Degrowth of cities: why it is necessary and where to start [video]

By Federico Savini. Lecture given at the Independent School of the City, Rotterdam, November 2022

In this lecture, I introduce the building blocks of a degrowth agenda for cities.

Degrowth is a planned downscaling of all activities that are environmentally harmful and socially alienating, starting from those that are ‘less necessary’ for well-being. Degrowth requires a change in social values to slow down consumption and the ideology of competition that drives it. However, degrowth is also a planned increase of all activities that regenerate the ecosystem and improve social well-being. The growth of the economy of care, education, and creativity for people and the environment. Made possible through a program of redistribution of wealth and regenerative designs.

Why is degrowth so important today? We have no evidence that the current mainstream sustainability strategies are working. Economic growth shows no absolute decoupling with emissions. While some relative decoupling is visible in some countries (of the global North), these results are the consequence of delocalizing productions. Furthermore, the increase in material consumption also does not lead to more well-being. What we care about more in our daily life is social relations, family, care, education, and authenticity in interpersonal relations.

Degrowth proposes a mode of socio-economic organization that pursues well-being directly, not as a proxy of economic wealth.  It focuses on basic human needs rather than material consumption and increased production. It is a program of abundance because it increases all non-material activities that are socially empowering and convivial. It promises to enact a redistribution of wealth by reducing excess and non-socially necessary production/consumption

Cities as key sites of degrowth. Cities cover 2% of the planet’s surface (1% for some other estimates). Yet, they consume 75% of all materials in the economy. The world’s top 600 cities are expected to drive nearly two-thirds of global economic growth by 2025. They are growth machines because their real estate, infrastructure, and land are the most valuable assets of the financialized economy. However, they have a high potential for degrowth. They are spaces of prefiguration and experimentation in real-life conditions. The remaking of cities can be the pathway and seedbed for a degrowth society.

The main problem with current urban sustainability strategies is that they thrive out of the cost-shifting of what we understand as eco-innovation. By 2040, the International environmental agency forecasts that demand for lithium – the material that powers our electric cars and devices – will be 42 times the 2020 levels. Renewable energy is useful and necessary but it cannot be the only tool for an eco-city. Producing 1kWh from renewable energy requires 10 times more metals than from fossil fuels. If we do not downscale consumption in cities, we will never be able to reach climate targets. It is like digging a hole in the water.

Urban degrowth means to both downscale and slow down the social metabolism of cities, all the materials that are imported, transformed, and rejected in and from cities. This goal is grounded on a social program of justice: to reduce excess while increasing minimum standards of (urban) life. To get this strategy right, we must understand how cities grow.

How do urban economies grow? There are three processes that identify a growth-dependent urban economy. A) functional specialization: this is the increasing lack of autonomy of cities and the tendency to reduce the socio-ecological resilience of urban areas. B) the maximizing of land productivity to commodify it while boosting land prices. C) the use of static, geometrical and human-centric zoning frameworks. Current zoning has become a static tool that reflects a binary mindset. It divides land use into individual properties. It is unable to recognize common property rights and ecological cycles.

In light of these mechanisms, what does degrowth means for cities? It means first the pursuit of urban autonomy within polycentric socio-ecological settlements. We need to strive for the spatial overlap between material demands, resource/energy supply, and political responsibilities. This means taking bio-regionalism seriously: a view on urban settlements that combines the bio-physical properties of environments with the socio-political modalities of its government (and a program of technological advancement that allows feeding large populations. This allows making urban consumption and production closer and smaller to release the burden on unbuilt land and the exploited peripheries of the globe. It is a slowing, closing, and shrinking urban material loops, through a socially oriented circular economy strategy. To do so, sufficiency principles must be integrated into the way we design urban space. Bio-regions offer boundaries, and these boundaries allow us to define alternative ways to thrive.

Secondly, urban design and planning must embrace finite as a logic of spatial use. This is an approach to spatial development based on maximum and minimum standards and a toolkit that is geared to set limits to material and energy use. Through these tools, we can tackle excess in order to redistribute spatial wealth and promote forms of common property rights that maintain urban resources instead of exploiting them

Thirdly, habitability is the degrowth-leading land use principle. 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. Habitats are spaces that nurture a regenerative relationship between humans and their ecosystem. They thrive out of a consciousness of how human well-being depends on the ecosystem. This means bringing back the material necessities of our way of living within cities. To reject the idea of a city as a brain, as an internet, as a smart device. To reconceptualize it as a space for survival, socio-material wealth, and regeneration.

In conclusion, degrowth can be an imaginary of planning. It informs a practice of urban design that it is necessary to reduce the metabolism of cities. It envisages an increase in the material and socio-political autonomy of cities. To do so, finity can be taken as a principle of land use and spatial organization. In so doing, we can legitimate and enable redistribution of excess towards socio-spatial justice. Finally, degrowth asks us to create spatial relations that are regenerative and that nurture ecological consciousness.

This lecture is based on this scientific publication.

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