• Urban Cosmography

What is circularity and what it means for cities

An Introduction to Circularity

Circularity might become one of those paramount, but also redundant terms like sustainability, environmental impact, climate change. But not yet. In fact, circularity is still in its infancy and perhaps discussing its definition helps to bring the concept forward and to remind us of its value especially if this term will (ever) get overused.

Circularity is a regenerative continuity. It expresses a process that starts again from the point it has ended. As opposed to linearity, where the beginning and the end are two separate events, circularity brings in the continuity of the system because the end of the process overlaps with its start, infinite times.

Expressions like circular economies, circular design, circular agendas sound probably familiar to our ears. This flexible declination has already informed us that circularity is not per se a solution, but it rather represents an approach, a process that we can adopt in various scales, fields, and contexts. It is a common denominator in which every circular act is not isolated, instead, it contributes to a systemic change.

The regenerative continuity, that circularity facilitates, is related to resources and consequently to waste, of natural, economic, and social type. Cities play a pioneer part towards the transition to circularity because they are places where people live, work, and consume an increasing amount of resources. Between 1900 and 2015, the urbanized population increased from 14% to 54% and it is forecasted to rise to 66% by 2050 (World Economic Forum, 2018). Cities are also active engines of economic growth, generating approximately 85% of the global gross domestic product (Gregory Hodkinson, Chairman of Arup Group).

If we look at cities as ecosystems, where people are living organisms and where continuous flows of water, air, waste and interaction shape citizens’ habits, the vulnerability of the 21st-century cities comes up to the surface. Worldwide, we are facing the tragic consequences of the extract > product > use > throw approach and a lack of resources shamefully corresponds to a surplus of waste. By adopting a circular city making, we can invert this dead end and reintroducing the waste into the system. Circularity applied to spatial planning means new forms of urbanity that limit waste within sectors such as housing, energy, food, transports, in fact being oriented towards abandoning the idea of 'waste' at all. And therefore rethinking the 'resources' as well.

Waste does not exist in nature, because each organism contributes to the health of the whole. (William McDonough)

Mostly within the Global North, there are many examples of how cities are already taking the leap to circular economies and Urbanism: from rethinking mobility to sharing the production of energy, to reprocessing food, and even medical waste; from the scale of the neighbor to that of the region; from community initiatives to policies levels. The report Circular Economy in Cities. Evolving the model for a sustainable urban future by the World Economic Forum (2018) and the book WASTED CITY, Approach to circular city making by Cities Foundation (2017) are inspiring publications to look at, showcasing many case studies and examples of circularity applied to design.

Circular urbanity represents the overcoming of the linear approaches - top-down and bottom-up - because not through dichotomies, but rather through intersectional cooperation on diverse levels we can assure a sustainable future. Designwise, the circular paradigm was already presented more than fifteen years ago with the creation of the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design model by the American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart in 2002.

As opposed to a cradle-to-grave strategy (life to death) the idea is that of promoting production with the goal of upcycling in mind from the beginning of any design, that is giving new value and not simply recycling under the same usage patterns. Where does this upcycling paradigm come from? How can we add true new value to what has been used and wasted?

Since circularity is rather a process, and not a result, then it’s not (only) a matter of (successful) reuse and reintegration but also of innovative cooperation and shared commitment. Human interaction is crucial to the process of circularity and cannot be separated by the reuse if we aim for a long term impact. New producer-consumer relationships, new forms of ownership and management, the inclusion of several actors, the education towards best practices will be supporting pillars for innovative material life cycles and more sustainable ways of production. In other words, circularity is the powerful union of the physical and the cultural interaction and citizens are the carrier of circularity.

The way I personally first heard of circularity, in the field of design, was through the story of the Dutch architect Thomas Rau and his “circular lighting”. Shifting the attention from the product to the performance, and from the ownership to the use, he argued that dwellers were not interested in possessing lamps in their houses, but rather to have light or, better said, a number of hours of light. He then started a partnership with Philips, in this case, the company interested in delivering the best performance (light) to its customers, therefore in providing them with top quality products at high guaranteed maintenance. Forget planned obsolescence: interest lies in the performance, not in the product. This business model, facilitated by Turn Too, the company founded by Thomas Rau, is based on the concept that

each product = raw materials + added value

Raw materials are owned by the producing company, which is responsible for their assembling into a final high-performing product. The added value is the performance sold as “usage” of that product, i.e. the number of washes of a washing machine. According to Thomas Rau, this model is not only economically convenient for all actors involved in the system, but it also benefits Planet Earth because it reduces the linear overexploitation of materials, and consecutively the overproduction at its core. 

To conclude with a bit of a provocation, we could argue that circularity goes beyond disturbing the linear consumerism processes and it actually mines capitalism as a whole. Time hasn’t played for circularity until now, if we think of not only the last decades of globalization - that pushed production way off its limits - but also of the past centuries during which capitalism has been developing. Capitals and investments lay on the trust that future resources will be way more than our presents. This is how human expeditions and conquests have been supported from 1500 onwards. If we are to rethink this consolidated system (spoiler: our future resources won’t be more than our presents) we can at least take the “trust on the future” as a positive take away. Provided we commit to new forms of circular living that can exponentially trigger positive results.

By no surprise, the reality is complex, contradictory and sometimes unpredictable, and so are cities. Yet circularity represents a revolutionary concept to our present time: it’s a shift from what we produce to how we produce it, from the outcomes to the process. Because it’s the process that allows the regeneration and that will make the future possible.

#circularity #resources #waste


Cities Foundation, 2017, WASTED CITY. Approach to circular city making

Ellen MacArthur Foundation & IDEO, 2017, Circular design guide

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Philips&TurnToo, Selling light as a service

Thomas Rau, Turn Too

William McDonough & Michael Braungart, 2002, Cradle to Cradle

World Economic Forum, 2018, Circular Economy in Cities. Evolving the model for a sustainable urban future


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