Cities and the circular economy
This topic area looks at the role cities play in the transition to a circular economy.
Circular neighbourhoods will look different from city to city, and in different areas within cities, because of variations in social, environmental, and cultural factors.
Each city government also differs in the way it supports specific neighbourhoods, influenced by its own culture and politics. Nonetheless it is possible to identify three approaches to creating circular neighbourhoods, representing different routes, stages, and scales of action:
Circular initiatives can use existing spaces within a neighbourhood for citizens to create their own projects to reuseThe repeated use of a product or component for its intended purpose without significant modification. materials and regenerate nature. Circular economyA systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. It is based on three principles, driven by design: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature. activity can be facilitated through community fridges and kitchens, reuse hubs and repair centres, makerspaces and workshops, innovation incubators, libraries of things (where you can rent household items in the same way as books), and materials banks (stocks of pre-used building and other materials ready for use in new projects). Partnerships between public and private bodies can provide the space and resources to create these circular economy hubs. This pathway can also be seen as a hub-and-spoke model, whereby a centre is established from which to activate circular economy activities in a neighbourhood.
In Scotland, Edinburgh Tool Library was founded in 2013 to allow people to borrow rather than purchase DIY tools. Starting out as a pop-up tool rental service from a police box, it’s now a viable business with workshops and tool libraries across three locations. Classes allow members to build their practical skills and work on projects, and the tool library also runs volunteer community builds, outreach work with vulnerable communities, an employability programme, and a residency programme for young makers.
In Brazil, Hub Green Sampa is a green technology startup hub based in a former incinerator building in the capital city of São Paulo. An initiative of Brazil’s Secretariat for Economic Development, Labor and Tourism, operated by the Ade Sampa agency, it provides innovators with a workspace and access to business acceleration opportunities.
In the North American city of Charlotte, a city-owned building constructed according to circular economy principles is home to a materials innovation lab run by public-private-plus collaborative Envision Charlotte. The Innovation Barn serves as both a circular start-up incubator and an educational centre where groups can learn about circular economy projects, such as converting collected bio-waste into clothing, furnishings, and biodegradable packaging.
Plant Chicago is a nonprofit operating out of a former firehouse on the southwest side of the city, with a mission to cultivate local circular economies by providing education, diverting food away from landfill, and supporting small businesses that are working to transition to circular practices. The regular markets that Plant Chicago hosts generate tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for small farmers and other small businesses and the initiative has also developed a shared use indoor farm giving entrepreneurs and Chicago residents a low-risk option to experiment with growing their own food.
Moving up a scale in terms of planning and funding, the second pathway to a circular neighbourhood involves rebuilding or revitalising existing neighbourhoods. This includes renovating buildings, creating community parks and gardens, and converting existing infrastructure for circular economy activities.
Each circular neighbourhood’s beginnings depend on its particular geographical context and the problems the circular economy can help to solve. In Amsterdam, designing circular systems to manage floodwater was the motivating factor. In Curitiba, the precarious informal housing made providing basic sanitation and public services impossible. In Mexico City, it was the transformation of a vast landfill site.
Amsterdam’s first circular neighbourhood, Buiksloterham, is in the early stages of a complete overhaul, and has the potential to become one of the most systemically planned circular neighbourhoods to date. Described by its designer Metabolic as a ‘living lab for circularity’, it has fixed a range of targets for materials and energy management, as well as socioeconomic development and wellbeing of residents. The neighbourhood plans to eventually create more energy than it uses - generated from solar panels, heat pumps, and home batteries, together with a centralised battery system. Central to the project’s philosophy is that a large proportion of the neighbourhood's homes will be designed and built by residents, who will also benefit from a range of sharing economy initiatives. Floodwater management is also a key feature, with gardens and streams channelling the water either into the earth or out to the waterfront.
In Brazil, the city of Curitiba's 'Novo Caximba' is a neighbourhood regeneration project funded by the French Development Agency to revitalise a degraded neighbourhood with irregular housing into a more liveable and green space. As well as providing better quality housing and generating 14,000 jobs in Curitiba, the project includes initiatives to involve local people in circular economy activities such as planting areas, community and individual gardens, forming a recyclables association, composting management and a construction materials bank, many of which will also provide a source of income for local families.
Cuitláhuac Park is one of the biggest parks in Mexico City. Used as a landfill for 55 years, the site is now a 145-hectare park containing wetlands and lakes, reforested areas, sewage treatment works and a rainwater collection system. 27,295 species of plants have been added while 14% of the materials that make up this space are made from recycled plastic and construction and demolition waste - from roads to lampposts to street furniture. Located in an area that has one of the lowest levels of access to green spaces in Mexico City, Cuitláhuac Park is a joint initiative from the City Government together with private sector actors, and is part of a broader government green public procurement strategy.
At the highest level of ambition and funding, circular neighbourhoods can be constructed from scratch. Although costly and requiring a lot of planning, this pathway gives designers a blank page to build circular principles into buildings and transport systems from the outset.
The circular economy ambitions of Milan’s new L’Innesto district are focused around providing numerous shared spaces for residents, both indoor and outdoor. Built on a former freight terminal, L’Innesto’s social housing model encourages collaborative living through shared living rooms and labs, a community food hub and a zero waste store. Services will be managed by residents, local operators and non-profit organisations and accessible via a neighbourhood app. Bike parking, electric car charging terminals, and four hectares of public green space will be core features. The neighbourhood aims to achieve carbon neutrality after 30 years thanks to an innovative district heating network, nearly zero-energy buildings, and prefabricated construction technologies that also allow the building to be disassembled and recycled.
Similarly, in the new town of Nye, just outside of Aarhus in Denmark, communal spaces have been at the centre of plans, encouraging people to interact and grow a shared sense of community responsibility. Community features include playgrounds, greenhouses, a car-sharing scheme, a workshop, shared meeting rooms, and a community grocery store selling fresh produce. Like many other circular neighbourhoods, circulation of surface water has been tailored for the location and can supply 40% of residents’ needs.
This topic area looks at the role cities play in the transition to a circular economy.
In a circular economy our built environment can be a force for good
Our curated collection of case studies presents circular economy success stories from around the...
The startups featured in this index are part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s community.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. We develop and promote the idea of a circular economy, and work with business, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally.
Charity Registration No.: 1130306
OSCR Registration No.: SC043120
Company No.: 6897785
Ellen MacArthur Foundation ANBI RSIN nummer: 8257 45 925
The work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is supported by our Strategic Partners and Partners.