The Japanese Conundrum: The Search for Sustainable New Planning Strategies in a Post-Growth Scenario

Event: European Urban Research Association. EURA 2021, Online Conference on Contradictions Shaping Urban Futures
Date: May 6-7 (University of Oslo, Online)
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Urban shrinkage contradicts the normative assumption of cities as growth machines. Shrinking cities are stigmatised as outcasts of urban systems, prone to high unemployment rates, low quality of life standards, and urban blight. Compelled by this dominant narrative of loss, planning responses have focused on reversing declining trajectories and returning cities to the growth paradigm. Only in a few instances have cities accepted shrinkage and actually implemented smart decline planning approaches. This is the case of Suzu City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. In this small and geographically isolated city of 14,625 inhabitants, local authorities are reconsidering their planning outlook based on sustainable principles. In particular, Suzu’s new model revolves around its social-ecological landscapes, referred to as Satoyama in Japanese, harnessing its natural capital to propose a new development model in which growth is no longer the metric measuring urban success.

By reflecting on the case of Suzu, this paper explores how cities can depart from the growth paradigm to envisage alternative development pathways. It argues that rather than fighting against decline, shrinking cities should look for other more sustainable options and different metrics to measure urban performance. In doing this analysis, this paper offers a critique of the dominant narrative of loss surrounding shrinking cities and calls for careful reconsideration of pro-growth approaches—ones that still represent the preferred option for planners and policymakers.