Circular city: Where sustainability reigns supreme

Even something as complex and demanding as a city can strive for a beautifully closed loop that utilizes resources wisely. Ellen van Bueren, Professor of Urban Development Management at the Delft University of Technology, talked to us at Reflect Festival. She offered a glimpse into the future where our products, houses, and even cities aren’t “disposable”. 

Imagine that each resource we use for production continues to exist and serve its purpose in a perfect circle. In a world with finite resources, this quest becomes more than something nice to have. Stone, metal, or even water don’t grow on trees, so what does that mean for ongoing urbanization? Perhaps that our linear way of living – we take resources, use them one time, and waste them – should turn into circular. You may have encountered circular products, businesses, or services, but even something as complex as a whole city can leverage this concept. 

“The idea behind circular cities is quite simple. Once materials, water, energy, and other resources are being used, we try to keep them in the loop as much as possible by closing the loops, and then we reduce the output as much as possible,” explained Ellen van Bueren, Professor of Urban Development Management at the Delft University of Technology, at Reflect Festival. 

To keep resources in the loop, we need to either reuse them, repair them or remanufacture them. What about good old recycling? Yes, that is also an option, but it’s much less favorable than the other solutions considering the downgrade in the quality of the materials. 

From circular products to circular buildings

Turning a product’s journey into a full circle is one thing: transforming a whole building is an entirely different beast. They have a considerable lifespan, and if these are constructed responsibly, the influence throughout the decades is immense. 

“Can we grow the materials back if we use them? If you think of wood or timber as construction material, it can grow back to trees, so that’s a renewable resource,” Ellen outlined, adding that another factor to keep in mind is reusability. “Is it easy to reuse? And how can you reuse and get it out of the Earth as responsibly as possible? At the level of construction, you could think of having your constructions being built in the demountable, adaptive, and reusable fashion. Once the building stands, can you change the room size, the floor plan of a building?” she said. 

A crucial aspect to consider is the building’s lifespan and the fact that it may differ for each layer. “It should be easy to change some of them [layers] without disrupting the others,” Ellen stressed. Besides the building materials, even furniture within the buildings and apartments can be circular. One example for all: it’s possible to lease a circular carpet, and once that needs refurbishment, it can be sent back to the factory, which will remanufacture it to a new model.  

…and from buildings to circular cities

Turning cities circular would be a game-changer: with their buildings, construction, and infrastructure, they produce enormous waste streams. “How do we move from buildings to areas? You have to look at people inside areas, their relationships, and economic relationships. Lots of cities around the world are working on circular policies, but it’s very difficult to move up to an area or neighborhood level. Many times, it’s still constrained to buildings,” Ellen admitted. 

Things are moving slowly, and mistakes happen in the quest for circularity. A good idea, such as building an effective waste incinerator, suffers if distant countries begin to ship it and pollute the environment. Ellen mentioned another example of how good initiatives can lead to undesired effects – the reuse of cooking oil as a bio fuel. When this system launched, fast-food chains such as McDonald’s that reused their oil multiple times stopped doing that, as the oil is now fueling trucks. “The waste product from the cooking became an input product itself with value as a bio fuel,” Ellen concluded. 

We’re not there yet

While circular cities exist only somewhere far in the future, decisions taken today will determine if they become a reality. At this point, there aren’t significant economic incentives from the governments that would motivate market players. Should that change, and circular will equal profitable, the bigger picture will start shifting too. 

Besides governments, businesses can take action too, especially to reuse resources and prevent their downgrade. Even on an individual basis, each of us can turn our life a little more circular. “These three groups should start experimenting, learn by doing, and don’t be afraid of failures. We might end up in some lock-ins we haven’t foreseen before, but it is worthwhile trying, and as long as we learn from it, we can improve,” Ellen concluded. 

Reuse, repurpose, remanufacture, and if nothing else is possible: recycle. We may not be there yet, but we do know where to start. 

Ellen van Bueren is professor of Urban Development Management at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In her research and teaching, she focuses on contemporary ways of making our cities more sustainable (circular, resilient, low carbon, inclusive, etc.), often in co-creative settings with citizens and stakeholders. The collaboration between people and organisations, across scales, sectors and disciplines, is key for the development and implementation of sustainable solutions. At the AMS Institute in Amsterdam she is developing a Living Lab way of working in support of disseminating sustainable urban innovations that work.


Image credit Paula Prekopova @pauli152 on Unsplash 

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