Circular cities: conclusions and future research

What is a circular city and circular development?

To date, the focus in the academic literature has been on circular economy and encouraging the emergence of circular businesses in cities. In this book we have moved beyond this, towards a socio-ecological conceptualisation of circular cities and circular development (Chapter 2). Circular cities are urban systems in which resources are looped, the ecosystem is regenerated and the socio-technical systems (infrastructure and communities) evolve with changing contexts. Thus, circular cities are resource efficient, resilient and operate within the global carrying capacity. Circular development implements circular systems, activities and infrastructure in cities, largely through the spatial planning and economic development processes. It has the potential to address several sustainable development goals often overlooked: inter-generational equity, futurity and environmental protection. If adopted by the development regime it may truly offer a revolution in urban sustainability.

The European case studies illustrate how circular cities and circular development might manifest in practice, across a range of contexts (Chapters 3-6). There is great variation even amongst these few case studies. However, there are also commonalities between cities. There is a common focus on four resource flows: organic waste, construction waste, grey- and waste-water. These require common infrastructural solutions: waste-to-energy systems; grey-water recycling systems; green infrastructure, adaptable infrastructure. The cities adopt similar circular activities (e.g. food reuse, composting, urban farming) and levers for transformation (regulation, capacity building, procurement and provisioning). These findings begin to demarcate common features of circular cities. A series of development pathways have begun to emerge from the case studies. These form the basis for a typology of circular development pathways (Chapter 7). So far three types have been identified. It is likely that other pathways will emerge, as we explore more cities across Europe. Thus the typology will develop.

Dynamics between circular actions and other urban strategies

The case studies demonstrate the synergies between circular actions (Chapter 7). They underline the importance of implementing circular actions in combination, thus reinforcing the conceptualisation of circular development, presented in Chapter 2. The case studies also demonstrate the synergistic relationships and conflicts between circular actions and other urban strategies (localisation, substitution and optimisation). These dynamic relationships require further investigation to determine with certainty which strategies are likely to operate together successfully in circular cities.

Reasons for adopting a circular development pathway

The case studies confirm there are benefits accrued from adopting circular development in cities (Chapter 8). In addition to the ecological benefits, it creates healthier, more adaptive living environments, a more diverse economic base with a range ofjobs, greater community engagement and social solidarity. However, these benefits are not equally shared across the population, thus producing social inequalities. The potential social disadvantages (especially to the urban poor) require further research. However, it is argued that these problems could be addressed, given the political will to do so (Chapter 8).

The benefits and disbenefits of circular development, both within a city and to the wider community, need to be better understood and quantified. Given the global imperative to tackle climate change, calculating the impact of adopting a variety of circular development pathways on greenhouse gas emissions should be prioritised. The potential benefits of adopting the approach in new contexts (e.g. cities in developing nations, those sutfering from shrinkage or resource insecurities) should also be explored.

Challenges to circular urban transformation

There are major challenges to the circular transformation of the existing development regime, which in many instances requires a shift in political philosophy, cultural values and assumptions underpinning the economic system (Chapter 9). However, our case studies demonstrate that where there is the political will and the resources, circular transformation could be possible. However, circular experiments need long-term, political and financial assistance and a supportive regulatory framework to ensure they scale-up (Williams, 2016).

Through the process of cosmopolitanisation the ideas mobilised in European cities could translate into new contexts (Williams, 2017). For example, in countries where political, economic systems and cultural values are more aligned with circular development, circular cities may flourish. Equally in urban systems which might benefit from adopting this approach, for example, shrinking cities and resource insecure cities, the development regime may transform. This will very much depend on the benefits of adopting circular development being made clear to decision-makers. More research is needed to determine the challenges to circular urban transformations in non-European contexts.

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