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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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Can we have our cities and biodiversity, too? | Ensia

Can we have our cities and biodiversity, too? | Ensia.

We are entering the most extensive and rapid phase of urban growth ever experienced. Not only are urban populations expected to double in just a few decades, physical urban space is expected to increase at an even faster pace. Estimates suggest that by 2050 a land area the size of South Africa, more than 1.2 million square kilometers, will be engulfed by cities, straining natural resources and ecosystems. And much of this development will occur adjacent to biodiversity-rich areas.

While continuing urbanization will pose challenges, it can also provide opportunities. Reconciling biodiversity and urban areas through conscious choices and innovative development has proven to be beneficial for human and environmental health. When done right, harm to the environment is minimized, cities become more resilient to severe weather, and the effects of climate change may even be mitigated. The potential of cities is vast.

The Cities and Biodiversity Outlook project seeks to draw attention to that potential and to successful examples of cities capitalizing on it. Based on scientific work from the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Local Governments for Sustainability, the CBO developed a list of 10 key messages about biodiversity and urbanization and produced the short film above, An Urbanizing Planet.

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