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Circular cities: The state of the art

What happens when cities think in loops.

In today’s resource and climate-constrained world, cities increasingly seek to reclaim value from the hyper-local stuff of urban living. Regenerative structures ensue, forming circles both smart and opportunistic while systematically re-branding reuse as a sexy option after our too-long romance with the new.

I arrived at this summer’s Circularity 19 conference eager to observe the state of the art of the circular economy in cities. What circles are we typically seeing? What circles are we personally building? What replicable public-private structures are emerging to support circle-building?

Answers came from many sources. Let’s start with the expected and make our way to the strategic.

Fashion first

Fast-fashion retailers may be restructuring their brick-and-mortar footprint but they have far to go to restructure their social, resource and carbon footprints. Some have begun, even as a range of fashion providers are hoping to restructure the industry. But meanwhile, a new look awaits anyone who embraces the idea of personalizing someone else's old look — or even an admired dresser’s old closet.

What replicable public-private structures are emerging to support circle-building?
Cities often play host to this constant and sometimes cool re-commerce of clothing. Indeed, in some urban areas the re-curation and reselling of clothing has been elevated to an art form. A favorite curator of mine is Buffalo Exchange, delivering diverse brands, locally relevant styles, accessible prices and supplemental income, all while giving clothing "a second life and avoiding contributing to the demand and waste of clothing pollution."

Such hip local options are complemented by online offerings, ranging from thredUP discounts to TheRealReal luxuries. Together, creative curators work to extend the lifecycle of human- and resource-intensive apparel, spanning many brands while creating regenerative circles of personal expression across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Circular expectations

The fashion bar for a quality community is also changing, and circles play a key role. Some city-hosted circles that are making their way into our urban expectations include:

  • Robust waste and e-waste recycling options, often reimagined or even rewarded; plus local composting services, occasionally mandated, cycling local food scraps back into local soils.
  • Regenerative utilities — renewable power, a well-managed watershed and reliable internet access for all.
  • Vibrant media and tool libraries and convenient repair cafés (now in 31 countries and 26 U.S. states).
  • Community greenspaces, which generate breeze, recall carbon and restore not only watersheds but moods. Three walks per week around an urban lake is a park prescription that can regenerate an immune system or assuage stress (while there’s no app for that, there is a toolkit).

Humans also rely on cities to create regenerative social, intellectual and mobility circles. Expected amenities increasingly include:

  • Public and private hosting locations supporting a thriving meetup culture (in cities spanning 221 countries).
  • Community colleges offering affordable (or free) career on-ramps and lifelong personal reinvention.
  • Electric buses making the rounds, supplemented by the on-demand ride-share that deftly detaches us from our personal cars.

In addition, enlightened urban operators dish up entertainment for foodies while modeling circularity:

Smart operations such as FoodMaven slash food waste by adding agility to supply and demand infrastructures, while scrappy operations such as FoodRunners stitch together redistribution infrastructure from a web of volunteers.

Circling on purpose

While at Circularity 19, I heard from savvy business-owners and others who joined my lunchtime roundtable and gathered ample evidence of purpose-driven circle-making at work.

KekoBox is a new reuse player, providing containers and dishware as a service and joining Loop and ReVolv in re-creating a durable social norm. Chief Creative Officer Campbell Kawka explains: "There are lots of compostable materials available but [too often] no composting infrastructure." Their target customers: meal subscription services, corporate cafes, food halls and offices who cater.

There are lots of compostable materials available but [too often] no composting infrastructure.

EcoSet is a non-profit company working on a better behind-the-scenes for the production and event industries. Operating in Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis and other cities, EcoSet redirects used sets, props and more to people in need including schools, nonprofits, theaters, filmmakers, artists and makers. Executive Director Kris Barberg cites 240 tons of waste diverted just from the sets of HBO’s "Veep" and Netflix’s "Girlboss" and "Lady Dynamite" shows. Brand productions are also a great opportunity for waste diversion: "We’re encouraged by brands like Target, as environmental mindfulness is part of their production process for commercials, experiential events, photo shoots" and more.

Observed circles cited over lunch also include:

  • Reuse Hawaii, which, like EcoSet, specializes in deconstruction by "working to salvage materials from homes and buildings and redistribute them to the community."
  • The University of Minnesota’s Pack and Give Back program, which stores abandoned student furniture each summer and makes it available for free in the fall.
  • Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, an art park built with repurposed materials, founded on a belief that "community can re-develop and sustain itself, from the inside out."

Circles on Target

I had the pleasure of taking a Target Field tour in downtown Minneapolis, named the greenest ballpark in America. In addition to its ambitious materials and food waste diversion programs, the stadium sports a Pentair stormwater treatment system that scrubs the water so clean, the grounds keeper won’t use it for irrigation; instead it’s used to wash the 39,504 seats, saving 2 million gallons a water a year.

Meanwhile, potable water at the ballpark is heated by steam generated on site from the garbage burner; excess steams warms the feet of those waiting on the platforms of the transit hub next door, and the rest is sold through a steam distribution center to downtown businesses.

Only the LED-lit Minnesota Twins scoreboard represents a circularity frustration. Although it was installed just a decade ago, no parts are available to maintain it. Field managers are artificially forced to replace this valuable, high-performing asset — which, for only $20 of electricity per night delivers not only the game status but the ability to entertain the crowd.

Upping the ante

Creating a truly circular city is everywhere a work in progress, but hopeful strategies are taking shape in regions and municipalities to facilitate the circular economy.

The University of Minnesota and area businesses have partnered to form the Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition. An arm of the Minnesota Environmental Initiative, its members "will work together to build the vision and action steps required to achieve a fully realized circular economy."

Regional materials marketplaces in Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio and Austin, Texas "aim to create a collaborative network of businesses, organizations and entrepreneurs where one organization’s hard-to-recycle waste and by-products becomes another organization’s raw material."

Similarly, the folks at Plant Chicago "believe the best natural resource is the one that has already been extracted, [so] our work begins where others’ consumption ends." This nonprofit operates and propagates through educational programming and an open source attitude.

Envision Charlotte — the folks who drew up the blueprint for sustainability-focused public-private partnerships in cities — is building a public-private venue to generate "re-generativity." Circular Charlotte features an Innovation Barn to "upcycle specific waste types into new products."

Finally, Fab City, a replicable city structure which circles local resources locally, aspires that everything consumed in a city be made in that city. Audacious though the goal, the more urban players engage sources and sinks that are hyper-local the greater the efficiencies that can be realized.

As these circular experiments play out, it will be fascinating to see what these intentional structures can generate — and regenerate.

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