Understanding prosperity without growth: an emerging agenda for European cities?

Roundtable hosted by LSE Cities’ European Cities Programme, 2 November 2022

Several contributors mentioned a shift towards a more systemic approach as the only way to address cities’ complex and concurrent challenges, while tackling systemic issues such as inequalities and poverty.

Over 20 experts from 16 institutions attended the second roundtable of LSE Cities’ European Cities Programme on 2 November 2022. The event was chaired by Nuno F. da Cruz and featured a presentation by Ben Rogers on the evolution of post-growth thinking in Europe and its influence at the level of the city. The presentation is available here.

Professor Henrietta Moore (Institute for Global Prosperity) and Leonora Grcheva (Doughnut Economics Action Lab) were invited to respond to the presentation.

Professor Moore highlighted the need to pursue an agenda that puts contrasting inequalities, rather than pursuing growth, at its centre. “A large share of the population in the world’s richest countries live in a condition of poverty”, Professor Moore noted. “Thinking that cities can solve this problem can be a challenge. If we are to move to a post-growth world, we should understand what the role of cities would be.” She also stressed that challenges such as climate action and inequalities are fundamentally social and political ones, and as such cannot be addressed exclusively by technical and physical solutions.

Leonora Grcheva of Doughnut Economic Action Lab shared her experience working with cities and regions across Europe and beyond to ‘downscale’ the principles of doughnut economics. Grcheva noted that one of the potentials of this research is to start digging deeper into post-growth practices that already exist in cities and how local governments are evolving to enable and support these practices. “We should not only be asking the question of what a post-growth city looks like, but what does a post-growth local government look like,” she said.

Key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Cities are not using the language of post-growth. Each of these cities that contributed to the roundtable is taking a distinct approach to ‘going beyond’ growth. However, they are not explicitly using the language of ‘post-growth’ to describe their approach, preferring less radical-sounding language of the doughnut, wellbeing, prosperity and the ‘economic transition’. This has helped them ensuring wider political and public support for their agendas.
  • Cities are shaping their agendas based on concrete policy challenges. Cities are grappling with the recovery from the covid pandemic and the impact of the energy and cost-of-living crisis. In this context, responding to the challenges caused by the intersection of these crises resonate more than discourses on growth. A representative of the Barcelona City Council mentioned over-tourism, the cost-of-living crisis, energy poverty and the lack of affordable housing as the key challenges on which the city is framing their agendas. A representative from the London Borough of Camden highlighted their focus on combating inequalities and providing access to good quality jobs to residents.
  • Reconciling social and ecological agendas. Following the example of Amsterdam, several European cities such as Brussels, Glasgow and Barcelona have engaged with the principles and methods of doughnut economics. According to DEAL’s Leonora Grcheva, the approach is proving to be useful to balance cities’ social and ecological needs and agendas through a single, holistic framework.
  • Moving from silos to systems. Several other contributors mentioned a shift towards a more systemic approach as the only way to address cities’ complex and concurrent challenges, while tackling systemic challenges such as inequalities and poverty. Professor Henrietta Moore reminded the virtues of natural systems, which can provide a model that our economic system and our cities can strive to imitate: “Natural systems are flexible, diverse, and extensible. Their redundancies is what makes them resilient”, she noted.
  • Looking for new business and partnership models. The discussion touched upon the financial challenges of implementing ambitious and transformative agendas. Jamie Toney of the University of Glasgow, which is supporting the city through the GALLANT project, highlighted that the cost of decarbonising and adapting Glasgow is estimated to be in the tens of billions of pounds. ‘Cities will need to find new business and partnership models to finance their agendas’, she said.
  • Identifying the role of cities in a post-growth society. Professor Henrietta Moore stressed that “cities have proven their ability to translate new ideas into strategies, policies, and metrics”. They have also increasingly willing to learn from each other and to share knowledge. She argued that more social innovation and changes in the institutions will be needed, and research and policy debates should focus on how these new institutions are being designed.