governed - thus policy making and monitoring - and how this decision making might be communicated to the public. An STS approach would investigate the nature of infrastructure as a social institution, therefore how certain forms of planning have, or might impact upon human values (including sustainability) and what discourses and practices certain infrastructures enforce. This overlap is complex and cyclical. STI policy is essential to achieving the SDGs, but SDGs also require social innovation (Cervantes and Hong, 2018). Capacity for social innovation is improved by certain STI policies and urban infrastructures.

An organisation is

[1] Plato, Republic 372e; Thucy. 6.18.6; Solon, 4.17. [2] Brock (2000); Ricciardone (2014); Foucault (2003); Eaton (2002); Kumar (1987). [3] Brock (2000) 26. [4] Dall’Orso (2017); UN SDG 11. [5] Picon (2015); Townsend (2015); 'Repoliticizing Sustainability', Asara, Otero, Demaria and Corbera (2015). [6] Gorz (1980); Pansera and Fressoli (2020). Scientific Research and Development may not translate into 'improvements', "‘Molecules, Missions and Money." The Economist, Jan 16, 2021. Cf. ‘Centre for Alternative Technology’, [7] Songdo, South Korea. [esp. 12:00 >]. [8] Sennett (2020); Pansera (2020). [9] Sennett (2020). [10] Goldhill (2020); Parrili and Herras (2017). [11] Hickel (2021); Parrique (2019). [12] Growth should not be pursued for its own sake. ‘A planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being’. Hickel (2020); Kallis (2018); Schneider (2010). [13] Angelos Varvarousis and Penny Koutrolikou, ‘Degrowth and the City’, 2019. [14] Pansera (2020); Pansera and Fressoli (2020); Ibrahim SE and Sarkis J (2020). [15] Wachter, P. (2013) 'The Impacts of Spatial Planning on Degrowth', Sustainability, 5. 1067-1079; Lehtinen A. A. (2018) 'Degrowth in City Planning', Fennia, 196, 1. 43-57; Ibrahim S. E. and Sarkis J (2020); [16] Angelos Varvarousis and Penny Koutrolikou. 2019. "Degrowth and the City." [17] Ferreira and von Schönfeld (2020). [18] ‘How can we Build a Radical Urban Degrowth Agenda for Future Cities?’ ‘Degrowth Conference’, February 2020. [19] Chatterton (2018);', available online: [20] Hickel (2021); Illich (1973); Schumacher (1973); Gorz (1980); Winner (1980). Social innovation is outlined by Nicholls & Murdock, 2012. Chen (2017) describes social innovation as ethical and social, as well as technologically advanced and viable, efficient, and effective. One wonders how 'technologically advanced' is defined and whether it needs to be included in this definition. Public innovation (Swann, 2014), and responsible innovation (Owens et al., 2012; Stilgoe et al., 2013), emphasize the integration of technological innovation paradigms and humanitarian, social, and value attributes. [21] Autonomy, conviviality, reduced ecological impact, open access. Lloveras, Quinn and Parker (2020). [22] The Huerto Tlateloloco. [23]

VanderGoot, (2018). Architecture and the Forest Aesthetic: A New Look at Design and Resilient Urbanism. New York. [24] Eugène Henard, ‘Cities of the Future’, The Town Planning Conference, R.I.B.A., London, 10-15 October 1910. You can read this here: [25] Dall’Orso (2017).

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