Skip to main content

How circular cities can put people first

Circular cities should be nothing short of revolutionary.

The stained glass dome at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown.

The stained glass dome at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown.

Addressing social inequality, climate change and material waste all overlap in some revolutionary visions by advocates of circular cities. The social aspects only recently have become front and center.

The original snapshot of a circular economy by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for example, mostly centered upon material factors: buildings; transportation; and products.

A shift is being quickened in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, a greater unveiling of racial injustice and the blazing West Coast skylines worsened by the climate crisis.

"What is this systems change?" asked Garry Cooper, CEO of Rheaply, a startup in asset efficiency software, during the recent VERGE 20 virtual event. "It's a transition from how we did things to how we should do things ... The part that most pulls my heartstrings that I get up in the morning thinking about around a circular economy is the economic empowerment it has for neighborhoods, Black and Brown, women and immigrants, left behind in the linear economy.”

The circular cities virtual panel at VERGE 2020.

For now, the United States leads most of the world in both economic inequality and carbon emissions. A Pew report in January found that over half of U.S. income is enjoyed by people earning at least $130,000 each year, noted John Holm, vice president of strategic initiatives at PYXERA Global consultancy.

African-Americans are 75 percent more likely than others to live near hazardous waste facilities, according to research released by the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force in 2017. Meanwhile, recycling is broken as the U.S. lacks cohesive policies and infrastructure to support it.

"We have to disrupt existing industries," said Eva Gladek, founder and CEO of Metabolic, a sustainability consultancy and software provider. "We have to break down existing corporate strongholds and create lots of new, smaller-scale creative industries that can step into those gaps to make cities into these green, circular producers, and activate communities that are currently disconnected from the entire economic cycle."

More than materials

Gladek, who works in the Netherlands, defined a circular economy as one that circulates capital and connects people into flows of value.

The European Green Deal to make that continent climate-neutral by 2050 has nine major policy areas explicitly about material matters such as agriculture, biodiversity, energy, mobility and buildings. Social change may be threaded throughout each area but it's not explicitly prioritized, Gladek noted. 

However, Gladek said that this circular move forward in Europe, which centers around reducing resource consumption and boosting materials recovery, offers knock-on effects that spur companies to innovate. Ideally, that would bring more people into the workforce who can be activated to create circular cities. For instance, underemployed or unemployed people could gain training to disassemble buildings in a new way or become craftsmen to design new types of circular products, she said.

People first

The pandemic exposed the fragility of supply chains, which has led to more conversations about creating more regional supply networks and reviving urban manufacturing.

Rheaply in March worked with Northwestern University and its affiliated hospital system to launch the COVID-19 Emergency Resource Exchange (ERx) in Chicago, back when there were six-week waits for masks on Amazon. That local-to-local marketplace facilitated with Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration connected frontline workers with surplus masks from tattoo artists, veterinarians and others.

This model could become important not only in a "post-COVID" world but in a circular city that lifts up self-sufficiency and economic empowerment for underserved populations, Cooper said. Chicago’s reopening strategy will engage Rheaply’s software to help support Black and Brown-owned small businesses. This slowly would factor in ways for large companies to sell unused assets, such as furniture, into the community.

A Circular Chicago coalition, announced at VERGE, is bringing together 16 partners including Rheaply, Metabolic, PYXERA Global and Closed Loop Partners, Plant Chicago, Volans and the Recycling Partnership. The intention is to seed a circular city on the south and west sides of the city, asking communities of color what they want rather than prescribing solutions from afar.

"It's really about finding ways that people can be a part of the economy ... people who are left behind, without brilliant new moves. What we're doing is not 'Einsteinian' in any way; it’s just thoughtful," Cooper said.


Cooper called for a dramatic shift in leadership, politically, in business and within communities, in order to advance circular principles. "I just don't think that this works by osmosis," Cooper said, urging more companies to take a cue from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in terms of prioritizing stakeholders, not just shareholders.

"It's not just the people who are invested," Cooper said. "It's not just people who work there. It's the communities that your business is in, and it's where your waste goes. It's the families of the people who work [there], thinking about how your organization impacts the community."

Business schools need to teach about "supply circles," he added. "We need to be developing MBAs and students who actually don't think of circular economy or clean energy or sustainability as some type of extra marketing thing that they might do in their corporate life, but something that they have to do for the solvency of the business."

Finally, the sustainability community needs to become more diverse in order to bring the views of emerging majorities and women out of the linear economy and into something more circular. 


Cooper's startup, Rheaply, involves connecting used assets from large corporations to willing takers elsewhere. As a neuroscientist, he tends to think of circular economies as neural networks, especially in terms of getting more people on the grid economically in a sustainable way.

"How are people connected?" he asked. "Are the big enterprises connected to the startups to the small businesses? Is the north side of Chicago, which tends to be more affluent, connected to the south side of Chicago, which seems to be behind? Are our government and nonprofit sectors connected, both from an information-sharing and collaboration perspective, but also from what I think historically is thought about with circularity, a materials flow perspective?"

User-centered design

In theory, fewer materials are wasted when people evolve from individual consumers of goods into users of shared assets. The rise of Uber, Lyft and Airbnb are beacons for a shared economy in which material assets are accessed by the many. Co-housing, too, has begun to take off in larger cities including Amsterdam, New York City and San Francisco. More new institutions could emerge that distributed dormant resources, such as libraries for products, shared healthcare or childcare services, and common green spaces, Gladek said.

"This becomes kind of the bedrock of circular cities, which then is able to foster people who are working together toward new businesses and learning from each other," Gladek said. "It's really about reinventing the way that we live together in these kinds of urban environments."

More on this topic