Circular Cities

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) “a circular city embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions, establishing an urban system that is regenerative, accessible and abundant by design”. Translated into practical objectives, circular cities need to be upheld by a set of interconnected pillars (Metabolic 2017):

  • Materials are incorporated into the economy in such a way that they can be cycled at continuous high value.

  • All energy is based on renewable sources.

  • Biodiversity is structurally supported and enhanced through all human activities.

  • Human society and culture are preserved.

  • The health and well being of humans and other species are structurally supported.

  • Human activities generate value in measures beyond just financial.

  • Water is extracted at a sustainable rate and resource recovery is maximized.

Cities’ interest in circular solutions is driven by a set of global trends (WEF 2018). As a result of urban expansion, on the one hand, more and more resources are demanded to accommodate greater activity, infrastructure and population; and on the other, current waste disposal and management practices (landfills, incineration, etc.) affect ecosystems greatly, fostering land degradation, loss of biodiversity and increasing pollution. Circular practices and material flows can thus mitigate this situation by developing trade for input components.

Cities are embedded both in a natural and human-built environment. These relationships influence greatly its circular potential. The rigidity of an existing infrastructure (due to adaptation cost and socio-technical lock-in) can reduce the adaptive capacity of a city. For example, it is timely and costly to adapt highly centralized energy grid systems to decentralized energy systems based on renewable energy or waste (Williams 2017).

Circular economy demands a paradigmatic shift towards a new economic system with (nearly) zero waste. This includes value chains in all sectors of the economy, demanding a wide multi-sectorial economic development perspective.

From a business perspective, higher demands for accountability and reputational threats derived from an adverse economic footprint make companies increasingly aware of the need for change. Including circular economy principles in their business models provide them with opportunities to redefine value creation beyond a financial perspective.

From a citizen perspective, hyper-consumerism has resulted in products being disposed of before their full value is extracted, increasing pressure on waste-removal processes. This trend can be mitigated by new circular models (e.g. product as a service, collaborative consumption) in which users take a more central role in creating value. Experimentation with such models in mobility or the hospitality sector is increasing interest in their applicability to other areas.

From a government perspective, the emergence of technological platforms is enabling circular economy principles to be applied on a larger scale by improving access to information, management of materials, tracking and logistics, transparency and accountability and facilitating deployment of innovative circular solutions. As more than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities, urban areas are indeed an ideal testing ground for circular economy models. The pragmatism and physical proximity in cities makes it easier to implement policy changes than at the national level, where bureaucratic structures and legislative timelines can hamper institutionalizing novel circular concepts. Cities can indeed be more agile and adaptive when implementing pilot initiatives, allowing them to stimulate change faster.

The confluence of business, citizens and government stakeholders in cities creates an opportunity to introduce new practices, such as reverse logistics, material collection, waste processing, energy and natural resource conservation or new business models and product design that incorporate circular thinking. For instance, as technical and biological ‘nutrients’ become aggregated within city boundaries, they can be found in quantities worth harnessing through urban mining (Li, 2015), thus becoming sources of new value creation. Additionally, as stakeholders are geographically close, this in itself can facilitate collaboration to close resource loops.

At a theoretical level, circular economy models and frameworks that have emerged recently in literature (Lieder and Rashid 2016; Braungart and McDonough 2009; Stahel 2010; Bocken et al. 2015) are very specific in scope, largely conceptual and generally targeted at the micro (e.g.: product design, Bakker et al. 2014) or meso-level (e.g.: buildings, Pomponi and Moncaster 2017). These frameworks often lack transferability to a macro-level. The conceptual nature of circular principles and the often diverse views on circular economy makes it difficult to translate circular frameworks into every day practices. Furthermore, current cultural norms challenge the transition to a post-material circular society, opposing to some of its fundamental principles, such as environmental protection, inter-generational equity, co-operation or cultural localism. Materialism and consumerism create cultural barriers to the effective implementation of circularity (Williams 2017).

The support of the public sector is nevertheless essential for the implementation of any urban circular agenda. The scale of the required cultural and economic shift demands a long-term vision. However, constant changes in political agendas and policy instruments, brought by short political cycles, hamper investments in new business models, technological innovation and infrastructural transformation. Civil society engagement in decision-making processes and implementation of circular strategies, involving a wide range of urban actors, is key to reduce resource consumption on the long run and keep strategies context-specific.

Circular cities are rooted in constant innovation, which requires dynamic management and a flexible and open approach. Prendevillea, Cherim, and Bocken (2017) argue that governance in a circular city is structured by a dual approach, combining a set of top down changes and bottom up changes. On the one hand, top-down change is institutionally driven (in this case at the municipal or local level). This involves strategy and policy decisions, including public-private partnership or the development of market initiatives. On the other hand, bottom-up change is brought up by social movements and innovation, such as entrepreneurial initiatives developed by organised groups, NGOs, communities or businesses. The concurrent development of both ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ approaches fosters a circular ecosystem where everyone contributes, with ideas and actions, to the transition to a circular economy.

Although no city has yet implemented the seven pillars in an integrated manner, more and more European cities show an increasing commitment towards circularity. Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris, London, Glasgow or Prato - to mention a few - are developing articulated strategies and plans to move away from current linear models.

Explore the Circular City concept:

Explore Brussels, Amsterdam and Prato Circular City initiatives:


Last updated