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The urban drivers of economic growth

The urban drivers of economic growth

In the 1980s, cities were defined as the ‘growth machines’ of the economy (Molotch, 1976). Today, urban economists epitomize them as economic ‘triumphs’ (Glaeser, 2011). Cities, intended as dense and mixed forms of urban living organized in agglomerations of economic activities, are presented as the solution to many of contemporary socio-ecological problems. They are viewed as the location of the so called ‘energy transition’, ‘social innovation’ or the ‘clean economy of knowledge’.

Cities have been a central topic in degrowth scholarship, although never put at the forefront of the debate. Latouche (2014) portraits the ‘degrowth city’ looking at the Mediterranean way of life of small towns. He called for a regional economy of sufficiency. Many degrowers explicitly advocate the need for changing the mobility infrastructure in order to reach some kind of slow mobility, and they promote the collectivization of public and housing spaces to be used as forms of commoning. Practices of repair, energy sufficiency, food coops, urban gardening and many more are properly ‘urban’ practices, because they interrupt the fast and productive use of city space.

Why then it is so hard to make those practices multiply and enable a more systemic transition to a degrowth society? Planning scholars have for years studied and criticized the mechanisms of urban land transformation that drive national economic growth. Urbanization is not the consequence of economic growth but the actual driver of it. The enlargement of cities, their number of jobs, estates and infrastructures, is a driving force behind growth. Already in the early 90s, after the fall of the Fordist economic system, it has become clear – for national governments as much as multinational corporations – that cities were becoming a new market where to invest surplus capital (primarily industrial capital) and gain rich returns.

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