Introduction

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The raw materials and energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, the extreme drought, the nitrogen crisis and farmer protests are just a few examples of the excesses of a growth-driven economy and a reason to rethink the concept of ‘growth’. The subject is frequently discussed on social media (LinkedIn), in newspapers, trade journals, books, but also on television (Tegenlicht, Zomergasten). It strikes us that the discourse about the ‘limits to growth’ has already changed in six months (since the start of our journey along the growth paradigm). This shows that more and more people and institutions recognize that looking at (economic) growth differently could be a key to dealing with the earth and each other in a different way. 

The raw materials and energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, the extreme drought, the nitrogen crisis and farmer protests are just a few examples of the excesses of a growth-driven economy and a reason to rethink the concept of ‘growth’. The subject is frequently discussed on social media (LinkedIn), in newspapers, trade journals, books, but also on television (Tegenlicht, Zomergasten). It strikes us that the discourse about the ‘limits to growth’ has already changed in six months (since the start of our journey along the growth paradigm). This shows that more and more people and institutions recognize that looking at (economic) growth differently could be a key to dealing with the earth and each other in a different way. 

We have recently spoken with a large number of people who are involved in one way or another with this theme. The image that arises from this is one of urgency, but people are also sceptical about the concept of, for example, degrowth as an alternative. The big question is: which growth do you want and which do you not? And how can we manage this? While thinking about this continues to develop, we notice that the experts do not yet have a clear picture of the answers and solutions.

 

The question hre is what the narrative and the perspective can be. Can we develop a positive story in which (economic) growth is no longer the goal? In which, as a society, we distribute resources, energy, and raw materials in a fair way while respecting the ecosystem of the earth? In which there is room for all people to flourish? With this researc h, we want to create open thinking space around the Post-Growth City and further explore how spatial designers and urban planners can contribute to a truly sustainable and just city. We want to start a proactive debate about this, with the important realization that we need to change not only the economy or the city, but also our view of the world and the role of designers in it. BURA and Crimson are looking forward to tackling this together with experts, the Independent School for the City, the partner cities and the professional community. 

Urgency: Limits to growth

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For a long time, we have benefited from the prosperity that the apparently infinite (economic) growth has brought us. And for various parts of the world, economic growth is still an important means of providing all inhabitants with a certain standard of living. In the Netherlands and many other rich countries, however, we see that the addiction to economic growth and our endless urge for more, is depleting the living environment, increasing inequality between people and exceeding the limits of our planet. 

As early as 1972, the Club of Rome published the now famous report ‘The Limits to Growth’ in which the foundation showed that, on the basis of a computer simulation, the expected growth of the world population and the economy will lead to a depletion of natural resources and an exceeding of the planetary boundaries. It is quite a task to come up with an alternative story line. 

Jason Hickel shows in his book ‘Less is More’ (2021) that growth thinking (growthism) is deeply rooted in our culture and society, which we have built up over the past 500 years. Capitalism artificially creates scarcity through, among other things, privatization and expropriation of public resources. This forces people into (low) paid labor, competitive productivity and consumption. The philosophy thus not only lays a claim on our planet and its future, but also on our society, which is characterized by a distinction between winners and losers. Even popular concepts such as broad wealth (which looks beyond material wealth) and green growth (which seeks to limit the impact on the planet) still hold strongly to economic growth in many respects; to more instead of less stuff, housing and infrastructure. However, if we want to organize our lives and our cities in such a way that we stay within the planetary boundaries, then we will have to relate to (economic) growth differently. 

Outline towards the Post-Growth city

Economically driven urban development 

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Cities have an enormous appeal and attract people and companies who want to live, work, meet or study there. Most cities are therefore growing in terms of inhabitants, employment and visitors. It is a (demographic) growth that cities have to a large extent no influence on. Many cities such as Amsterdam, for example, suffer from an attractiveness paradox. Making the city more attractive will in turn lead to more (demographic) growth and at the same time side effects such as higher real estate prices. In addition, we see that the economic growth paradigm of the past decades is also causing undesirable effects in our cities and spatial planning practice. Urban development has been used for decades to facilitate the growth of production (companies, factories, and offices), consumption (retail trade, shopping centers), trade and exchange of services and goods (Xue, 2021). On the one hand, this has brought a lot to the city, but it has also resulted in cities becoming highly dependent on the market, with financial value development and scarcity being perhaps the biggest drivers behind area developments. 

The effects of this are noticeable every day: the shortage of housing, the ever-rising house prices, the impact of urban development on the climate, the depletion of raw materials for building materials, and the resulting pollution. The fight for space in a country like the Netherlands to facilitate growth (nitrogen crisis), spatial segregation within cities and parts of the country, the commercialization of city centers and land speculation are also a consequence of this. The city is often seen as ‘the engine of the economy’, but is it the engine of the right economy? 

While hard work is being done in all sorts of areas to make cities more social and sustainable, it is not possible to curb the excesses of (economic) growth thinking. We also see this in our own projects; as designers we have to work within the existing system, trying to achieve the highest possible ambition in terms of social, spatial and ecological sustainability. But the financial starting points of a project are often the bottleneck to pursue an even higher ambition (for example Merwede in Utrecht). 

As architects and urban planners, we also think largely in terms of expansion and growth, and we may also be professionally dependent on growth because our income is related to construction and area development. We think that critical reflection is important right now. Because, as designers, should we always facilitate any form of growth in our cities? And how can we, from our discipline, propose an attractive narrative here? 

This research is made possible with subsidies by the Creative Industries Fund NL.