Implementing post-growth agendas in European cities

Roundtable hosted by LSE Cities’ European Cities Programme, 4 April 2023

To implement transformative policy attuned to the interdependencies between social and ecological life, policymakers must work across silos and translate high-level agendas into practical tools for day-to-day decision-making.

Around twenty politicians, policymakers, activists and researchers from eleven different European cities attended the third roundtable of LSE Cities’ European Cities Programme on the 4 April 2023. The event was chaired by Ben Rogers and began with a presentation from Vivienne Avery, Lead Researcher on the Greater London Authority’s new Well-being and Sustainability Measure.

Vivienne Avery reflected on the value of introducing an annually updated measure of London’s well-being to shift the city’s priorities away from GDP. She recognised that London is less developed than some European cities in its explorations of post-growth ideas, but also highlighted that ‘’at City Hall […] we all understand how the growth agenda isn't working. […] Despite London's amazing economic growth, we haven't really made that much progress in reducing inequality.’’ By assembling a wide range of indicators on collective well-being, the new metric aims to provide a comprehensive overview of trends in London beyond economic growth. This overview should then guide future investment and decision-making in the capital. Avery emphasised that this would not operate as a solution in itself, but as one part of the complex puzzle of implementing alternative models of development.

Next, a presentation from Imogen Hamilton-Jones and Francesco Ripa, researchers at LSE Cities, explored how post-growth is being put into practice in six European cities today. The presentation set out their emerging findings from interviews in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Preston, and is available here 

Key takeaways from the discussion:

  • European cities are exploring a patchwork of post-growth concepts and frameworks. City governments may rarely use the term in public, but policymakers recognise that post-growth ‘’sister concepts […] are all really complementing each other’’ and are beginning to trial them simultaneously. For example, Barcelona's city strategy builds on Doughnut Economics as an overarching framework, uses Foundational Economy to set priorities, and gathers practical tools from Community Wealth Building. Practitioners and activists want to understand how these approaches interact in practice, as well as to find ways through the contested political languages of post-growth

  • Policymakers are working to embed post-growth agendas in the processes and cultures of city government. Roundtable participants recognised that city governments are not yet fit to deliver urban post-growth agendas at scale. To implement transformative policy attuned to the interdependencies between social and ecological life, policymakers must work across silos and translate high-level agendas into practical tools for day-to-day decision-making. If post-growth ideas and practices can reshape the workings of city government departments, advocates argue, they will be more resilient to political cycles. 

  • Post-growth agendas call for economic decision-making power and ownership of resources and services to be distributed democratically across cities. ‘’We need a wider base of people making policies’’, Vivienne Avery asserted as she set out the GLA’s work on London’s new well-being measure. City representatives and activists alike recognised that it’s easy for citizen participation to be hollowed out in practice, and they are looking for ways to make inclusive engagement structural and binding (see, for example, Amsterdam’s new participation regulation and Citizen Council). Democratising strategic decision-making processes in cities helps to build support for post-growth by empowering citizens with concrete alternatives. One participant observed that:

    “Democratising institutions like energy providers, workplaces, or housing is another important way to get citizens on board with post-growth economics. I see cooperatives, be it energy, housing, businesses, as an important way to move away from growth economics and take back power from big companies.”

  • Post-growth measurements and indicators have a role to play, but they shouldn’t be relied upon as the backbone of urban post-growth. While new well-being metrics provide a valuable alternative to GDP, other evaluation tools and in-depth research will be needed to explain trends and shape policies. One policymaker emphasised the importance of more qualitative approaches to understanding and implementing urban post-growth:

    “In our current economy there is a myth that everything that is important can be measured and tweaked […but] we are all trying to quantify a very complex transition which is about our society. What I would like to see is more in-depth dialogue to go beyond quantifying metrics.”

  • European cities are learning from each other’s experiments and eager to increase international exchange by finding common visions of urban post-growth. Participants highlighted the challenge of working with national governments on post-growth agendas, but were much more positive about what was seen as ‘’potentially a very strong international dimension now where [cities] can all work together.’’ However, urban networks and universities trying to facilitate international exchange struggle to articulate urban post-growth in terms that resonate across diverse cities. One participant observed that:

    “In order to accelerate the learning and […] advocating on a national and international scale […]  there needs to be a language that binds us […] and I think we may all need to be looking for it together.”

  • Politicians, policymakers and activists want to move beyond small-scale post-growth experimentation. Whilst most cities are currently taking a piecemeal approach to piloting post-growth ideas, our participants argued that, given the scale of social and environmental inequalities today, ‘’we need something quite transformative.’’ A local politician observed that large-scale ‘’change doesn't always have to come from national politicians’’, citing the way that mutual aid networks amongst Welsh coalminers laid the foundations for the National Health Service in the UK. One policymaker argued that cities should be as ambitious as possible about the horizons of their influence:

    ‘’post-growth for us is also looking at impact on a global level and looking at impact for future generations.’’