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

Shutterstock Mattis Kaminer
Grande Disco, also known as The Grand Disc, is a round coin-shaped piece of art that sits at the Bank of America Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was created by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro.

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 by 2050 could hold 70 percent of the world’s population.

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  dozen 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?

So, in which cities are circular, holistic visions being implemented from the streets to the policymakers and back? Brussels, Belgium, is among the few cities leaning in that direction. The capital of the European Union is in its last year of its four-year Be Circular effort, which involved more than 220 companies working to rethink buildings and construction, shopping, logistics, food and waste. Peterborough, England, aims to become a circular city by 2050.

Yet a Rubik’s Cube analogy applies: Twist the location of a single square, and it scrambles other sides of the cube. Similarly, one aspect of a city can’t shift without taking all the other parts into account. Systems need to be approached holistically.

"Are you working at the areas at the highest levels that you can?" Gladek asked, emphasizing the importance of design. "Are you making sure the actions you are taking are not creating consequences elsewhere?" 

Something as mundane as waste collection can’t be redesigned without taking into account the social impacts. The Circular Charlotte (PDF) effort, for instance, engaged a wide swath of stakeholders including business leaders and homeless people. When it sought for the project to eliminate organic waste, it thought about ways to focus on upward mobility for residents and create opportunities for the disadvantaged.

Lauren Yarmuth is circular economy director at IDEO, the design firm working with urban planning company Gehl on circular city efforts. She explained at Circularity 19 that just as circularity is about the potential of some thing, such as a cup, bottle or nutrient "to stay at play as long as possible," it’s also about the potential of a city, ecosystem or person to realize its full self.

Yet without an intact cultural fabric, we’ll have a hard time shifting toward circularity because there will be nothing to hold it in place, she said. Individualism, so deeply ingrained in our society, interferes with redesigning, reimagining and reinventing connected systems and communities.