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The future is… post-growth (planning)

Inspiring, visioning, and leading

What if we imagine the role of planners in an environment that does not circle around economic growth? Economic growth is often either the cause (inequality, land consumption, unemployment) or the solution (financial resources, land development, employment) for public policymaking and planning. We witness the end of a modern utopia to combine all needs and desires in consensual win-win situations within ecological limits. Fast, connected, polarised, and unjust have become characterising attributes for today’s (urban) worlds.

Global economic growth produced some positive side effects but did not solve structural problems. It led to increasing inequalities not only between countries, cities, and regions but even more within them at smaller scales. Social and political movements to tackle the climate crisis (Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion) peaked just before Corona lockdowns hit most places on earth. Few people miss growth in times of social distancing. More people value economic activities that add relatively modest numbers to our GDP (think of neighbourhood cafés, bars, and sports clubs). Recently, we are also reminded that democratic elections and inclusive decision-making are not a given, but a constant struggle that is truly endangered if people feel excluded and left behind.

Spatial planning has been a field of action that meandered between coping with negative effects of growth on health and environment (in the 19th-century industrialisation), organising growth in infrastructure and housing (in the early 20th century and after the Second World War) and actively fostering growth and market competitiveness (in the late 20th century). Many tools and instruments of planning have been developed and adjusted to support growth (e. g. by developing new land or changing land-uses to deliver higher economic numbers). An earlier need to grow for providing basic services and even housing changed to an unquestioned desire to grow.

We see green growth, sustainable growth, smart growth, inclusive growth and even just growth in planning. Planners act as mediators, advisors, or brokers to find a balance between competing interests to ensure that environmental and social benefits are derived from economic growth. However, a ‘GDP fetish’ in the economy (Tim Jackson) or a ‘growth fetish’ in planning (Benjamin Davy) do not give a sustainable direction. Linking post-growth to planning adds a normative long-term trajectory, but also provides guidance for short-term actions and responsibilities. Six propositions of post-growth planning are a starting point to take the debate into planning and develop it further together:

  1. Post-growth planning needs new criteria for success as
    a basis for action!
  2. Post-growth planning means just and democratic decisions!
  3. Post-growth planning triggers major transformations
    through small-scale interventions!
  4. Post-growth planning needs experimental and artistic
  5. Post-growth planning must learn from failures!
  6. Post-growth planners are all of us!
    (see also

The goal of such thinking is to deviate from growth-based agendas that are internalized in mindsets and institutionalized in processes and organizations. A sustainable transformation of society and space cannot be done and implemented by planners, but it can happen and unfold with planners. In the transformation of planning itself, the roles of planners as explorers, inspirers, visionaries, and leaders will become more urgent to define and to enact as a complement to established processes, plans and practices. Such roles are already emerging in future planners’ mindsets. Post-growth thinking helps cross-institutional, mental, and administrative boundaries to
plan in a growth-independent world in common but differentiated responsibility and versatile roles.

Christian Lamker
CHRISTIAN LAMKER is an Assistant Professor Sustainable Transformation and Regional Planning at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. He teaches the master’s course City Planning and coordinates the master Society, Sustainability and Planning.

This article was first published in the December edition: ‘The future is…’ (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 02 –  December 2020).



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