Degrowth and planning: cities in the face of the climate crisis

This is the text of the keynote speech held by Federico Savini on Sunday 7th November, 2021, at the Planning national congress of Turkey. The talk is based on the article published here, open access.

A new worldview of limits

1.5 has become a very important number for our society. The IPCC identifies the 1.5 degree as the maximum increase in temperature from pre-industrial levels, if we want to stop the progressive extinction of our species.  This is a conservative and hopeful estimate.

This number testifies the human made destruction of our ecosystem. It represents the rapid loss in biodiversity, the downgrading of soil fertility, the rising of sea levels and the risk of flooding and fires worldwide, to cite few examples.

It also represents the socio-political consequences that we are facing due to these ecological changes. The loss of liveable land is leading millions of people to migrate. This will raise nationalisms and extremisms. It will push towards new forms of colonialism to appropriate resources necessary for life. The 1.5 number tells us that our economy is based on a logic of dispossession, extraction, and violence.

Yet, the number also encapsulate the solution to these problems. A fundamental shift in mentality: from an ideology of endless growth to a worldview that puts the notion of ‘the limit’ at the centre of existence. The 1.5 degree sets an upper limit to cross-national policy negotiations worldwide. It indicates that our economic system needs to be radically rearranged in order to survive and prosper.

This is the essential paradigm shift that the notion of degrowth pursues: it rethinks the economic organization of our society in terms of stability within limits. This ambition will invest all aspects of socio-economic organization. As I will argue later, this also provides with a very different position of planning theory and practice.

The idea of degrowth is rooted on the acknowledgement of the obvious: our planet, our bodies, are finite. They cannot take an endless expansion of the economy. Degrowth identifies a socio-economic system that is emancipated from the ideal of endless accumulation. It proposes a society that pursues economic reduction, downscaling, deceleration, and in so doing it falls back within the carrying capacity of our planet. The limits posed by degrowth are both a constraint and an opportunity.

On the one hand, degrowth rejects the illusion posed by the relative decoupling of economic output and environmental degradation. Resource efficiency remains crucial to address ecological problems, but it is not enough because, while decreasing the relative intake of resources per economic activities, it does not question the endless increase of economic activities themselves. Degrowth points at the problem of greenwashing and recognizes that our economic system is fundamentally biased towards accumulation. This accumulation is insensitive to planetary boundaries.

On the other hand, the degrowth imaginary mobilizes the idea of limits in a positive way. It recognizes that by setting limits to endless accumulation, and to the space that economic transactions have in our society, social relations can become more fruitful. In other words, downscaling is what generates wellbeing. It is through the reduction of economic transactions that social relations become more creative, emancipated from the frustrating push of competition and individual appropriation. Through downscaling we can open investments in the economy of care, such as health and education. This economy thrives out of social relations.  

These propositions are rooted in the observation of real-life practices of degrowth that already take place in urban areas. Existing degrowth literature is largely inspired by these urban practices. Yet, planners, architects, urban designers have been largely absent in the degrowth debate. This is something we need to address because cities are very central to a degrowth transition. 

Cities are the engines of our current economic growth

The global gross domestic product is primarily generated in cities because it is there that the richest economic transactions are performed. These are those in real estate and infrastructures, and their securitization. It is in urban agglomerations that their asset value is the greatest and land is valued the most. The financial economy is rooted in urban transformations.

However, the production of the urban environment is also the human activity that has the most environmental impact. Urbanization demands globally 5000Kg of raw materials per person each year, and this is an average that doesn’t consider differences among countries. In 2050 this value is expected to double. Each human on hearth uses 18 kilos of sand each day to produce concrete. Concrete is today the most wanted as well as the most destructive material on hearth today.

The average ecological footprint of city-dwellers – which is the measure of the overall impact of people’s lifestyle on the planet – is 6 times higher to those of less urbanized areas, and 15 times higher than any threshold of sustainability. This is particularly high in the global north. Urban dwellers still tend to consume and travel more and further, and our built environment is planned to promote those behaviours. Furthermore, the World Resource Institute has recently published a report on the state of climate action. This report shows that construction, transportation and land use remain the sectors that are the least performing in terms of climate targets.

The economic growth of cities has also dramatic social costs. The most attractive investments on land are those that brings the highest economic output: residential estates in prime locations, business centres with architectural landmarks, industrial zones connected by high-speed trains, highways, or airports. The victims of these development are all those people that live in areas with high rent-gaps, the dispossessed and evicted. These people suffer the perpetual search of land productivity

Our current economy is built on a vicious cycle, as this illustration shows. 

Fig.1: a summary of the vicious cycle of growth and displacement

Urban growth leads to economic success. This economic success fuels investments in cities. These investments in the built environment generate displacements and create new demands, which in turn pushes the economy even further. Urban growth relies on displacement and dispossession. If competition stops, development stagnates. And if development stagnates, socio-economic differences increase. This leads to more social conflict. Cities become more divided and, therefore, less liveable. This degenerative process is commonly known as urban shrinkage.

Planning had a contradictory role in this scenario

On the one hand, cities have been planned to promote economic efficiency and economic transactions. Planning increases land productivity to boost land markets, and to make them work at a local and global scale. On the other hand, planners have dealt for long time with the human and environmental negative impact of this economic efficiency. The liveability of urban areas has been a crucial task of planners since the post-war era and even more so in the last 20 years.

Yet, the mainstream planning approaches of today are not very different than the growth management approach used since late 70s. Today’s version may be called green growth management. This approach sees planners as manager of the negative externalities of economic and population growth rather than active players in addressing their causes. This is what eco-modernization fundamentally entails.

The imaginary of degrowth is a critique to eco-modernization. Eco-modernization assumes that the existing social, political and cultural institutions can internalize the care for the environment. Against this idea, degrowth argues that the care of the environment needs radically different institutions that govern the development of cities.

Today’s challenge is to imagine a planning of degrowth: an approach that is able to break the vicious circle of perpetual accumulation, and at the same time ensure socio-spatial justice and wellbeing.

Degrowth scholars and activists have already given many suggestions in this direction. However, they have not yet engaged with planning directly. We can summarize the existing degrowth urban imaginary in three propositions: the development of low impact living through common property arrangements, the establishment of synergy between nature and the built environment, and the improvement of direct democracy to govern urban space. Most used examples are slow mobility practices, housing cooperatives, tiny houses, community supported agriculture. Other examples are local agro-ecological productions, such as the transition towns or the back to the land movement.

While highly inspiring, this research does not explain what are the institutions that can enable the reproduction and upscaling of those practices. For those practices to prosper, planning needs to rethink its logics at a deeper level. This is not a new utopian project or a finished masterplan.

Instead, this means to rethink the institutions and social norms that drive urban development. We must ask: what are the planning principles of an urban degrowth imaginary? To answer this question, we must first understand how cities grow.

How cities grow

There are three mechanisms of urban growth that needs to be addressed: a) the promotion of regional competition through functional specialization. B) the planning of land scarcity to increase land monetary value; c) zoning as the main tool to create economic value.

As any other market in contemporary capitalism, urban development fosters specialization and competition. To increase productivity, planning has organized regional areas as machines where each piece has a specific function. Regions are organized into residential zones which are distant from business zones; retail is separated from living and production; tourist areas are isolated from local populations; agricultural areas are far from where people shop, eat and live.

One of the consequences of this process is that regions eventually concentrate also environmentally harmful functions. Large scale industrialized agriculture – one of the key industrial sectors of The Netherlands from example – are today the largest emitters of nitrogen, a gas that is poisonous for life.

The most immediate result of this spatial organization is our dependency to fast mobility and large-scale infrastructures. But also, the concentration of pollution and the creation of wastelands. Social segregation is also a consequence of this functional specialization between areas of production and areas of social reproduction. This has also promoted and urban lifestyle that compartmentalizes daily life and that is often unpleasant to leave. Planners has tried for years to manage these problems, but it has failed to recognize that it is the pursuit of economic growth that produces these patterns.

The second process that drives urban growth is the maximization of land value through scarcity.

Planning is an organizer of scarcity. Just as the scarcity of time makes humans looking for more productive uses of each single minute, scarcity of land leads market players to maximize land values. Planning defines if, how and when a piece of land can be used. By doing this, it produces expectations on the increase of land values. The least land available for development, the highest the expectation of the increase of value. Scarcity is necessary to economic value.

The problem with this is that cities today depend on land productivity to pay for public services. Most common reasons for politicians (and planners) to embrace a market logic is that it allows them to generate revenues that pay for services that they see necessary for the public good. The notion of public good is politically, and often, arbitrarily, defined.

Yet, this system hardly works. Public revenues have been progressively decreasing. Neoliberal policies have reduced the number of public benefits that trickles down to urban dwellers (see this article for the Amsterdam context). This vicious cycle never stops and is highly unstable. The least public money, the more the incentive to turn land into assets. As consequence, the most investments concentrate in areas that are already wealthy (such as prime locations) or with high rent-gaps, leading to displacement and social polarization.

The strategic plans in major cities all tend to pursue this logic. They identify high rent-gap areas and increase development pressure there. I think that planning has a larger role to play in stopping this cycle. From being an organizer of markets, it can perform as a counter power against market mechanisms. Later I will argue how.

The third institution that drives urban growth is zoned land use. Market needs property to function. Property rights in land market are organized through zoning. Yet, planners still use a technique of zoning that was invented decades ago to address the problems of today. This is called Euclidean zoning: the technique of dividing land into single units that have specific uses. This technique of zoning works in a geometrical and rationalist way. Planners divide land into specific uses and then combine these uses according to what it is believed to be ‘good’ planning at a particular time and place. In this way, they can organize property and use rights that are exchangeable. For example, they can promote the selling of agricultural land in exchange of land for houses which bears more profits.

Euclidean zoning is essential to an approach to property that is subjective, because it assigns uses to single legal subjects. This has reduced the possibility to develop forms of property that are held in common, neither public nor private. It also forecloses the possibility to experiment with new combinations of functions. These are use categories that may not even exist today in the zoning inventory of planners.

In sum, for an urban degrowth, it is necessary to define a technique of spatial organization that is not Euclidean, geometrical nor subjective. As I will argue next, this technique must be more relational.

Principles for an urban degrowth

How can we rethink these three mechanisms of planning from a degrowth perspective? For a planning of degrowth I propose three new approaches to urban development: a) the promotion of a polycentric and autonomous regional system; b) the use of finity rules in planning, instead of scarcity; d) a tool of organization that is relational because it strives for habitability and not functionality. Let discuss each of them separately.

Bioregions

From a degrowth perspective, cities need to be autonomous from the imperative of endless growth to be sustainable and just. Autonomy is here understood in both ecological and political terms. Ecological autonomy means that urban areas should be able to self-sustain as much as possible their needs of resources. These resources are food, energy, waste processing, natural areas but also health services, jobs, education and all functions of social reproduction.

The building of connections between urban, natural, and rural environments is central to this process. Cities should be rethought as ‘bio-regions’, urban ecosystems seeking for the maximum overlap between the agroecological, the social and the political dimension of living.

Ecological autonomy and political autonomy depend on each other. Becoming self-sufficient is both a condition and a result of a political culture of collective self-provision. The commoning of material resources is central to this process. Commoning makes urban dwellers both co-producers and co-owners of these resources. To do so, it strives to reach a larger overlap between the territories of resource production and those of consumption.

Not all resources can be provided locally of course. Think about specialized health care for example. The making of federations of cities is therefore crucial to ensure that these services are provided in a coordinated way. Differently from most regional networks today, these federations need to be understood from the bottom up, according to what we may call an inversed subsidiarity principle. This process will lead to governing institutions that are very different from existing nation states. These institutions will be rooted on the ecological specificity and autonomy of urban areas and not on their geopolitical power.

The history of planning thought has already envisioned similar directions. Friedman already talked about ‘agropolitan development’ in the early 80s, Bookchin used the term bioregions in a more anarchic fashion in the late 70s. Mumford talked about ecological regions. The notion of bioregionalism should move beyond the field of landscape architecture, where it has been used widely (eg. McHarg) and be taken seriously also by planners.

There are already examples of this form of regional organization. There are regional networks of food producers federating together into territories that surpass the urban and rural division. Here you see few examples. The Territorios Campesinos Agroalimentarios in Colombia. This is a federation of local food producers in Colombia, organized as a regional network. In the housing sector, the German Mietshäuser Syndikat offers an example of a federated network of housing cooperatives in the whole Germany that surpasses regional-states boundaries, and it is built from the bottom up.

Finity

My second proposition is that this self-sufficiency needs to be organized around principles of finity. It is impossible to be self-sufficient and at the same time acquire limitless amounts of resources. This is why limits are essential to a degrowth urbanism. My argument is that institutions of finity must guide the future of planning.

Planners need to think in terms minimum and maximum limits. How to reach and keep those limits should object of democratic deliberation. What functions should a city limit? What is the maximum level of pollution, residential development, soil and water consumption, CO2 and nitrogen emissions possible for wellbeing? On the other hand, what is the minimum level of social housing, green space, biodiversity, air-quality, education facilities, food supply in each neighborhood or city? Thinking in terms of finity can open new spaces for democracy and give true legitimacy to policies of spatial redistribution.

On the one hand, it permits to deliberate about the necessary qualities for the wellbeing of a particular place. On the other, it defines the meaning of ‘excess’ or ‘too much’ in urban development. With targets of reduction, it is possible to enable socio-spatial redistribution and the socialization of urban resources.

As Raworth has explained through her doughnut economic model, it is through the making of these limits that we can reach a regenerative and redistributive economy. At the basis of this notion, there is the idea that endless wealth accumulation is dangerous for society. As the philosopher Robeyns argues, the climate crises call for a new politics of ‘limitarianism’.

There are existing examples from which to get inspiration. The much-used congestion charges or parking space limitations work in this way after all. We could imagine a more extensive use of these tools. Examples include caps to multiple properties or to flights in a particular region.

A great example of how these finity rules can work is the Deutsche Wohnen & CO enteigen campaign in Berlin as well as the rent cap system in Berlin, or in Amsterdam. This campaign is proposing to expropriate large developers with more than 200.000 properties of their excessive units. The rent caps are another tool that allows to regulate rental markets. These are existing projects and not dreams. They already find great consensus among inhabitants as we saw in Berlin recently.

The revenues generated through the limitation of excess can be then redistributed to supply essential services in those areas with scarce urban amenities. Thinking in terms of finity – instead of scarcity – opens up a planning approach that prioritizes the maintenance of equilibrium and addresses the fact that development cannot be never ending.  It rejects the idea that the monetary offsetting of development externalities is enough to foster reduction.

Habitat

Earlier, I argued that the division of land into Euclidean, geometrical and functional zones is what structures markets into individual land property systems. The task for a degrowth planner is not to abandon any form of land use organization all together. It is instead to devise one that is relational and context dependent. I here propose a form of land organization that is geared towards habitability.

Differently from the most common used term of livability, habitability rejects an anthropocentric view on cities. A habitat is made of a relation between the ecological properties of a territory and its socio-spatial organization. In biology, habitability is the capacity of a particular physical space to support the activity of an organism, that is, to provide the set of resources and conditions required for its way of life.

Humans are these organisms, but their survival depends on the prosperity of other species such as plants, bacteria, birds, insects. Human survival needs both relational and ecological resources. Our current understanding of livability has excessively focused on the socio-psychological component of life. We developed an understanding of wellbeing as being sociable. This understanding was essential for the knowledge economy to prosper. Yet, it does downplay the role that the ecosystem has in the psychophysical survival of humans.

Planning has substituted the bio-physical resources necessary for human life with those necessary to the survival of markets. Cities lack nature, food production, clean air for healthy living. They are ridden with heat waves, pollution and too much noise. These factors push the boundaries of our bodies, with consequential mental illnesses or respiratory problems. Cities regularly expel the wasted nutrients that can be reused for food production. They emit CO2 and compost instead of using it. My point is that the increased economic diversity of cities is coming at costs of human survival itself.

I understand habitability has a shift of the subject of land rights. The right to use land moves from the individual owner to the socio-ecological relations that the land produces. Habitability allows planners to regulate urban transformations asking simple questions: How much this development increases CO2 or Nitrogen emissions beyond reasonable levels for life? Does this project increase biodiversity or decrease it? Does this project nurture the necessary diversity for social wellbeing? Or rather reduces that diversity?

These are just examples of the essential questions of planning in our times. The way they are answered will depend on each specific place and city. There is no masterplan, but just a framework that identifies patterns of reduction and improvement of socio-ecological qualities In many cases, these developments will include elements of reduction and downscaling. As I argued before, a finity logic is crucial to enable this process.

For a relational system of land organization, planning can get inspiration from centuries old modalities of governing land. There are already cases of indigenous communities that instead of organizing land in separate parcels, use it according to basic principles of habitation. And these principles become the pillar of the urban commons. One example is the Derechos de Naturaleza of the Ecuadorian constitution, that endows the ecosystem with constitutional rights to protect it.

The Haida Gwaii community of Skidegate in Canada is another example. This community is founded on a system of rights that govern the use of common land. These norms include the injunction to, for example, ‘use and growth food as a medicine’. These values are then translated into land use.

These are just some inspiring examples. However, planners are already able to use these relational tools in planning urban environments. They can shift the focus from predefining ideal combinations of zones on paper and use more complex frameworks that guide urban development starting from an exosystemic perspective.

A new ethic of planning

Degrowth can offer a powerful imaginary for planners, architects, urban and landscape designers willing to radically rethink their role in sustainability and social justice. It offers a conceptual and practical toolkit for the reorganization of human settlements. It urges us to imagine a form of socio-spatial organization that recognizes the limits of ecosystem. By recognizing limits to the economy, planners can finally focus on those priorities that are necessary for the wellbeing, health and creativity of urban societies.

I have argued that to envision a planning for degrowth, we need to think in terms of political and ecological autonomy within polycentric regions. This autonomy requires to shift the planning paradigm from one of scarcity to one of finity. Finally, the way to organize and use land must be informed by the notion of habitat and habitability

I would like to conclude this talk using one image. This image is the cover of a book post-growth planning that I co-edited with Antonio Ferreira and Kim von Schoenfeld. The book will be out early next year.

Author: Enrico Savini, curtesy of artwork reproduction ‘archivio Mauro Staccioli’

This Is a landscape artwork made by an Italian artist called Mario Staccioli and it is called ‘the ring’. It is a circle made of metal, installed in the countryside of Tuscany, in the centre of Italy.

This artwork represents the position that degrowth planners have. They frame the territory. They make sense of it, by setting boundaries to the viewers. Yet, they do not intervene in it as bulldozers. They enhance the qualities of place by setting the focus on what is important.

As the hilly landscape in front of the ring, cities cannot be controlled. Yet, planners influence their working by producing imaginaries of place. These are the frames that create meaning and express values. Just as this simple red ring shows, the production of meaning can be a micro-intervention, a subtle action that is coherent with the specific qualities of place.

Yet, just as the iron material of the ring, planning must have the courage to set clear boundaries. It should devise tools that are able to regulate the perpetual push to economic transactions. I hope that this principle will become a new ethic of planning.

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