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Can you imagine a circular city?

The relocalization of commerce helps cities become less vulnerable to national and global disruptions, and the income generated stays in the community.

This story is adapted from the book "The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life" (Harper Wave, 2016).

In 2012, Paul Polman, the chairman of Unilever, a global consumer goods company, wrote, "It is evident that an economy that extracts resources at increasing rates without consideration for the environment in which it operates, without consideration for our natural planetary boundaries cannot continue indefinitely. In a world of soon to be 9 billion consumers who are actively buying manufactured goods, this approach will hamper companies and undermine economies. We need a new way of doing business. The concept of a circular economy promises a way out."

The most powerful way to enhance the adaptability of systems is to connect their inputs, outputs and information, and create conditions in which they can respond to changing stresses. Cities and their metropolitan regions are at just the right scale to make the shift to the economics of prosperity and well-being that result in a more integrated system. They are large enough to enjoy the benefits of diversification and small enough to be well managed, and to feed information back into more productive loops.


Entropy, the thermodynamic decline of a system from order toward disorder, affects systems in two ways — it causes them to move from higher to lower states of energetic organization, and higher to lower states of information. And as systems become less energized and organized, they become less adaptable.

For example, as the Roman civilization declined, it lost its ability to provide itself with the calories and information needed to energize itself, and along with that, its ability to govern itself at a level that matched its complexity. The Roman Empire slid into simpler and less-organized states. It finally stabilized at a population that was less than 0.5 percent of its size in its heyday.

No economic system can overcome entropy; like gravity, it’s a non-negotiable quality of the universe we live in. But circular economics takes entropy into account in ways that classical economics does not. This allows a city with circular economies to reward strategies that increase its EROI, and reduce its voracious appetite for external sources of energy, food and raw materials. It can also encourage continuous feedback, information that can help raise its level of organization.

Cities and their metropolitan regions are at just the right scale to make the shift.

A circular economy shifts a city from linear industrial systems to cyclical, regenerative systems. As cities adopt programs such as food waste composting in San Francisco and Seattle, and encourage remanufacturing as at the Nucor plants scattered across America, their systems become less vulnerable to national and global disruptions, and the income generated stays in the community.

Four pathways to a circular city

There are four pathways in a regional circular economy. The first maintains systems and products, rather than throwing them out. This requires a return to a pre–World War II design and manufacturing ethos, when goods were made to be both maintainable and repairable, and a 21st-century system of hardware designed to be improved by software updates.

The second reduces use through behaviors like collaborative consumption, which can expand access to goods while reducing their cost and environmental impact. For example, car-sharing programs like Zipcar have a ratio of one car for every seven members, offering increased convenience while significantly reducing the need to manufacture cars, with all the attendant waste.

well-tempered city

In the coming decade, each new autonomous vehicle is projected to replace 10 cars, reducing the resources mined to make the cars by 90 percent, and if they are electric vehicles, oil use and attendant greenhouse gases by 71 percent.

The third pathway encourages refurbishing and remanufacture. Patagonia, for example, will repair for free any garment that it has sold.

The fourth is to create the regulations, incentives and infrastructure to develop markets and industries that recycle unused or waste materials. When polyester is recycled into new polyester, for example, 99.9 percent of the material is reused.

Now imagine connecting Germany’s auto-recycling laws with Nucor’s steel-recycling systems. Then think of the power that would come if they shared information — Ford designing car parts that would be easier to reforge, and Nucor designing steel that was lighter and stronger and easier to make cars from, and cities designing the infrastructure that connected them.

The most efficient recycler is nature. Some of the most interesting emerging recycling systems are using nature’s own ubiquitous, low-maintenance recycling plants: microbes. At Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Louise Vet is working with Waste2Chemical to develop bacteria that can turn mixed waste into raw materials for the chemical industry. For example, they are extracting fats from food waste and turning them into polymers that can be used in plastics, paint additives and lubricants at prices that compete with fossil fuels.

First steps

Circular economies are most efficient when they can readily connect inputs to outputs, and the two elements that help that happen, density and infrastructure, are prominent characteristics of cities.

China, which invests more in urban infrastructure than any other nation in the world, recognizes the value of creating a circular economy. In 2011, China’s Eighteenth Party Congress introduced the concept of creating an ecological civilization with Chinese characteristics. Qiushi, a publication of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, noted that the term "ecological" "pertains to the state in which nature exists, whereas the term civilization refers to a state of human progress. Thus ecological civilization describes the level of harmony that exists between human progress and natural existence in human civilization."

Circular economies are most efficient when they can readily connect inputs to outputs.

The congress’s report states that China "should depend more on saving resources and a circular economy ... to substantially reduce consumption intensity of energy, water and land and improve efficiency and benefits." It concludes that China needs to advance reduction, reuse and recycling in the process of production, circulation and consumption. Its goal is to do so by "promoting the circular distribution, combination and circulation between industries, production and living systems, domestic and foreign, speeding up building a circular society promoting circulating development in all."

These concepts are now being put into action. China’s lead planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has approved circular-economy pilot plans in 27 cities and provinces with the goal of "10/100/1,000": focusing on 10 major areas of activity, executing them in 100 cities and building 1,000 industries or eco-industrial parks.

In 2012, the European Union committed itself to moving toward a circular economy. "In a world with growing pressures on resources and the environment, the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy." 

In 2014, Amsterdam released an ambitious plan to become a circular city. The alderperson for sustainability, Abdeluheb Choho, noted: "In a circular city everything that we want to achieve will come together: less pollution, less waste, and buildings that produce their own energy." By utilizing a governance strategy that includes businesses, governmental agencies, citizens and NGOs, Amsterdam’s approach is much more cooperative and resilient than China’s top-down strategy.

Nature’s biocomplexity lies at the core of its growth and its ability to thrive and to adapt to changing circumstances. As climate change increasingly impacts our cities and the regions that supply them, applying circular thinking to their metabolic processes will be essential to the future.

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