Principles for a degrowth of cities

Federico Savini

How will cities look like in a degrowth society where most of the world population lives in urban areas? The quickest but most reductive way to imagine degrowth settlements is to prefigure intentional communities living happily together and in synergy with nature, realizing principles of conviviality and solidarity that enable a more cooperative and autonomous life, possibly organized around the production of food and the care of the community. There are plenty of examples of real-life degrowth in the literature and they do offer the inspiration needed for degrowth research. Yet, degrowth thinking should not rely on blueprints or already made models if it wants to enable a multitude of possible alternatives and to value its fundamental principle of autonomy. It should instead question and reimagine the social norms that underlie the organization of our society, the cultural and institutional frameworks that permit different forms of sociality to emerge. The task is not to draw on paper how cities would look like – a task that the (eco)modernist designer has already largely fulfilled – but to imagine the principles according to which cities would organize and autonomously evolve.

In a recent paper (open access), I tried to outline such principles. I critically reflected on the three essential shifts that planning can undertake in order to promote an approach to urbanization compatible with a degrowth perspective.

The essential premise of urban growth is that one city alone is far from autonomous and self-sufficient. In global economies, cities are caught into an imperative of specialization – in particular sectors of the economy – and in turn depend on the specialized performance of others. Each city is unable to produce its own food, retrieve its own resources, dispose of its own waste or produce its own energy. Degrowth means an increase of autonomy based on both material and political resources. Instead of an archipelago of specialized centers, city-regions should function as network of federated communities that are at the same time self-sufficient and co-dependent. Communities that seek coordination in provide essential common resources that they, alone, cannot provide. These may include the provision of essential materials, the organization of agriculture, a well-developed health care system, the maintenance of natural areas.

The pursuit of material and political autonomy is an enriching process. Yet, to enable it, city-governments must start thinking in terms of limits. This is what I called the paradigm of finity, the practice of governing by limits. Current urbanization is based on a planning approach that thrives out of incentives and blue-print spatial designs. Governments, often coopted by strong private lobbies, do propose ready made plans of how urban areas should develop. To stimulate private action to achieve environmental targets, they set premiums and incentives to developers, leading to the paradox of urban climate neutrality: large buildings consuming tons of materials and emitting large amounts of CO2 can still be called ‘climate neutral’ because they fulfil predefined criteria of environmental efficiency or bring the necessary compensatory measures (such as planting trees).

This target-based approach to ecological sustainability needs to be substituted by one based on absolute standards that work by setting thresholds that are constitutionally fixed. Absolute thresholds work differently from targets in as much as physical limits work differently from emission trading schemes. Setting a boundary to a minimum of non-built natural areas in each neighborhood is essential to avoid predatory development to occur. Other examples include minimum amounts of social housing, maximum amounts of temporary rentals and maximum amounts of agricultural and productive land for each municipality.

Image credits: PxHere, Creative Commons licence

The setting of absolute limits may resonate with an old-fashioned approach to socialist urbanization but it is far from being so. Limits have been a common instrument of neoliberal states because they create scarcity and thus promote economic transactions. The essential difference is that in a world dominated by negotiations and public-private joint ventures limits have been instrumentally used, adapted and manipulated. They worked as relative environmental targets based on performance: everything is possible as far as the performance target is reached. The result has been an approach to relative sustainability that has progressively greenwashed contemporary capitalism instead of promoting significant socio-economic change. Yet, only if limits will work as a true redistributive mechanism, a degrowth transition will be one that is both ecological and socially just.

The setting of limit must be combined with an approach to urban transformation that is built around an ethic and practice of habitability. Habitability is here understood as the property of an ecosystem to enable the survival of its inhabitants’ biotopes, being them human and more-than-human. It stresses the fact that cities are not a simple patchwork of land uses (eg. commercial, residential, industrial) but are ecosystem of relations. Agricultural areas support local neighborhoods, green areas support free time, buildings support mobility and so on. The future of cities needs to reimagine spatial form in a way that produces such relations, maintains those that are ecologically regenerative, and reduces those relations that are (self)destructive for the urban ecosystem. Instead of setting zones for residential and commercial spaces separate – and then building a trainline or a highway between them – planning needs to think in terms of areas where production/consumption/nature/living/health come together in equilibrium. This should become a new compass of urban quality that appreciates the extent to which a particular area, a city or a neighborhood, are able to balance multiple social, economic and environmental qualities. This must also include a careful consideration for the maintenance of the ecological qualities of place such as clean air, clean water, agroecological spaces and biodiversity.

A regional polycentric autonomy results from the careful pursuit of habitability that is realized through the recognition of a finity paradigm to urbanization. A degrowth urbanization should combine a regional view on socio-economic organization with the prototyping of regulations that enables absolute limits and, in so doing, allow for the redistribution of wealth and land to enable and protect habitability.

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