Designing for degrowth

Does a shrinking population inform an entirely different perspective on sustainable urbanism? Can this perspective offer clues not only for post-growth societies, but the fast-growing global South as well?

The following is the first section of the second chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

In 2005, researchers in an urban planning laboratory at the University of Tokyo released Fiber City 2050, a vision of how the world’s largest metropolis might shrink gracefully over the next half century as the population rapidly declines. For several centuries, cities have primarily grappled with how to accomodate growing urban populations, usually through expansion into the surrounding periphery, the provision of new infrastructure and the rationalization and redevelopment of existing urban spaces into higher and better uses.

As society enters the post-growth era, the authors of Fiber City suggest that this approach is in need of reform. “In contrast to the geometric and machine-like elaborateness of Tokyo Plan 1960,” a high-growth era proposal for monolithic renovations to the capital, “Fiber City is soft like fabric, rich in texture, and if you look closely, utilizes repeating structures in a natural fractal pattern.” Indeed, the goal is not to overpower and control nature, but to allow it to seep into the urban fabric, like a rising tide reclaiming lost ground as the human population gradually recedes in coming decades.

The plan outlines four strategies for renovating Tokyo’s urban fabric, including retreating from suburban areas not within walking distance of train stations, turning the city’s underutilized elevated highway network into a system of linear urban parks similar to New York’s High Line, and strategically weaving greenspace into streetscapes presently dominated by concrete and cars. These strategies seek to blur the urban-nature dichotomy and create a sustainable, permeable landscape that some have termed “urban satoyama” for its resemblance to traditional rural settlements where humans and nature have existed in harmony for centuries.

As urban civilization’s system of production and consumption has grown to encompass nearly the entire planet and as the global biosphere shows ever more signs of collapse, human society no longer has the luxury of imagining itself above and apart from nature. Post-growth cities will not have the freedom to reinvent themselves from whole cloth, but will need to learn to adapt to demographic, economic and natural forces out of planners’ control. While radically re-imagining both urban and suburban landscapes, the Fiber City vision acknowledges that shrinking cities will lack extensive fiscal or material resources and “that existing structures must not be destroyed recklessly but instead a way needs to be found to re-use them in practical ways. Contrary to conventional idealism, which is defined by an a priori denial of reality, idealism in the environmental age begins by accepting the existing conditions.”

When you pull back the aesthetically pleasing surface to reveal externalities hidden by geographic and class divides, sustainability discourse rooted in idealism and an unbridled faith in the forces of progress is dishearteningly elitist, exclusive, and inadequate for the task of building a broadly equitable and sustainable global society. In contrast, a truly sustainable society would have nothing to hide: it would not rely upon exploitation of labor locally or globally, would derive its resources from local, distributed sources, and would maintain its economic well-being without further depleting ecological and social capital. But achieving such a vision will require far more introspective action than the capital-intensive engineering solutions that are the penchant of modern political and economic leaders.

Japan’s post-growth future is informing an approach to architecture and urban planning grounded in an acceptance of existing conditions and the primacy of nature that draws upon a rich repository of traditional knowledge and modern technology. Strategies of intensive investment in urban redevelopment and an embrace of more modest living may enable Japanese cities to channel their degrowth in ways that will make communities more livable, environmentally sustainable and less burdensome on public finances. If Japan can learn to do more with less and develop a new way of life that emphasizes economic stability and environmental sustainability, the solutions it pioneers will have significance not only for other shrinking post-industrial societies, but also for fast-growing cities in a world of shrinking resources.

In recent years, some in Japan and abroad have commented that the end of economic growth has brought about a “galapagos syndrome” in which the nation has turned inward, no longer concerning itself with the outside world. Content to simply live peacefully within their local environment, young people no longer study abroad as frequently, Japanese companies no longer aspire to leave their mark on global markets, and Japan quietly withdraws from the world diplomatic stage. Bold solutions to the challenges of the 21st century, it is said, will not be conceived in a country where people are nowadays only concerned with the reality right in front of them.

But perhaps introspective questioning of the purpose of human action at a time when our civilization is destroying the planet should be the role of rich societies in the 21st century. Desperately seeking growth abroad and dismantling the achievements of postwar social democracy in a rush to stay abreast of the wave of neoliberal globalization constitutes a denial of the more pressing challenges, all of which are internal to our way of life. In my discussion of urban planning in Toyama and trends in urban architecture in this chapter, I show how in another sense, “turning inward” and critically reexamining modern life and the environments in which we live is perhaps just what is needed at a time when our social fabric and natural environment have become stressed to their limits by endless economic growth. Real solutions to the challenges that ail us will remain elusive so long as we fail to recognize existing conditions as the starting point for locally-specific sustainability. Today, however, “sustainability” is often rather elegantly co-opted to dress up the same deleterious form of transnational capitalism that has given rise to our present crisis of ecological collapse, economic inequality and social disintegration.

The false promise of green utopias

As the pace and scale of urbanization in the blossoming megacities and urban regions of the global South has accelerated, financial centers in Singapore, Shanghai, Dubai, and elsewhere have proved enormously adept at mustering capital at an unprecedented scale in order to alter our physical environment in ever larger and more impressive ways. Every few years the record for the world’s biggest airport, the tallest skyscraper, the largest mall or logistics center is renewed, our capacity to dominate and control nature increases, and progress marches forward. Each of these developments seeks to outdo the last not only in size, luxury, and prestige, but also sustainability. As counterintuitive as it may seem, new cities springing anew from the fields, deserts, and oceans of fast-growing economies proclaim to be models for a new form of green urban living. This is the technological utopian’s dream of the future, a world where solutions to intractable challenges can be derived from whole cloth, and endless growth and sustainability are not incompatible.

New Songdo and Masar City

One such vision is currently rising out of the desert near Abu Dhabi’s international airport in a place called Masdar City, touted as the “world’s first zero-carbon city.” Eventually expected to support 45,000 residents and 45,000 more commuters, the $20 billion city is supported by a 54-acre solar array and built atop a 22-foot platform. Underneath, a fleet of automated cars shuttle workers and residents through a network of tunnels, enabling the surface city to be entirely automobile-free. While receiving much positive attention in a media establishment hungry for techno-solutions to our intractable environmental challenges, Masdar has been sharply critiqued by those who see it as a extravagant example of traditional resource- and capital-intensive development dressed up as sustainability. Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in the New York Times in 2010:

What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance….[since the 1970s] both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias. This has involved not only the proliferation of suburban gated communities, but also the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich. Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.⁠3

The inequality implicit in utopian visions like Masdar is also on display in the $40 billion New Songdo City, South Korea billed as an eco-friendly “aerotropolis” built from the ground up for a globalized world. The most expensive private development in history, Songdo is a showcase city not only for environmental sustainability, but also integrated network systems and neoliberal globalization: the development is a fully integrated “smart city” and comprises a free economic zone with a direct bridge link to Incheon International Airport. Rapturously described in the media as the “new city that aims to banish the problems of the world,” New Songdo nonetheless presents a future only attainable for the small global elite who participates in the upper echelons of the global economy and can afford the average apartment price of $500,000 and the $25,000 tuition at the international school.

While they look like enticing models on the surface, developments like Songdo and Masdar  lose their claim to sustainability when they are considered not in isolation, but as the newest pinnacles of wealth and power in the system of global capitalism. For every shining new model city, there is an underside of ecological destruction, oppression, and social disintegration beyond its boundaries. These model cities offer neither scalable solutions to the intractable problems associated with urban growth in the South, nor models for how cities of the North can adapt to the challenges of environmental degradation and economic globalization. They simply accumulate capital from the less fortunate corners of the global hinterland, perpetuating the systems of economic and environmental exploitation inherent in global capitalism in a more elegant and conceited manner.

Instead, proposals like the Fiber City that emerge from post-growth economies necessarily focus on local reinvestment in existing communities, and suggest holistic and equitable solutions to future challenges that could be applied in the context post-growth economies or still growing cities in the North and the South. Japan’s post-growth design revolution entails reconnection between natural and urban environments, reconnection of communities through compact development and emphasis on public space and shared amenities, reconnection between interior living spaces and the outdoor environment, and at the smallest level, reconnection between individuals who have grown isolated and alienated from other human beings. While many of the ideas contained in the Fiber City are decades away from implementation in still-growing Tokyo, today hundreds of smaller regional cities across Japan are confronting the challenges of the post-growth era, and few have engaged in new solutions more enthusiastically than Toyama City.


Chapter two, part two to be posted soon.