Sustainability Struggles in Land-Use Planning from a Post-Growth Planning Perspective: Critical Junctures towards Net Zero



Post-Growth Planning, Sustainable Development, net zero, land-use planning, Land-Need Modelling




Global, regional, and local sustainability agendas regularly address the use of material resources and especially of land for building settlements and infrastructures. More recently, European debates and European Union policy strengthen the requirement to become circular in the mid-term future. The European Soil Strategy 2030 aims towards net zero for additional land use by 2050 and mirrors respective targets, for example, in the German Climate Adaptation Strategy and the national implementation framework for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Against the background of spreading sustainability goals in land-use planning over the past more than two decades, actual changes fall short of agreed ambitions. 

Stronger efforts to achieve circularity in the use of resources and land on the one side go along with emerging debates around post-growth in national and European contexts, culminating in the European Parliament’s Beyond Growth Conference in 2023. While major tensions remain between fundamental post-growth critiques and contemporary spatial policies, so is the goal of net zero land consumption (or: circular land-use) compatible with moderate post-growth positions or precautionary post-growth understandings. 

In this contribution, we investigate Germany to understand why a long-institutionalised spatial planning system struggles to show and implement realistic measures towards a net zero future. We identify and show examples from the daily use of planning instruments along the scales of land-use planning, from federal to local levels. For example, any move of a household across municipal boundaries generates an additional need to designate land for settlement uses and thus leads to increases in land consumption without changes in number or size of households. By this, we uncover points where growth is inscribed into established tools, models, and instruments.  We build upon an understanding of spatial planning as, in principle, being able to transform itself alongside towards a post-growth society. The analysis shows critical junctures where (often unconsciously) growth-oriented pathways materialise. 

From understanding the actual realities of planning practice, it becomes possible to uncover what a proclaimed growth-bias (or even growth-obsession) is, and how it unfolds at the micro-level of where planning happens. This includes the evidence-base and modelling tools to work with forecasts of demands and needs for additional land use. The goal and outcome of this contribution is twofold: first, to open post-growth thinking towards planning practices and second, to open options for planning practice to reach stronger sustainability targets.