Moving from a circular economy to a circular city

Circularity derives from an ecological conceptualisation of the world. The focus shifts from linear systems, which consume an infinite supply of new resources (inputs) and produce “waste” (outputs), towards circular systems, in which resources are reused, recycled or recovered. The principle of circularity has been applied to industrial systems (industrial symbiosis), production processes (cradle-to-cradle) and economic systems (circular economy).

Industrialists developed the idea of industrial metabolism in the nineteenth century. Industries metabolised resources, producing outputs - often classified as waste - which could be used by other industries (Simmonds, 1862). By 1930, industrial symbiosis had appeared in the literature (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 1998; Parkins, 1930). Industries formed symbiotic relationships with each other enabling by-products (water, energy and materials) from one industrial process to be used by another. This was often facilitated by close physical proximity.

The ideas of industrial symbiosis were further developed in the 1990s by industrial ecologists, who viewed industrial systems as an ecosystem (Chertow, 2007). This has led to the creation of examples of industrial symbiosis operating at a national level in eco-industrial networks (e.g. NISP in the UK). The tendency to date has been to focus on industrial networks or industrial parks. More recently there has been some mention of the application of industrial symbiosis to cities. Arguably this is not the application of circularity or symbiotic principles to the urban system, but more about creating symbiotic relationships between industries which happen to operate within an urban system.

Cradle-to-cradle thinking has been applied to the production of goods through the design and manufacturing processes. It aims to reduce waste produced during the lifecycle of a product, through minimisation, reuse, recycling and recovery of resources. The current model is based on a system of “lifecycle development” initiated in the 1990s (McDonough, 2002). Life cycle assessment compares the full range of environmental impacts from products and services, throughout their lifecycle (from extraction to disposal). This is achieved by quantifying all inputs and outputs of material flows and assessing how these material flows affect the environment. This conceptualisation has been applied to buildings and building components, but not to cities.

Circular economy

The closed-loop (circular) economy first emerged in the sixties (Boulding, 1966). It was this conceptualisation which became influential upon German and Japanese economic policy during the 1980s and 1990s (Bilitewski, 2007; Moriguchi, 2007) and encouraged the adoption of circular principles in business and industry. Circular economy (CE) is a model for production and consumption (with an emphasis on production), whose ultimate goal is to achieve the decoupling of economic growth from natural resource depletion and environmental degradation (Jackson, 2009). The focus of CE is of course on the economic system, usually sectors (e.g. food, construction, electronic goods), or business models for specific companies (CE100). However, none of the three conceptualisations - industrial symbiosis, cradle-to-cradle, CE - have focussed on the urban system as the bounded area of analysis.

CE places emphasis on the redesign of processes and cycling of materials within the economic system. It aims to “design out” waste, return nutrients and recycle durables using renewable energy to power the economy (UNEP, 2006). Thus, CE is not merely seen as a preventative approach, but as an ecologically restorative and regenerative approach, repairing previous damage by designing better economic systems (EMF et al., 2015; UNEP, 2006).

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) developed the RESOLVE framework for CE (Figure 2.1). It defines CE as one that provides multiple value- creation mechanisms which are decoupled from the consumption of finite resources. It describes six actions which are critical to the transition to a CE:

  • 1. Ecological regeneration through a shift to renewable energy and materials, alongside the return of recovered biological resources to the biosphere
  • 2. Keeping components and materials in closed loops (reuse, recycle, recover, remanufacture), prioritising inner loops (e.g. reuse) and thus reducing waste
  • 3. Sharing resources to keep product loop speed low and maximise utilisation of products to reduce waste
  • 4. Optimisation of the performance and efficiency of products, alongside the removal of waste in production and supply chains, leveraged by big data
  • 5. Dematerialise resource use by delivering utility virtually
  • 6. Replace existing products and services with lower resource consuming options.
RESOLVE — framework for a circular economy. Source

FIGURE 2.1 RESOLVE — framework for a circular economy. Source: EMF et al. (2015).

RESOLVE is the most widely used CE framework for businesses, partly as a result of its promotion through the CE100 network and inclusion in a Circular Economy Vision for a Competitive Europe (EMF et al., 2015). An analysis of existing circular business model types (26 in total) demonstrated that RESOLVE provided the most comprehensive framework for moving towards a CE (Lewandowski, 2016). RESOLVE is indeed useful for conceptualising a CE. However, it is less appropriate when conceptualising a circular city and circular development (Williams, 2019a).

Moving from an economic system to an urban system

RESOLVE is designed to produce circular practices in an economic system, particularly within businesses or industrial sectors. The focus is largely on increasing economic efficiency within production systems which result in environmental benefits. The economy is pre-eminent and cuts across spatial boundaries. It is governed at a national or international level. The goals are largely economic and relate to the accumulation of capital and wealth. The focus is on businesses or industries operating in cities, rather than on systems of provision (services and infrastructure).

In contrast, a circular urban system - a circular city - is spatially bounded. It is governed at a local level, although local decisions and processes are deeply affected by international and national regulatory and economic systems. Nevertheless, local actors, particularly local government, are focussed on delivering a range of societal benefits. The economy and economic goals are not pre-eminent. The focus is also on systems of provision - infrastructure and services - rather than on systems of production. Thus, a circular city is distinctly different from a circular economic system.

RESOLVE focuses on production systems. However, cities are more often centres of consumption, not centres of production. Many resources consumed by urban inhabitants are produced outside cities (especially in the European context). The shift in emphasis in cities should be towards resources consumed and subsequently “wasted” by its inhabitants. Thus, we need to shift focus from systems of production in an economic system to systems of provision in an urban system. RESOLVE focuses on small-scale systems of production, usually within organisations or a single industrial sector. It does not consider complex urban systems of provision, across multiple sectors. Nor does it consider how these systems of provision interact with the varied lifestyles of those living in cities, producing different social practices. Furthermore, RESOLVE does not focus on lifestyles, and how lifestyles themselves can influence citizens’ willingness to adopt circular practices. Thus, in a conceptualisation of a circular city, an emphasis should be placed on consumption (delivering circular lifestyles and practices) and systems of provision.

RESOLVE provides no indication of where the technological and biological processes integral to a CE take place. Thus, it does not conceptualise a spatial dimension. Yet cities are a physical entity, anchored in a specific location. The spatial dimensions of a city are based on physical form (land-use) and a variety of functions (e.g. commute patterns, water catchment area). Thus, it is important in the conceptualisation of a circular city to determine where resource flows, waste assimilation and circular actions will happen. It is also important to determine at which scale closing resource loops would be most appropriate (neighbourhood, city or city-region).

RESOLVE focuses on technological and biological resources, but land and infrastructure are not considered. Yet these are important resources and should be included in a circular city conceptualisation. Land is a scarce and valuable resource in cities. Land use affects the feasibility of adopting circular actions (e.g. localisation of activities or looping of resources) within a city. It provides space for circular activities, which affect the city’s ability to assimilate “waste” (Pandis, 2014). Land offers ecosystem services which are crucial for the regeneration of the urban ecosystem (Folke et al., 1997). Land-use patterns also affect urban activities and thus resource consumption and production. This influences resource flows and the capacity for loops to be closed.

RESOLVE also ignores infrastructure in its conceptualisation. Yet, infrastructure is a resource mine. Thus, the reuse or recycling of infrastructure must be prioritised in a circular city. Infrastructure also governs how resources are supplied, managed and consumed in cities (Chester and Allenby, 2018). It therefore influences the systems of provision and consumption of resources. Thus, infrastructure is critical to the delivery of a circular city.

Moving from an economic to an ecological focus

For circular cities and circular development, we shift from an economic to an ecological focus. Both the urban economy and society operate within the environmental carrying capacity of the urban ecosystem. In an ecological framing, resources are not infinite (as implied in neoclassical economic models) and global environmental carrying capacity limits the growth of cities. Thus, cities must operate within their ecological carrying capacity, if society and economy are to flourish. Operating within the ecological carrying capacity is a fundamental aim of circular cities.

Ecological footprint

An urban ecosystem will have an ecological footprint (appropriated carrying capacity). This is the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce the goods and services consumed in urban activities and to assimilate the wastes generated by the city’s population. The urban ecological footprint extends beyond the physical or administrative boundaries of the city, but the aim for a circular city would be to reduce it. In order to limit the ecological footprint of a city, we must reduce the resources consumed (particularly finite resources) and waste produced by urban activities. For example, this could be achieved through resource looping and infrastructural adaptation. It is also important to increase assimilation of waste and production of resources locally. This can be achieved by increasing resource looping and ecologically regenerating the urban ecosystem.


Urban ecologists highlight the importance of self-sutficiency for ecological optimisation in cities (Rosales, 2017). Self-sufficiency will also increase the resilience of cities to resource shocks. Sufficiency is achieved by staying within local and regional carrying capacity, by regulating patterns of consumption and restoring resources. The carrying capacity of the urban ecosystem and its ability to be self-sufficient is affected by the health of a city’s ecosystem services (Rosales, 2016). The ecological regeneration of an urban system will increase its capacity to be self-sufficient.

Sufficiency also helps reconnect those living in cities with the environmental consequences of their consumption decisions, lifestyles and social practices. It ensures that both positive and negative externalities of resource consumption are localised (Rosales, 2016). Thus, it can help to drive the changes in lifestyles and social practices needed for urban populations to live within the ecological carrying capacity. However, moving towards greater sufficiency requires a more integrative approach to cities and their regions (Mumford, 1968). Thus, a city- regional approach is required.

These ideas are echoed by the economic concept of eco-localism. Localisation of resource production and the local benefits accrued from ecosystem services have beneficial social, environmental and economic outcomes (Curtis, 2003). Local symbiotic capital reinforces the preservation and restoration of natural capital, the functioning of a sustainable local economy and localisation of resource flows (Curtis, 2003). Local symbiotic capital is also fundamental to industrial symbiosis, which in turn can enable resource looping.

Closing resource loops

Urban ecologists describe cities as complex organisms which metabolise resources (Kennedy et al., 2007; Wolman, 1965). They are composed of a network of inter-dependent actors (producers and consumers) between whom resources flow (usually materials, water and energy). Cities are open systems and resource flows are usually linear. Thus, resources flow across administrative and physical boundaries and are lost from the urban system. By creating closed-systems, in which resources are looped (reused, recycled or recovered), waste generated by urban processes can be reduced.

Closed-loop systems can help to deliver decarbonisation and dematerialisation. Resource looping both at local and at global scales is seen as essential for reducing waste and emissions and improving the health of the urban ecosystem and global environment (Orr, 1992). Thus, closing resource loops is fundamental to a circular city. Despite the experientially slow adoption by cities (Kennedy et al., 2011), circular metabolism applications are gathering increasing momentum in planning thought (Agudelo-Vera et al., 2011). “Loop closing” was recently identified as one of the four dominant urban development types of post-networked pathways to low carbon futures for cities (Coutard and Rutherford, 2011).

Regenerative capacity

Urban ecologists also recognise the importance of a city’s regenerative capacity, to produce useful biological resources and absorb waste generated by human activities. This is enabled by ecosystem services. However, ecosystem services in cities are often degraded. Many cities are in biological deficit, due to increasing demand being placed on resources, and rely on increasingly large hinterlands to sustain them. Allocation of land in cities for ecosystem services for production, to tackle the degradation of natural capital and environmental hazards, could potentially help to reduce the resource hinterland and regenerate the urban ecosystem. This would also help cities to operate within the ecological carrying capacity.

Adaptive capacity

Cities are dynamic and complex adaptive ecosystems, constantly evolving with a changing context (Geddes, 1915; Gunderson, 2000). Like all ecosystems, cities have the capacity to cope with disturbance and stress, returning to a stable state. This is influenced by the capacity of urban institutions, communities and networks to learn and store knowledge and experience. It is underpinned by creative flexibility and an inclusive approach to decision-making and problem-solving within the city. It is reinforced by the urban population’s ability to self-organise to respond to challenges in the environment.

The adaptive capacity of physical form (i.e. urban form and infrastructure) is also key. Socio-technical lock-in to existing infrastructure and land-use patterns in cities often prevents adaptation. This becomes a problem when societal demands change and new systems of provision are needed. These changes can render infrastructure and spaces obsolete or at best under-utilised. This wastes resources in cities. Yet the demolition and renewal of infrastructure also has resource implications. To limit waste within the built environment, we need to plan for change and create some flexibility to enable the adaptation of urban form and infrastructure.

The importance of context

Urban ecologists recognise the interdependency between cities and their local environment. Context eifects the carrying capacity of the urban ecosystem. It influences activities producing and consuming resources, generating and assimilating waste. Equally, local political priorities (and policies), regulation, economy, culture, social practices and so on can affect the ability of the urban ecosystem to close resource loops, be self-sufficient, to regenerate and to adapt. Thus, the capacity for a city to reduce resource consumption and waste and to go-circular will depend on the local context.

Defining circular cities and circular development

If we draw together these two lines of thought, we arrive at a socio-ecological conceptualisation of a circular city and circular development. A circular city is a socio-ecological system, consisting of a bio-geo-physical unit and its associated social actors and institutions. It is a complex, regenerative and adaptive system, delimited by spatial and functional boundaries, surrounding an ecosystem. There are three actions fundamental to both a circular city and circular development (Figure 2.2):

I. Looping actions (reuse, recycling and energy recovery) - a circular city is an open system with many linear processes; however, where possible these processes will be closed. This reduces waste and promotes the most efficient use of resources. Examples include waste-heat recovery systems; food-reuse cafes; bio-refineries, grey-water recycling systems; adaptive reuse of buildings and land reclamation.

II. Ecologically regenerative actions - regenerate the urban ecosystem and ecosystem services. Ecologically regenerative actions are often operationalised through the inclusion of green and blue infrastructure (e.g. permeable surfaces, reed-beds, retention ponds, green roofs) into the urban fabric or the management of urban ecosystems (e.g. conservation, farming, forestry).

III. Adaptive actions - build capacity within the urban fabric and communities to adapt to change. Capacity is built through the use of flexible design, collaborative planning, co-provision and systems for learning.

Combining all three actions will enable an urban system to renew itself, whilst minimising resource consumption and waste production. This enables the circular city to operate within its ecological carrying capacity.

Circular development is the process which integrates circular actions into urban systems of provision. It produces circular systems (e.g. grey-water recycling systems), circular activities (e.g. industrial symbiosis) and circular infrastructure (e.g. adaptable buildings). It can be driven by spatial planning or the economic development processes. Circular development closes resource loops at a variety of scales (i.e. sub-regional, regional, national, international), resulting in greater sufficiency at a city-regional level. It enables the reconnection of people with nature and development of circular practices, through urban form and systems of provision. Circular development also protects and enhances ecosystem services. This helps to reduce or assimilate waste and produce new resources within the urban system. Circular development creates adaptable cities, offering space for transformation and growth, as well as infrastructure which evolves with changing needs. The circular development process also enables learning within communities and encourages self-organisation.

A variety of circular development pathways are likely to emerge from different urban contexts, resulting from diverse political, economic, cultural, social, environmental, regulatory and technical conditions. Existing urban strategies will also influence the circular development pathway. These include strategies for optimisation,1 substitution,2 localisation and sharing3 (Figure 2.2). It is important to understand the dynamics between circular actions and existing urban

Circular development pathways - interactions between circular actions and existing urban strategies

FIGURE 2.2 Circular development pathways - interactions between circular actions and existing urban strategies.

Source: Authors own produced by Draught Vision Ltd.

strategies, in order to understand the best approach to circular development within different contexts.

Circular cities: a European phenomenon

Post-2014, circular cities began to emerge in Europe. This followed the publication of a series of policy documents produced by the European Commission.4 By 2016, the Netherlands, Scotland, Finland and Germany had national strategies for CE in place. By 2018, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg had joined them.

The New Urban Agenda for Europe established a specific partnership for implementing CE at the urban scale (Partnership for Circular Economy, 2017). Initially, London, Paris and Amsterdam were the first cities to declare their intention to adopt a circular approach to urban economic development. They were soon followed by Peterborough, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Glasgow, The Hague, Maribor, Almere, Birmingham, Brussels Capital region, Dusseldorf, Genoa, Ghent, Ljubljana, the Lyon metropolitan region, Munich, Oslo, Strasbourg, Turin, Rome, Marseille, Porto and Utrecht. More recently Lisbon and Berlin have begun to develop their circular strategies.

There is a great deal of variation in how these cities define “circularity”. Some focus on the application of CE principles in the city-region. This may include all six actions presented in the RESOLVE framework, applied in ditferent combinations. Other cities focus on supporting circular business models (London), encouraging industrial symbiosis (Rotterdam) or managing municipal material waste (Lisbon). In contrast, some cities have adopted a more holistic and territorial definition (e.g. Paris), closer to the concept of circular development presented in this book. Some recognise the importance of implementing the CE strategy as part of an integrated approach to sustainable development, alongside policies for ecological regeneration, adaptation and resilience (e.g. Amsterdam). Others have adopted a circular development pathway, but do not have an official circular strategy (e.g. Stockholm).

Motivations for adopting the circular development in cities also vary significantly. These motivations may include city-marketing and export of urban innovation (e.g. Amsterdam, London and Stockholm); social solidarity and redistribution of resources (e.g. Paris, Lisbon and Berlin); business development and job creation (London, Amsterdam, Paris); regenerating the local industrial base (e.g. Paris); resource security (e.g. Amsterdam, Lisbon, Paris) and tackling climate change (Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Lisbon and Stockholm). This variety of motivations will affect the ways in which the circular development pathways manifest.

In the next four chapters we visit four of these cities - Stockholm, London, Amsterdam and Paris - to observe how circular development has manifested in practice. This provides the evidence base for the rest of the book which seeks to:

  • - define circular development - common characteristics, variation and typologies;
  • - determine the dynamics between circular actions and other urban strategies;
  • - examine levers for implementing circular development;
  • - identify the reasons for adopting a circular development approach in cities; and
  • - finally to explore the challenges to circular urban transformation.


1 Examples of actions producing resource optimisation: introduction of smart grid, energy efficient buildings and vehicles, mass transit systems and community heating systems.

  • 2 Examples of substitution: finite resources can be substituted with renewable resources (e.g. renewable energy); resource-based activities substituted with service-based activities (e.g. buying clean water rather than waste-water systems); activities requiring movement with virtual activities (e.g. teleworking); durable infrastructure substituted with non-durable infrastructure.
  • 3 Resources can be shared in cities across a range of activities, including living (e.g. co-housing, library of things), working (e.g. co-working spaces) and travel (e.g. public transport and vehicle sharing schemes).
  • 4 European Commission (2014, 2015).
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