A circular city remains a destination of the future, but many are traveling there


Cities can be carbon-emitting beasts, but they’re also hotspots for innovation and political action. Efforts to create circular cities laser-focus systemic change at the local level, seeking to reinvent urban centers as living demonstration projects of sustainability at scale.

A circular city, in a short definition, is one that eliminates waste, keeps goods and their ingredients in use and regenerates natural systems.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s longer description of a circular city names new possibilities for designing, planning, manufacturing and accessing goods, buildings and vehicles, and keeping materials in use. This can involve more distributed ways of managing resources, including exchanging or renting goods instead of buying them. It involves reverse logistics to bring materials back into consumer flows instead of banishing them as waste. Ideally, businesses and consumers ultimately will discard nothing and share more, at no cost to their convenience and liberty.

The circular economy is beginning to take off primarily because it makes business sense — but also because it engages communities, Ashima Sukhdev, the government and cities program lead for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said at Circularity 19 in Minneapolis last week.

That’s good news, considering the exponentially negative trends in natural systems in recent decades — biodiversity loss, carbon emissions, population growth and so on. Cities are major culprits in many of these forces, as they concentrate so many people and materials. Globally, cities take up just 3 percent of land, but generate up to 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, consume 75 percent of resources and hold 70 percent of the world’s population by 2050.

To date, no circular city has a visible dot on a map, despite Copenhagen, London, New York City and Rio de Janeiro being among the nine inaugural members of the Ellen MacArthur Fund Circular Cities network launched in 2016. There’s no such thing as flipping a circular switch. For now, circularity is not yet a destination but a process, and the earliest circular city efforts focus on proof-of-concept pilots, community hubs and education centers — sometimes all rolled into one.

However, the solutions to so many exponential problems can grow at breakneck speed, according to Eva Gladek, CEO and founder of Metabolic, which helps cities around the world with circular transformations. Speaking at Circularity 19, the molecular biologist by training said the exponential growth of E. coli bacteria in a lab inspired her to invest in a new hope: that circularity, too, will take off.

Bend those exponential growth curves and you can create new forms of prosperity, she said.

A 2017 report by Google and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation laid out the technology accelerants: asset tagging; geospatial data; big data; and connectivity among both people and products.

Among some notable circular efforts in cities:

  • In Las Vegas, Yalmaz Siddiqui, VP of sustainability at MGM Resorts International, described at Circularity 19 how the company flash freezes unused food from restaurant kitchens for use in city food banks and beyond; empty oyster shells travel back to the Chesapeake Bay to support oyster habitats.
  • In Amsterdam, the DeCeuvel former shipyard was reinvented as a “playground for sustainable technologies,” drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year. The work and event site’s demonstration of circularity includes solar power and the use of phytoremediation, by which plants sip and transform pollution from the soil.
  • In Chicago’s former meatpacking district (considered a food desert despite housing some of the city’s hottest restaurants), a former pork processing plant dubbed the Plant features 20 food-based businesses that use each others’ waste. Spent grain from a brewery helps to grow mushrooms later sold at a farmer’s market. School groups can learn about the life cycle of a salad or about aquaponics in the Closed Loop lab.
  • In North Carolina, a core feature of the Circular Charlotte plan is the Innovation Barn, a community center set to open this year with a zero-waste restaurant that displays food being processed. It also will host a materials innovation lab for businesses.
  • Google, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Arup teamed up on a Circularity Lab in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, focusing on buildings.

These circular experiments and aspirations, however, come at a time when more municipalities are giving up on the simple recycling of cans and bottles. If cities can’t even get something as straightforward as aluminum and glass recycling right, how will they transition to a circular model of how people engage with everything from buildings to clothing to food? (…)


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