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What about the City? Towards an Urban Post-Growth Research Agenda

Institute of Environmental Social Sciences and Geography, University of Freiburg, 79085 Freiburg, Germany
Sustainability 2022, 14(19), 11926;
Original submission received: 9 August 2022 / Revised: 15 September 2022 / Accepted: 19 September 2022 / Published: 21 September 2022
(This article belongs to the Section Sustainability in Geographic Science)


This paper explores the (potential) role(s) of cities for societal shifts away from the prioritization of and dependence on economic growth. This paper is rooted in the growing field of ‘degrowth’ and ‘post-growth’ research that empirically and theoretically challenges the possibility and viability of (further) growth-based economic development. Through a systematic literature review of peer-reviewed journal articles, this paper takes stock of the increasing interest of post-growth scholars in cities and urban spaces. This paper identifies seven ways in which cities feature in the post-growth literature: as arenas, as spaces of encounter, as spaces with specific qualities, as (introversive) agents, as targets, as specific scale, and as interdependent configurations. Building on this collection of perspectives on growth-related research in (differently defined) urban contexts, this paper argues that the emergent field of urban post-growth would profit from a common frame of reference and research agenda around which urban post-growth perspectives can cohere. This paper proposes three key areas of research on post-growth in, by, and of cities while putting questions around the growth dependencies of urban systems front and center.

1. Introduction: Cities in a World of Limits

Cities play a pivotal role in sustainability- and justice-oriented transformations. Scholars have made various arguments for focusing on cities as arenas and agents for changes, innovations, and strategies that work towards green and equitable futures. These range from simple observations that human co-existence increasingly plays out in urban environments [1], to diagnoses of cities’ extreme social polarization [2] and ‘sustainability problem’ [3], all the way to acknowledgments of cities’ capacity to transform themselves and other places [4]. As a result, cities are identified as pivotal sites for intervention and as locales of resistance, experimentation, and innovation [5].
Sustainability-oriented projects and policies investigated by urban scholars, thereby, span a wide range of sectoral and political orientations that range from mobility to housing and from eco-modernism to postcapitalism. Within this multiplicity, a common concern sticks out: all approaches seek to bring the overall metabolism of cities down to sustainable levels of energy and material use [6]. This is, however, where the commonalities end. A considerable number of urban sustainability perspectives foreground technological advancement, building on increased efficiencies as a promising path to bring urban consumption into accordance with planetary ecologies [7]. Others, in contrast, point towards the risks and deepening social disparities associated with largely apolitical technological solutions and foreground redistributive measures and a sufficiency-oriented institutional restructuring [8,9]. Additionally, the theories and concepts that researchers use to explore urban sustainability transformations differ, starting with how the urban is conceptualized [10,11], how cities are put in relation to other places and scales [12,13], and what is meant by terms such as sustainability and transformation with regard to urban spaces [14,15].
Within the broader field of sustainability research, de- and post-growth perspectives are increasingly taking hold [16,17]. Building on a substantive body of empirical data that evidences both the continued coupling of GDP with energy use and material throughput [18,19] as well as GDP’s ambiguous relation to prosperity [20,21,22,23], growth-critical scholars question the underlying premise of economies that are built around the perpetual increase in formal market transactions [24]. Post-growth—a label that I will use in the following as umbrella term to encompass various growth-critical approaches including degrowth perspectives—challenges the (often unquestioned) association of economic growth with social progress and well-being and foregrounds sufficiency-oriented strategies in addressing social-ecological issues [25,26,27,28]. Given the dependency of current institutional arrangements on GDP growth [29,30,31], a key challenge of post-growth research is to explore how the reliance of individuals, organizations, and institutions on market competition, monetary profitability, and financial resources for their proper functioning, subsistence or self-conception can be reduced.
Considering the importance of cities in sustainability research, it comes as a surprise that the burgeoning field of post-growth, to date, has been relatively silent about urban space [32,33,34]. A reason for this might be a general anti-urban sentiment due to localist and decentralist tendencies that some observers attest to post-growth [35,36]—an argument, however, that does not hold up to scrutiny [37]. Another explanation lies in the spatial blindness of the post-growth literature which has been largely developed outside of spatial sciences such as geography and spatial planning [17,38]. Regardless of the root cause for the attested underrepresentation of urban perspectives in post-growth scholarship, this omission has far-reaching consequences for both post-growth and urban sustainability literatures. Post-growth scholars, to date, have primarily looked at the micro scale of specific organizations or groups [39,40,41] and at broad institutional changes (or the possibilities thereof), primarily at national or international scales [42]. Only recently, post-growth scholars have started to take a more systematic interest in cities [8,37,43]. As a result, the knowledge about (potential) measures and policies at the city level to decrease the dependency of individuals, organizations, and institutions on market competition, monetary profitability, and financial resources is still limited and fragmented. Urban transformation literature, in turn, frequently overlooks or sidelines questions around growth dependencies and the overall reduction in economic throughput—questions that become increasingly important in light of the stark limitations of GDP and resource/energy decoupling [18].
Engaging with the emergent field of urban post-growth, this paper asks what role cities do and could play in the shift of societal trajectories away from a prioritization of and dependence on economic growth. This is translated into two research questions: First, in what ways do cities and urban spaces feature in the literature on post-growth-oriented transformations? Second, what are the central (research) questions that delineate the research field of urban post-growth? In response to the first query, this paper takes stock of the urban post-growth literature by presenting a systematic review of peer-reviewed journal articles. This paper carves out different perspectives on and roles attributed to cities and urban spaces in relation to post-growth-oriented actions and developments. In response to the second query, this paper assembles the varied takes on cities and the urban into a common frame of reference and derives potential research questions for further scientific inquiry.
This paper proceeds as follows. Section 2 outlines this paper’s methodology, detailing the review approach and the selection criteria used to identify relevant publications. Section 3 and Section 4, then, give a quantitative and qualitative overview of the findings, in particular a presentation of the different roles of cities as derived from the literature. Building on the diverse ways in which cities feature in urban post-growth writings, Section 5 works its way towards an ordering framework of post-growth in, by, and of cities. This paper concludes by proposing three research questions around which the emerging field of urban post-growth research can cohere.

2. Methods

To identify relevant literature on the role of cities and urban space in growth-critical scholarship, I conducted a systematic literature review. The search included the terms urban, city (cities), and municipal (municipality and municipalities) as well as the terms degrowth and post-growth (postgrowth). This selection of key words derives directly from the first research question that asks in what ways cities and urban spaces feature in the literature on post-growth-oriented transformations. Despite definitional differences, the terms city and urban (space) are often used interchangeably in the literature [12,44]. The term municipality, furthermore, has recently gained currency in (urban) transformation research especially through the field of “new municipalism” [45]. Post-growth and degrowth, furthermore, express different terminological preferences but share a largely common agenda to move beyond growth-based economic discourses and structures [46]. Using the Web of ScienceTM advanced search, three search strings were created, for abstract, title, and keywords, respectively. Search strings for title (TI = (urban*) OR TI = (city) OR TI = (cities) OR TI = (municipal*)) AND (TI = (degrowth) OR TI = (postgrowth) OR TI = (post-growth)), abstract (AB = (urban*) OR AB = (city) OR AB = (cities) OR AB = (municipal*)) AND (AB = (degrowth) OR AB = (postgrowth) OR AB = (postgrowth)); and author keywords (AK = (urban*) OR AK = (city) OR AK = (cities) OR AK = (municipal*)) AND (AK = (degrowth) OR AK = (postgrowth) OR AK = (post-growth)). The three search strings were combined, yielding 70 potentially relevant peer-reviewed articles published in English between the years 2010 and 2022 (cutoff date 15 February 2022).
Based on a reading of all abstracts, the 70 publications were assessed for their relevance to the present topic. A total of 29 publications were excluded on grounds of the following three criteria: (a) publication uses growth not to refer to economic (post-)growth but to other (unrelated) natural or social processes (17 cases); (b) publication equates post-growth to a state of recession and is detached from the broader post-growth debate (5 cases); and (c) publication uses the terms city or urban in a tokenistic way, without any reference to (specific) urban spaces (e.g., as in ‘urban capitalism’ or ‘urban practices’) (11 cases). For some publications, more than one rejection criterion applied. If in doubt, inclusion or exclusion was decided on the basis of a reading of the introduction and conclusion.
The remaining 41 publications (Table 1) were read carefully and systematically. Detailed notes were taken on (a) definition or notion of de/post-growth used in this article; (b) definition or notion of city/municipality/urban space; (c) references to the role of city/municipality/urban space in the context of de/post-growth; (d) other spatial references not included in c; and (e) geographical and thematic focus of this article.
As this literature review only uses English-speaking peer-reviewed articles, other potentially valuable contributions are excluded such as writings in languages other than English and other publication formats such as books, book chapters or grey literature [8,38,43,83]. Furthermore, other related terms such as town, village, place(-based) or local were not included in the search due to their close association with grassroots initiatives–a prominent focus in the post-growth literature. Including these terms would have produced a decidedly larger dataset with limited relevance to the research questions at hand.

3. An Overview of the Urban Post-Growth Literature

A total of 30 out of the 41 publications are based on empirical examples from cities in the Global North with a strong focus on European cities (see Figure 1). A total of 11 papers discuss urban post-growth on a theoretical level without foregrounding specific cities. While not all of these publications explicitly state their focus, most of them implicitly focus on processes and proposals that primarily pertain to the Global North, with the exception of Bisht [47]. The most represented case study is Barcelona, which is prominently explored in connection to tourism and housing (see Figure 2). This geographical focus of urban post-growth literature reflects tendencies in post-growth research at large which mostly focusses on the Global North [84], where post-growth scholars locate the main source of global overconsumption and a particular (contemporary and historical) responsibility for reducing economic throughput [21].
Aside from the geographical focus, the reviewed urban post-growth literature also shows significant tendencies in terms of thematic orientation. With orientation, here, I mean that the papers feature case studies or use examples from specific sectors or specific thematic areas (see Figure 2). Almost half of the papers focus on urban planning/land use or on housing, followed by mobility, which is the thematic orientation of eight papers, tourism (5 papers), and food (4 papers). With only one paper explicitly devoted to water and energy, respectively, these basic public provision services remain marginal in the emergent urban post-growth literature. Mind that the categories used to systematize the thematic foci of the reviewed papers are not based on an established theoretical framework but are derived from the literature itself. The categorization, thus, is primarily illustrative.
With respect to this paper’s interest in the role of urban spaces and configurations for post-growth-oriented transformations (see research questions above), it is striking that only four papers take a broader focus on local and/or alternative economies. Local economic relations are a key issue when it comes to urban growth dependencies and the possibilities for their general reconfiguration [85,86]. Furthermore, general perspectives on municipal budgeting and taxation beyond specific sectors are largely absent in the literature. I will return to these gaps below, after the subsequent section zooms in on the different representations of urban spaces in the urban post-growth literature overall.

4. Disassembling the Urban Post-Growth Literature: The Role of Cities

This paper does not follow or aim to develop a coherent definition of city (ies) and urban space (s). In fact, a considerable part of the emergent urban post-growth literature does not specify their definition of cities or the urban, or provide deeper theorizations thereof. The same is true for the use of (city-related) concepts such as scale [12], relationality [13], or encounter [87] that are not necessarily grounded in or aligned with key debates in urban studies and should be viewed ‘in their own right’. As this section synthesizes perspectives that come from different contextual, disciplinary, and ontological backgrounds, the approach pursued here is inductive—moving from a diversity of ideas and functions around cities in post-growth-oriented research towards a more integrative and general perspective on post-growth (in/of/by) cities [88].
In order to develop a manageable and analytically viable typology of cities’ different roles in the literature on post-growth-oriented transformations, I implemented a three-step process. As a first step, I took detailed notes for each reviewed publication on the ways in which cities and urban spaces feature in the paper (see Section 2). After completion of the literature review, in a second step, I grouped perspectives that are alike to build proto-categories and to examine commonalities and differences within and between them. In a third step, finally, I selected and honed those categories with a high analytical viability while excluding more specific and idiosyncratic ones. Other categories that were developed from the literature but not included in the final list or merged with other categories are: city as provider [53], city as property owner [59], city as ecosystem [80], city as a form of identification [73], and city as imagination [33,80]. The following categorization, thus, is explicitly geared towards outlining the emergent field of urban post-growth. Due to their high degree of abstraction, the categories are not mutually exclusive or clear cut and many publications feature several roles of cities. Accordingly, this section is structured along different roles that urban post-growth writings implicitly and explicitly attribute to cities. Without raising claims to completeness, I distinguish between seven roles of cities in the following: as arenas, as spaces of encounter, as spaces with specific qualities, as (introversive) agents, as targets, as specific scale, and as interdependent configurations.
Cities as arenas
The most common role cities take in the post-growth literature is best described as ‘arena’. With cities as arenas, I mean that cities feature as sites or contexts where or in which something takes place, for instance real estate speculation [75] or informal economic practices [79]. This can also be the case in quite abstract terms, when cities function as place where consumption and overshoot takes place [68], where everyday life unfolds [75] or as the “locus of global environmental problems” [54].
To some extent, of course, all urban post-growth publications feature cities as spatial context for specific practices or processes of interest. In a significant number of writings, however, cities remain in the background and are not further theorized or contextualized—for example in relation to other scales—or characterized with specific qualities (see below). Additionally, many publications do not or only casually link urban space to agency, leaving aside questions of who designs, shapes, claims, and appropriates urban spaces. This is often the case, when studies feature cities primarily as site for their case study—for instance water supply in Barcelona [51]. Or when studies observe practices and processes that take place in ‘urban’ settings—for instance alternative economic and political practices [50,58,63]. The emphasis, in these writings, is primarily on the activities and processes taking place in cities, without defining the urban context within which they are set.
Cities as spaces of encounter
A first step towards a closer imbrication of the urban fabric and social processes can be found in perspectives that feature cities as (material) places where various actors or interest groups interact in physical proximity. As spaces of encounter, cities are both the terrain of struggles—say between capital and everyday life [53,55]—as well as the spaces that mediate between different groups and positions. Cities, here, feature as contested spaces where multiple functions and needs clash [62] but also where collaborations take place, for instance between civic groups and local administration [33,67].
Drilling deeper into the fundamental contradictions between (global) capital and the everyday lives of ordinary people, some scholars observe that although there are instruments and regulations to address conflicts, they are often ignored or are merely formal procedures, leading to a highly unequal say and ability to influence local policy [62]. Urban space, here, is the “’point of collision’ where the benefits of the few (linked to capital accumulation and growth) collide with the needs of the discontented and deprived” [55,60]. Post-growth scholars, then, take a specific interest in different actor groups, their diverging interests and unequal power relations [55]. But also in the possibilities of mediations and collaborations that involve multiple stakeholder groups [67].
Cities as (introversive) agents
While cities are characterized and shaped by different interests and struggles, some authors take a closer perspective on who these agents are and what they (can) do. Commonly, urban post-growth researchers identify formal municipal institutions, respectively those working in municipal politics and administration, as important agents [48,60,67,76,82]. Additionally, actors from civil society feature prominently in the constitution of urban spaces [33,65,67]. However, they are not always acknowledged as part of cities’ agency.
The agency of cities, thereby, goes both ways: from being a growth driver to being an agent of sustainability transformations. In their analysis of the Smart City Vienna Framework Strategy, for instance, Brandl and Zielinska observe the prominent role of city administrators in designing the strategy which remains strongly rooted in green economy perspectives with no questioning of overall growth orientation [66]. Navarro-Jurrado and colleagues, looking at tourism in Malaga and the Costa del Sol, outline how the municipality as such acts as speculator, not least as municipal officials are closely entangled with or are themselves private investors [62]. Others are less specific regarding different actor groups but refer more generally to “urban growth coalitions” [73]. Post-growth scholars, here, take an interest in the role of municipal administration and politics in maintaining and perpetuating growth regimes.
While there are no publications that identify a clear post-growth orientation of cities, there are a number of examples that show municipalities as supporter or even initiator of undertakings that resonate with a post-growth agenda. Weck and Ritzinger, for instance, discuss the ownership transfer of an abandoned factory complex from the municipality of Krefeld to a local non-profit organization to allow for common good-oriented neighborhood development [67]. Others identify cities as initiators of progressive local experiments, for instance to counter mass tourism [65] or for climate change mitigation [48]. A number of publications, in this sense, make reference to the scope for action of municipalities to initiate projects, shape regulatory frameworks, and set precedents. Drawing on the case of housing in Barcelona, Martínez Alonso, for instance, shows that although the “scope for agency that local governments have seems very limited [they] can restructure and reshape space prioritizing some values over others” [69]. Ruiz-Alejos and Prats identify the planning office as having “the potential to facilitate degrowth proposals if having a clear mandate to integrate major social and environmental goals in planning, and to prioritize them in all projects and scales” [33]. Many authors agree that local authorities possess a high degree of autonomy in legal and administrative terms. Reasons that post-growth-oriented undertakings are rare nevertheless include restraints concerning municipal budgets and market pressures [55,67,69] and a lack of political will [33,48]—all of which are important pointers for a deeper engagement with the growth dependencies of cities (see below).
Cities as spaces with specific qualities
Some authors foreground specific qualities of cities and their relevance for (potential) (post-)growth regimes. Typical characteristics they attribute to cities include a dense setup that is frequently associated with proximity (of actors, services, institutions…) [81,82]; specific institutional and legal arrangements such as high degrees of privatization and exorbitant property prices [75]; and particular social qualities, such as diversity or/and a lack of “community” [70]. As with the previous category of agency, cities’ qualities are discussed in opposite ways: with respect to growth dynamics and/or regarding post-growth.
The former can be seen in the alignment of urban architecture, infrastructures, and provisioning systems with the demands of capital, for instance to attract tourists [60] or to support motorized individual transport [73]. From a post-growth perspective, this is particularly relevant as it describes conditions and tendencies that entrench growth-based development. Chertkovskaya and Paulsson, for instance, discuss how the trolleybus dismantelment in Moscow leads to “turning publicly owned land into private spaces for capital accumulation” [73], which is directly opposed to post-growth’s orientation towards reuse and de-commercialization. Other qualities of urban spaces are more ambiguous or even conducive for post-growth-oriented developments [68,72]. A much-debated characteristic is density: the dense setup and short distances that are possible (albeit not automatic) in urban settlements bear large potentials for reduced mobility and energy volumes. At the same time, it goes against the grain of (some) more ‘rural’ imaginaries present in post-growth debates [36].
Cities as targets
Closely related to the discussion of cities’ qualities are perspectives on cities as targets of (post-) growth-oriented developments. This stretches from rather vague demands that “cities, towns, and even villages need to be reconceptualized, planned, and constructed to maximize conviviality, community building, economic localization, equity, environmental sustainability, local ecological preservation, and local cultural preservation” [47], to quite specific proposals for urban post-growth concerning, for instance, “pedestrian safety, extensive bicycle networks and well-functioning public transportation” or the creative re-utilization of “the existing floor space of housing, retail and offices” [52]. Post-growth scholars, here, identify ways in which urban spaces can be reshaped and restructured politically, socially, and materially to move beyond the current fixation and dependence on growth [55,74,82].
Cities as specific scale
Cities, furthermore, feature as a scale that sits between regional, national, and international levels on the one hand and the level of neighborhoods and households on the other hand. Publications, that consider cities as a specific scale generally do so in administrative terms, identifying cities as important administrative level to address specific issues from a post-growth perspective, for instance housing [69], mobility [52], tourism [75], energy [48], or urban planning and land use [34,52]. The city scale, thereby, derives its meaning primarily in relation to other territorial entities such as state- or federal levels [51,61,62].
In addition to the institutional responsibilities and capacities of cities in comparison to other administrative levels, some authors discuss the municipal scale in organizational terms. Cities, here, are addressed as a level ‘above’ community and neighborhood projects, providing a broader integration, but also a first step away from direct democracy and community control. Whereas some authors identify a wariness in (early) post-growth literature of any form of centralization [36] or abstraction [35], most authors emphasize the pertinence of organizational arrangements that move beyond particular undertakings and projects [33,35,67,82]. Cities, thus, are identified as viable organizational scale for post-growth-oriented changes.
Cities as (inter)dependent configurations
Cities are not just embedded in multi-scalar arrangements, they also form strong interdependencies with other places and scales. A number of publications, for instance, identify cities as sitting at the “sharp end of austerity” with austerity measures being “downloaded onto local governments, who, under fiscal discipline, have no other option but to further download them onto agencies, neighborhoods and citizens” [49,59,60,69,71,75]. In institutional rather than spatial terms, Navarro-Jurado et al. emphasize the dependence of cities on private investors in the Spanish context [62]. This finding is indicative of a more general dependence of cities on economic growth, for example in the tourism sector [60]. Other dependencies of cities include the embeddedness in national and regional planning regulations and strategies [61] as well as provisioning infrastructures such as water or long-distance mobility [51,64].
Cities’ dependencies, however, go both ways. Cities, for instance, “externalize” costs and fail to consider emissions they cause “outside the cities” [56]—both globally as well as with respect to their hinterlands [47]. In more general terms, the functional and territorial specialization within and beyond cities and regions creates strong material and political interdependencies at various scales, fostering a competitive logic that encloses urban and non-urban areas [34]. As a consequence of the close imbrication of places and scales, transformative endeavors themselves require collaborative efforts beyond place to counter growth-based trajectories—for instance, through city networks [35].

5. Reassembling the Post-Growth City

Although cities and urban spaces have not been at the center of post-growth research, the emergent urban post-growth literature discusses cities in variegated and manifold ways (Table 2). The foregoing section structures this young and dynamic field by identifying seven ways in which cities feature in the literature: as arenas, as spaces of encounter, as spaces with specific qualities, as (introversive) agents, as targets, as specific scale, and as interdependent configurations. This paper’s aspiration is not to present an exhaustive typology on the diverse roles attributed to cities by urban post-growth scholars, but rather to discuss a more foundational issue: to date, the urban post-growth literature is a rich collection of perspectives on growth-related research in (differently defined) urban contexts. However, there is no common frame of reference about what cities are and (can) do in the context of post-growth transformations. Based on the foregoing literature review, this discussion takes up this paper’s second research question: what are the central (research) questions that delineate the research field of urban post-growth? To answer this question, the remainder of this paper deliberates and proposes possible focal points around which urban post-growth scholarship can cohere. For that, I will return to the two key concepts at play—post-growth and (the different roles of) cities.
One, if not the central, concern of post-growth scholarship is the question how social systems can be reconfigured in ways that decrease the dependencies of individuals, organizations, and institutions on market competition, monetary profitability, and financial resources for their proper functioning, subsistence or self-conception (see introduction). Cities, here are no exception, being deeply entangled with growth-based economic arrangements [60,62]—most directly through tax revenues which, in turn, are closely coupled with formal economic activities [48,55,59,89,90]. Economic performance (as measured in GDP), hence, defines a city’s fiscal room for maneuver, including its ability to provide public services and support projects and organizations in line with post-growth objectives.
Most writings on urban post-growth take up selected themes or sectors such as urban density, mobility, or tourism to explore their relation to growth dynamics (see Section 3). These analyses generally foreground the ways in which particular sectors hit social and ecological limits and what measures are or could be implemented to create more sustainable (potentially non-growth or degrowth) arrangements. Sector-specific analyses—which are, without doubt, key contributions to post-growth scholarship—however, tend to neglect general growth conditions and dependencies in and of urban systems. Only few post-growth scholars engage more fundamentally and systematically with the question of growth dependencies in cities [34]. With respect to (urban) planning, Savini, most notably, identifies intra-regional competition, land development oriented towards value capturing, and zoning based on property rights as key growth drivers. In doing so, Savini points towards growth dependencies that largely emanate from outside of specific cities and foreground the broader framework conditions they are embedded in (see city as interdependent configuration in Section 4).
But what is the leeway of individual cities within these framework conditions? Cities themselves emerge as a promising scale for transformative politics with some progressive city governments acting as exceptions from the general political reluctance to take up post-growth ideas [45,91]. In addition to pressures that come from outside of cities, growth dependencies are also produced in cities, both through the way cities are set up (e.g., the degree to which they depend on profit-oriented investors) and through the way they act (e.g., cities themselves following and supporting growth-based economic development) (see city as interdependent configuration and city as introversive agent in Section 4). This means, in turn, that urban arrangements do not need to (entirely) work within the parameters of for-profit markets by involving other forms of remuneration, exchange, and surplus [92]. Parts of housing, food consumption, and cultural offers, for instance, are organized cooperatively in many cities [32,34,55,74]. Furthermore, different forms of volunteering—in neighborhoods, food banks, schools, or in churches—are essential to urban life and thriving [93,94], although not always without pitfalls [95]. Additionally, public procurement can be oriented towards local co-operatives [96] or include an orientation towards the common good [67], moving local economies away from the fiscal pressures of the ‘free market’ [85].
Urban post-growth research, in this way, has much to offer for existing debates on urban transformations, foregrounding the tension and contradictions of sustainable development in a growth-based economy [97,98]. For an identifiable and systematic field of urban post-growth to emerge, however, there needs to be more clarity about what cities are and do in the context of post-growth. Here, a turn to broader urban transformation research is helpful. Hölscher and Frantzeskaki propose a differentiation between transformations in, of, and by cities to distinguish between cities (1) as spaces in which transformations occur; (2) as spaces that are transformed; and (3) as agents that not only transform themselves but also other places and territories beyond [88]. This broad categorization highlights key areas of inquiry for urban transformation research in general and urban post-growth research in particular with considerable congruencies to the perspectives on cities already discussed in the urban post-growth literature (see Section 4).
Post-growth in cities
Cities are complex and contradictory spaces in which diverse interests interact. The urban post-growth literature particularly highlights municipal politics and administration as important actor groups driving or preventing transformations [33,48,60,62,67,82]. Urban spaces, furthermore, are shaped by economic actors and actors from civil society including social movements and neighborhood groups [32,63,99]. As the notion of city as a space of encounters shows, fault lines and power struggles do not only exist between these different actor groups but, foremost, also within them—for instance in the form of different political orientations or different economic objectives.
A key focus of urban post-growth scholars, in this sense, is on how transformation processes play out in cities—including how potential measures affect different social groups and the approval they get. As Koch has shown recently, different post-growth-oriented policies fundamentally differ with respect of how they are perceived in public [100]. Zooming in on the tensions and politics of post-growth transformations in cities also includes the consideration of processes and mechanisms that mediate between different interests and enable public participation—ranging from forums for public deliberation to active participation in decision making [91,101]. Together, these aspects challenge urban post-growth researchers to explore what measures and processes allow for the (partial) coalescence of divergent interests in order to enable democratic changes in urban systems that reduce the dependency of individuals, organizations, and institutions on market competition, monetary profitability, and financial resources.
Post-growth by cities
Differential power relations are not bound by the city’s administrative boundaries but extent (far) beyond. The ways in which cities (or specific actor groups within cities) exert influence on cities’ hinterlands and more distant places and territories is particularly relevant with respect to technological and market-based solutions to sustainability challenges [54,56]. While potentially improving sustainability performances in place, many technology-centered approaches rely heavily on resource and financial flows from elsewhere [25,102]. Cities, in this sense, are deeply entangled with other close and distant places through diverse interdependencies and multi-level governance arrangements. The latter has a decisive effect on the legal and financial capacities and possibilities cities have at their disposal [103].
Urban post-growth research cannot manage without a perspective on how urban systems can be dissociated from extractive translocal relations in both ways: the functioning of cities ‘at the expense’ of other places as well as the extraction of value from a given city. This direction of inquiry towards regionalization and localization, however, has to steer clear of any form of closed or essentialized localism—a tendency that undermines rather than furthers global solidarity and justice [35]. Post-growth researchers, here, are challenged to explore how post-growth-oriented changes can be implemented in urban systems that reduce cities’ dependence on external growth pressures while minimizing cost externalization and maximizing the transformative impulses of cities beyond place.
Post-growth of cities
Cities are also a direct target of transformation processes that aim for and interact with urban spaces. A focus on post-growth of cities includes questions around what can or should be transformed in cities and how? Additionally, how do different qualities of urban spaces support or hinder (post-growth) transformations? Typical ‘urban’ qualities such as density, proximity, or diversity [81,82] can be both a hinderance and a resource for post-growth transformations. Density, for instance, allows for short travel distances and can facilitate grassroots organizing. At the same time, density might be created at the expense of green spaces or in the name of real estate speculation.
Hence, a careful weighting and assessment of possible tensions between different goals and the compromises needed to transform cities in ways to reduce their dependence on growth is needed [72]. A third viable research strands for urban post-growth scholarship, thus, revolves around the generation of knowledge around the legal, cultural, organizational, and material specificities of urban spaces and the city scale for addressing and implementing post-growth-oriented changes. This includes both attention to broader tendencies in what ways urban qualities can be harnessed for post-growth-oriented forms of restructuring as well as the attention to local specificities of culture, legal situation, and general constitution of any given city.

6. Conclusions: Key Focal Points of Urban Post-Growth Scholarship

As of now, most urban systems (specifically in the overconsuming Global North) are dependent on economic growth and if growth ceases, they face cascading consequences of decay and deprivation [59]. Post-growth scholars seek a way out of this conundrum by exploring ways to decrease the dependence of urban systems and their inhabitants on market competition, monetary profitability, and financial resources for their proper functioning, subsistence, and self-conception. As such, urban post-growth scholarship is a specific form of urban transformation research: one that puts questions around growth front and center.
Reviewing the urban post-growth literature has shown how cities feature in various ways in such a project: as complex spaces shaped by processes from within and without, as actors for and targets of transformation processes, as specific administrative and organizational scales, and more besides. Turning to urban transformation research has allowed this contribution to propose one possible way to order this emergent field of research by capturing cities’ diverse roles through the lenses of transformations in, by, and of cities (see Figure 3). Each of these perspectives opens up multiple entry points which can be captured by three overarching research questions:
What measures and processes allow for the (partial) coalescence of divergent interests as to enable democratic changes in urban systems that reduce the dependency of individuals, organizations, and institutions on market competition, monetary profitability, and financial resources for their proper functioning, subsistence, and self-conception?
How can post-growth-oriented changes in urban systems be implemented that reduce cities’ dependence on external growth pressures while minimizing cost externalization and maximizing the transformative impulses of cities beyond place?
What post-growth-oriented changes do urban systems lend themselves to due to the legal, cultural, organizational, and material characteristics and what place and case-specific differences and contradictions emerge?
As a matter of course, these synthesized research questions are neither exhaustive nor conclusive but sketch a potential core around which post-growth scholarship can further develop and cohere. The orientation of this paper was primarily inductive—distilling (some) general coordinates of urban post-growth research from the literature. For this purpose, this paper has drawn together and synthesized a broad range of more specific approaches. First, through the categorization of cities’ different roles. Additionally, second, through the even more abstract categorization of transformations in, by, and of cities. This attempt to formulate a more general research agenda for urban post-growth perspectives shall in no way belittle the importance of individual studies that focus on a specific sector or notion of citiness. To the contrary, empirical place-based inquiry is needed to fill the abstract categories and questions proposed here with life and meaning. To allow for the consolidation of the emergent field of urban post-growth research, however, there needs to be a shared frame of reference about what cities are and (can) do in the context of post-growth transformations. By discussing and categorizing the various ways in which cities and the urban feature in post-growth research, this paper hopes to contribute towards a more deliberative and structured engagement with the diverse characterizations, roles, and functions of cities.


I acknowledge support by the Open Access Publication Fund of the University of Freiburg.


The author would like to thank the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and Birgitt Gaida for implementing this paper’s illustrations.

Conflicts of Interest

The author has no conflicts of interest to declare.


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Figure 1. Geographical spread of cities that serve as case studies or examples in the urban post-growth literature. Due to a strong focus on European cities, the respective map section is enlarged. The numbers in the map refer to the respective publication as listed in Table 1 (source: own illustration, implemented by Birgitt Gaida using Adobe Illustrator).
Figure 1. Geographical spread of cities that serve as case studies or examples in the urban post-growth literature. Due to a strong focus on European cities, the respective map section is enlarged. The numbers in the map refer to the respective publication as listed in Table 1 (source: own illustration, implemented by Birgitt Gaida using Adobe Illustrator).
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Figure 2. Thematic focus of the urban post-growth literature. The numbers in the graph refer to the respective publication as listed in Table 1 (source, own illustration, implemented by Birgitt Gaida using Adobe Illustrator).
Figure 2. Thematic focus of the urban post-growth literature. The numbers in the graph refer to the respective publication as listed in Table 1 (source, own illustration, implemented by Birgitt Gaida using Adobe Illustrator).
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Figure 3. Post-growth in, by, and of cities (source: own illustration, implemented by Birgitt Gaida using Adobe Illustrator).
Figure 3. Post-growth in, by, and of cities (source: own illustration, implemented by Birgitt Gaida using Adobe Illustrator).
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Table 1. All publications included in the literature review (for detailed references, see reference list).
Table 1. All publications included in the literature review (for detailed references, see reference list).
1Bisht, 2022 [47]22Alarcón Ferrari and Chartier, 2018 [48]
2Mariko, 2018 [49]23Mocca, 2020 [35]
3Lange and Bürkner, 2018 [50]24Domènech et al., 2013 [51]
4Lehtinen, 2018 [52]25LeBlanc, 2017 [53]
5March, 2018 [54]26Mete, 2021 [55]
6Krähmer, 2021 [56]27Violeau, 2018 [57]
7Savini, 2021 [34]28Cattaneo and Gavaldà, 2010 [58]
8Schindler, 2016 [59]29Blázquez-Salom et al., 2019 [60]
9Xue, 2018 [61]30Navarro-Jurado et al., 2019 [62]
10Lloveras et al., 2018 [63]31Xue et al., 2016 [64]
11Taş Gürsoy, 2020 [65]32Brandl and Zielinska, 2020 [66]
12Weck and Ritzinger, 2021 [67]33Næss, 2021 [68]
13Martínez Alonso, 2021 [69]34Lietaert, 2010 [70]
14Corcoran and Kettle, 2017 [71]35Knuth et al., 2020 [72]
15Chertkovskaya and Paulsson, 2021 [73]36Cattaneo et al., 2022 [74]
16Milano et al., 2019 [75]37Cucca and Friesenecker, 2021 [76]
17Visconti, 2021 [77]38Ramos and Mundet, 2021 [78]
18Ruiz-Alejos and Prats, 2021 [33]39Gezon, 2017 [79]
19Korsunsky, 2019 [80]40Næss et al., 2020 [81]
20Xue, 2021 [82]41Alexander and Gleeson, 2020 [32]
21Xue, 2014 [36]
Table 2. Overview of different roles that cities take in the literature on post-growth-oriented transformations.
Table 2. Overview of different roles that cities take in the literature on post-growth-oriented transformations.
Cities as arenascities feature as sites or contexts where or in which something takes place
Cities as spaces of encountercities feature as geographical locales where various actors and interest groups interact in physical proximity
Cities as spaces with specific qualitiescities feature as sociomaterial arrangements with specific characteristics that in turn influence human activities and lives
Cities as (introversive) agentscities feature as stand-in for different actor groups that shape the sociomaterial relations in place
Cities as targetscities feature as targets of particular practices and processes of (re)production or transformation
Cities as specific scalecities feature as administrative level or organizational/functional nexus that is anchored in local economic, political and cultural relations
Cities as interdependent configurationscities feature as sociomaterial configurations that influence and depend on other scales and places
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Schmid, B. What about the City? Towards an Urban Post-Growth Research Agenda. Sustainability 2022, 14, 11926.

AMA Style

Schmid B. What about the City? Towards an Urban Post-Growth Research Agenda. Sustainability. 2022; 14(19):11926.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Schmid, Benedikt. 2022. "What about the City? Towards an Urban Post-Growth Research Agenda" Sustainability 14, no. 19: 11926.

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