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Leading a transition towards circular cities

  • October 14, 2020

Climate change is urging cities to set up “new paths” towards sustainable futures. Since 2020, the health crisis has reinforced, if necessary, the urgency for urban spaces to address the issue of resource supply. Matters relating to transport and logistics optimization were also acutely raised, faced with the influx of e-commerce orders and purchases.  Thus, many cities are turning to circular economy (CE) to build new modes of production and consumption and improve their resilience

Barcelona is conducting projects about urban production systems (for food and energy) and has been a pioneer in exploring the concept of a “Fab City”. This concept has emerged in 2011, led by the urban innovator Tomas Diez. It refers to a model of sustainable self-sufficient cities that implement a perfect circularity.

Why turning to circular economy to guide this redirection? 

CE is not just about waste management. It is mainly about optimising the management of resources (materials and energy). It implies the implementation of new, more sober and efficient modes of design, production and consumption (eco-design, industrial and territorial ecology, economy of functionality, etc.) and to consider waste as a resource.

First, CE permits to reduce environmental impacts. This has social benefits: the quality of life in terms of the environment that people work and live in is largely improved – less traffic, more green spaces, waste reduced…

Also, the looping of energy and material flows is particularly relevant to ensure resilience to shocks and improve the independence of cities from distant territories. CE is a means of anticipating the changes taking place rather than being affected by them, while creating activity and employment.

Finally, CE can be a tool for creating innovative businesses. New circular economy models, which aim to encourage the use rather than the possession of the good, are spreading and opening the way to new activities and business model opportunities. The establishment of such an economic model implies a system of exchange and collaboration between companies, the creation of cooperative networks but also depends on policymakers and their decisions.

For instance, the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and the city council have created the “Green Business Network” to support and connect businesses towards reuse or industrial symbiosis.

What tools do cities have?

Energy and material flows involved in a city are identified and quantified through “urban metabolism” studies.The main components of the urban metabolism are water, building materials, fossil fuels and agricultural and food products. These resources are massively produced in rural territories while the wealth produced in cities comes from the tertiary sector and is more dematerialized. To achieve a balance between incoming data and outgoing data, urban policies must integrate reflections on their relations with rural territories. For example, partnership initiatives for the implementation of short food circuits or the protection of drinking water basins can be mentioned.

CE is also about considering in-situ resources and turning waste into secondary raw materials. Recovery and recycling practices are therefore adapted to these spaces which are essentially resource-consuming. 

In Glasgow and Roubaix (North of France), city councils published sustainability strategy in which circular economy and “Zero waste” policies are promoted. These municipalities foster visibility of reusing, remanufacturing and recycling practices through networking and publicity. They also build a common vision and public engagement through institutions (the Scottish Institute for Remanufacturing, funded in 2014 by Zero Waste Scotland is hosted at the University Strathclyde) or public events (“Le Festival Zéro Déchet” in Roubaix).

Are cities privileged spaces for the implementation of circular economy policies?

Gathering 55% of humanity, cities are a ground for experimentation and implementation of circular economy projects. They can benefit from developed communication and mobility, which facilitates logistical issues and exchange between the various players.

Thus, cities can be a driving force for a more global transition. Thanks to their competences (waste management, water services…) and the proximity of the public sector to economic actors, research centers and citizen-consumers, cities have key assets to develop CE.

The Hague (Netherlands) municipal government published a carbon neutral strategy and invested in knowledge development projects concerning CE.