‘Beyond GDP’ in cities: Assessing alternative approaches to urban economic development

14 Aug 2023, 12:16 p.m.
Richard Crisp, David Waite, Anne Green, Ceri Hughes, Ruth Lupton, Danny MacKinnon and Andy Pike

Decades of traditional growth-oriented urban economic policies have failed to stem widening social inequalities and rising environmental harms. Local policymakers are increasingly adopting ‘alternative’ approaches to economic development including: Doughnut Economics (DE), Foundational Economy (FE), Community Wealth Building (CWB), Wellbeing Economy (WE) and Inclusive Growth (IG). Yet, little work has been done to help navigate this complex and fragmented field and assess the often (un)acknowledged connections and overlaps between frameworks. These five approaches – selected for assessment in our paper due to their widespread take-up by practitioners – seek to balance economic growth with social and environmental justice and create more inclusive and sustainable cities (Table 1).


Table 1: An overview of the five ‘alternative’ approaches


Inclusive Growth (IG)

Wellbeing Economy (WE)


Doughnut Economics (DE)


Community Wealth Building (CWB)

Foundational Economy (FE)


Late 2000s, increasingly gaining traction from c. 2015

Wellbeing economics since late 1980s, gathering pace from late 2000s

Pioneered by Kate Raworth 2012, expanded in her 2017 book

Mid-late 2000s in UK and US, with increasing traction since c. 2015

From 2013 (Manifesto for the Foundational Economy), increasing traction since COVID-19 pandemic


Leading Proponents



International Monetary Fund (IMF)


Centre for Progressive Policy (UK)


Brookings Institution (US)


Wellbeing Economy Alliance (global)


New Economics Foundation (UK)


Carnegie UK

Kate Raworth and Doughnut Economics Action Lab (UK)



Democracy Collaborative (US)

Foundational Economy Collective of researchers (a mainly European group)



An economic system which enables the greatest number and range of people to participate in economic activity and to benefit from economic growth


Economies which promote ecological sustainability, intergenerational equity, wellbeing and happiness, and a fair distribution and efficient use of resources


An ecologically safe and socially just space (the Doughnut) in which humanity can thrive

Local economies organised so that wealth is broadly held and generative of income, opportunity, dignity and well-being for local people (wealth for all)


Society strengthened by focus and investment on the infrastructures that make civilised everyday life possible


Urban Examples

West Midlands (UK)

New York, Paris, Seoul, Athens

North of Tyne (UK), Santa Monica (US)




Preston (UK),

North Ayrshire (UK),


Cleveland (US)


Barcelona, Enfield (UK), Wales

Source: Authors’ research


Our review points to differences in terms of the visions set out, the mechanisms for change articulated, and the geographies that they respond to.

In terms of visions of transformation, IG, particularly ‘growth plus’ versions, tries to reconcile the social needs of more marginalised groups with the economic interests of producers. WE and DE are both vision centred in terms of setting out views of a ‘good life’, and hinge on incremental change. CWB considers new forms of ownership within existing capitalist structures, whilst pursuing, through coalitions, mutually beneficial initiatives around good work, for example. Finally, the FE presents a zonal conception of the economy giving attention to sectors that serve the essentials of daily life.

Looking at the mechanisms for change, the five approaches share a common concern for democratic forms of participation. Beyond this, there are marked differences in terms of prescriptiveness. CWB has the most specified agenda. IG varies between “growth plus” and “inclusive economy” variants, with the former considering skills initiatives amongst other things, whilst the latter considers changes in business models. The FE tends to consider change at the national level, through taxation, and is less directive on local levers at this point. For the WE and DE, more headway appears to have been made in terms of developing metrics and frameworks, though urban policy guidance is emerging.

It is striking that, aside from CWB, there is rarely an explicit articulation of the geographic disparities to be addressed, despite the approaches being picked up on and mobilised by actors such as local authorities. CWB does consider local economy and communities as the sites of action and where beneficiaries can be identified. For the other approaches, it appears to be more of a case of translating global or national concerns on to local contexts such as through the DE “City Portraits”. In terms of addressing geographical inequalities and issues such as spatial rebalancing, we could point only to aspects of IG considering this explicitly. This fluidity differs from previous rounds of urban policy, such as area-based regeneration within clearly demarcated spatial boundaries.

Advocates claim these approaches can transform urban economic development policy, yet there are critical knowledge gaps in terms of: their context-specific implementation; the trade-offs across different objectives; and how success is defined and evaluated. Such alternatives provide much needed fresh impetus to novel and innovative thinking about how to address urban problems but much work needs still to be done to progress their successful development and implementation.


Read the full Open Access paper on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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