Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-7635

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Upwind Despite Headwind? Degrowth Transformations Amidst Shrinkage and Eroding Democracy in an East German Small Town

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Abstract:  Spatial transformation follows the logic of a growth-oriented economy that values cities according to their place in the chain of capitalist wealth production. Many cities in East Germany have lost their significance as sites of production and are consequently facing population decline and the weakening of social bonds in the community. For this reason, citizens of the East German small town of Zella-Mehlis (state of Thuringia) have begun to reflect on alternative models for urban development. In this article, the process of arriving at a degrowth strategy, as provided by the academic discourse, will be documented. It will be demonstrated that the process of shrinkage has not only left little space for a degrowth planning approach put into practice. Moreover, the article reveals that the costs of the growth economy on society are not limited to population shrinkage, but also have a severe impact on the sociability of the local community. The rise of right-wing populists and climate change-denying actors mirrors the decreasing social ability for collective learning processes needed for a shift to a solidary degrowth strategy. However, the case study shows how ambivalent these developments are: Long-term participatory processes within the public–civic partnership framework of the Aufwind (German for upwind) initiative in Zella-Mehlis can challenge path dependencies and open new degrowth-inspired perspectives. The article is informed by many years of intensive field research in a qualitative mixed-method design and focuses on the close links between shrinkage processes, the local degrowth agenda, and the consequences of an eroding democracy.

Keywords:  civil society; degrowth; East Germany; municipality; public–civic partnership; urban shrinkage



© Anton Brokow-Loga, Frank Eckardt. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.