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According to the Cities rules, players can lose coins and incur debts. The rules mention that a player can either pay coins or take Debt tokens.

Does this allow a player to choose to take Debt tokens in lieu of paying coins in general (for example, if a card has coins in its cost)?

Alternatively, is it only possible to incur debts when a card explicitly requires a player to discard coins?

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You may only take Debt tokens if a card with the Debt icon would cause a loss of coins for you.

So you may not decide to take Debt tokens instead of paying for a building (or for anything else).

Source

The rules for the Cities expansion explain the Debt mechanic on page 4. The first paragraph starts with "A card with the [Debt icon] symbol", and no other condition is mentioned.

The FAQ (also linked from the answer linked above) contains this Q & A:

Q: Can a player chooses to gain debt tokens?
A: No, only the black cards with this symbol [Debt icon] can cause players to incur debts.

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