Circular cities

Cities are urban ecosystems in which resources are consumed and waste (including emissions) is produced from a myriad of activities. Thus, as the urban population grows rapidly around the world, cities are increasingly responsible for global resource depletion and climate change. This could be addressed in part through a more efficient use of urban resources. By reusing and recycling land, infrastructure, water and materials or recovering energy from “waste”, resource loops maybe closed (at least partially) within city-regions. Thus, cities become more resource-sufficient (consuming less from global stocks) and wasted resources are avoided. This approach also reduces the global transportation of resources, the use of fossil fuels and waste going to landfill, resulting in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, the global impact of cities is reduced.

Urban ecosystems are also degrading. Street trees are removed, culverts are filled in, gardens and parks are covered in concrete, waterways are choked with litter and land is contaminated by industrial uses. Thus, ecosystem services deteriorate. Natural cycles (water, carbon, nitrogen, potassium, soil formation) and biological processes (respiration and photosynthesis) are interrupted by human activities, resulting in pollution (air, water and noise), soil degradation, flooding, drought and urban heating. The loss of vegetation also reduces the potential for cities to sequester the carbon-dioxide they produce. This creates unhealthy and unstable living environments. Ecosystem services could be regenerated, natural cycles and biological processes restored through better management of the ecosystem (e.g. water, waste, conservation of habitats, horticulture, agriculture, forestry) and the inclusion of connected green and blue infrastructure into the urban fabric.

Urban ecosystems are constantly evolving, adapting to the context in which they are embedded. If cities cannot evolve, infrastructure becomes redundant, sites lie vacant, economic activities decline and social problems result. This can be seen in the shrinking cities of the USA, Japan, South Korea and Europe. However, in order to be able to adapt to change, urban infrastructure must be flexible, whilst communities and institutions must be able to learn and adjust to a “new normal”. This will avoid a socio-technical lock-in and the associated waste of physical and human resources. By creating recyclable or adaptive urban environments we can avoid the waste generated by redundancy, vacancies and demolition. By enabling communities to learn from experiences, self-organise and be more engaged in the co-provision of infrastructure and services, we can also begin to their build capacity to adapt to change. By encouraging more temporary, pop-up activities which can adapt to context we also increase the resilience of cities.

Looping, ecological regeneration and adaptation enable the creation of circular resource flows; support natural cycles; and enable the city to renew (or recycle) itself. All three are circular processes. These three processes, operating together, underpin the theoretical conceptualisation of Circular Cities and circular development. All three processes reduce the impact of the urban population on the global ecosystem, whilst creating healthier local ecosystems in which the urban population can reside. This may seem a rather utopian vision. Yet cities in Europe are beginning to adopt circular principles and processes in their development decisions and policies. Circularity is also being incorporated into urban economic activities and the way in which services and infrastructure are designed. Urban inhabitants are being encouraged to embrace circular practices. Indeed, many European cities self-identify as Circular Cities. The European Union suggested that a circular approach will be adopted in cities to recover from COVID-19. This is supported by the European New Green Deal. Four such Circular Cities are presented in this book.

The research

For the benefit of an academic audience I will now briefly explain my approach to the research. This is a research-based book, which has drawn from the findings of three projects Circular cities: strategies, challenges and knowledge gaps funded by UCL Global Engagement Fund; Circular Cities: London Circular Experiments and a Comparison of European Circular Cities both funded by the UCL Sustainable Cities Grand Challenge. These three projects sought to determine the following:

  • 1. The typology of circular development pathways
  • 2. The benefits and disbenefits of adopting a circular development approach in cities
  • 3. The challenges to circular development
  • 4. The synergies and conflicts between circular actions and other urban strategies

Three sources of data were used to respond to the research aims 1-3. These were secondary data (academic papers, technical reports, policy documents and media reports), expert focus groups (which included policy-makers, urban technical professionals and service providers operating in cities across Europe) and detailed interviews with experts in case study cities, operating examples of best practice. The literature and interview responses were analysed using a combination of inductive and deductive content analysis.

The synergies and conflicts between circular actions and other urban strategies were explored using a systems approach. System maps, influence diagrams and causal loop diagrams were developed for the four case cities. Potential synergies and conflicts between circular actions and other strategies were initially hypothesised. The evidence (i.e. technical reports, interview data and academic papers) was interrogated to determine whether the predicted relationships manifested in practice. This enabled the author to determine how the circular actions influenced each other and how they were influenced by other urban strategies (i.e. localisation, optimisation, substitution and sharing).

This book not only presents a new theoretical development model but also clearly adds to the theoretical understanding of circular cities and circular development. It produces a typology of circular development pathways, identifies challenges to and levers for implementation, identifies the benefits of adopting circular development and explains the conflicts and synergies between circular development and other urban strategies. Thus, it provides a very broad and solid base from which others can begin to research this area. It does also highlight many questions which still need to be answered.

The book

The book is divided into three parts. The first part focusses on the conceptual development and underpinnings for circular cities and circular development. Chapter 1 outlines some of the ecological problems facing cities globally and the case for adopting a circular city approach. Chapter 2 presents the current conceptualisation of a circular city and suggests that a new conceptualisation is needed. Thus, it advocates a shift in focus from circular business models and industrial production processes in cities (an economic focus) to circular urban systems (a socio-ecological focus). It develops new conceptualisations for circular cities and circular development, which are explored throughout the rest of the book.

The second part of the book illustrates circular development principles operating in practice, using four detailed European case studies: Stockholm, London, Amsterdam and Paris. For each city the approach taken to circular economy and circular development is examined. Examples of different circular development pathways are presented. The levers for implementation, benefits of adopting the pathways and challenges to implementation are discussed. The four cities are extremely diverse in their approach to circular development.

Chapter 3 presents the case of Stockholm. Stockholm does not have a circular strategy. Nevertheless, circular thinking has been applied to the urban system and development for several decades. Thus, the development regime has already transformed and is supportive of the circular approach. Motivations for adopting circular principles are environmental. Stockholm demonstrates two distinct pathways for circular development. The first pathway is a strategic, city-regional approach based on the ecocycles (waste-to-energy) system. The second pathway uses planned eco-districts (Hammarby and Stockholm Royal Seaport) to demonstrate and test the application of the circular actions in a new build development. The case studies also demonstrate the dynamics between circular actions and other urban strategies.

Chapter 4 presents the case of London. London has a circular economy strategy, focussed on the creation of circular businesses and industrial sectors in the capital. Motivations for adopting this strategy are economic and environmental. The strategy does not conform with the definition of circular development provided in Chapter 2. Nevertheless, the London spatial plan addresses all three circular actions (albeit separately) and thus London does offer examples of circular development. The London cases demonstrate two distinct pathways. The first pathway uses a planned eco-district to demonstrate and test the application of the three circular actions in a new build development (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park). The second pathway adopts a grass-root, temporary, experimental approach to delivering circular actions in an existing neighbourhood (Brixton).

Chapter 5 presents the case of Amsterdam. Amsterdam has a circular strategy, which is clearly linked to sustainable development. Motivations for adopting this strategy are economic and environmental. Amsterdam recognises the difference between circular economy and circular development. It has programmes in place to address both. It also demonstrates two distinct pathways for circular development. The first pathway encourages a strategic, city-regional approach to looping construction and organic waste (Circle City Scan). The second pathway adopts a grass-root, temporary, experimental approach to circular development (De Ceuvel).

Chapter 6 presents the case of Paris. Paris has a circular strategy, which offers a more holistic and integrated conceptualisation of circular economy, closer to this book’s definition of circular development. It recognises the linkages between looping, ecologically regenerative and adaptive actions. It also territorialises these activities. Motivations for adopting this strategy are economic, environmental and social (solidarity). The social benefits are extremely important in this case. Paris demonstrates three pathways for circular development. The first pathway encourages a city-regional approach to looping construction materials, food and water. It also coordinates the strategic reuse of sites (e.g. Paris Reinvented). The second pathway adopts a grass-root, temporary-experimental approach to circular development (e.g. Les Grand Voisins, Bellastock), through the adaptive reuse of sites. The third pathway demonstrated by Clichy Batignolles uses a planned eco-district to demonstrate and test the application of the three circular actions in a new build development.

The third part of the book draws together the key findings from the four circular cities studied, answering the implementation questions how, why and what? Chapter 7 answers the “how” questions. How do circular cities and circular development pathways manifest? How are they implemented and what are the levers for transformation? How do the circular actions interact with each other and urban strategies? In Chapter 7, a typology of circular development begins to emerge. A range of levers (regulation, capacity building, provisioning powers) and resources (land and finance) which can be used to encourage circular development are identified. Finally, the synergies and conflicts between circular actions and other urban strategies are explored.

Chapter 8 discusses the reasons for adopting a circular development pathway, illustrated by the case studies. In addition to the environmental benefits, the pathway creates healthier, more adaptive living environments; a more diverse economic base with a range of jobs; greater community engagement and social solidarity. These benefits are not equally shared across the population, thus producing social inequalities. However, it is argued that the social problems highlighted could be addressed, given the political will to do so.

Chapter 9 explores the challenges to implementing circular development in cities. A range of challenges are presented. The case studies demonstrate that a shift in political philosophy, cultural values and assumptions underpinning the economic system will be required for the circular transformation of the existing development regime. However, the case studies demonstrate that where there is the political will and the resources, circular transformations can occur. However, circular experiments will need long-term, political and financial assistance and a supportive regulatory framework to ensure they scale-up.

The final chapter responds to the four questions set in Chapter 2. It defines circular cities and circular development. It discusses the dynamics between circular actions and other urban strategies. It highlights the levers for implementing circular transformations and the reasons for adopting circular development pathways in cities. It explores the challenges to circular urban transformation and suggests areas for future research.

Whether you are an academic searching for the definition of circular development, a student wanting to see the range of exciting circular projects emerging in cities across Europe or a practitioner/policy-maker wishing to understand the challenges to implementing circular development, this book provides a useful source of examples, guidance and inspiration. I hope you enjoy it.

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