Improving quality of life in cities with the circular economy

Published on Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Little doubt remains regarding the significance of cities in influencing economic, social and environmental change. It is therefore pertinent to ask how a circular economy could unfold in an urban context, and how this framework could steer cities towards greater prosperity, resilience and livability. To that end, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently published the paper Cities in the circular economy: an initial exploration.

This paper, which is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ongoing research on the circular economy, presents circular models in the urban context. It outlines some of the challenges cities are facing in today’s linear economy, explores the alternative of a ‘circular city’. Finally, it suggests possible avenues of research for the future. 

A more systemic approach

The Foundation believes that cities reflect economic models. Since they are responsible for more than half of global population and 85% of global GDP, if we want to transition our economy then we need to focus on cities. Furthermore, cities can also be the hotbed for testing, and can amplify the impact of the circular economy. Through proximity of people, materials and data in a small territory, the city opens opportunities for new business models such as reverse logistics, material collections, reuse, leasing and sharing. The city offers a point of convergence, with an abundance of materials that if better utilised can create new opportunities. Having so many people also creates local markets and provides potential for local business models, production and remanufacturing.

Something else that makes cities receptive to the circular economy is that local policy makers tend to be more flexible and agile compared with national governments, which are often heavier, more bureaucratic structures. Empowering the local governments could generate change much faster. Also, cities are going to be growing so much in the next 30, 40 years. Almost half the infrastructure we will need by 2050 has not been built yet, so that gives us the chance to avoid some linear lock. Finally, there’s digital technology, which isn’t city specific, but cities are much faster to adopt digital solutions, whether it’s new apps, maker spaces, sharing platforms – it starts to bloom in cities. Usually the population is open to new technology, and the concentration of people and resources can make it easier to gain momentum as it touches upon a real need, like sharing rides or spaces to overcome the lack of space available of to share the costs.

By way of conclusion, the Foundation believes that the circular city lens is one that promotes and applies systems thinking in a way that can provide economic, social and environmental benefits in cities, supported by an economic rationale for doing so. Other frameworks are very strong on one aspect, in the way that ‘green’ or ‘eco’ cities have a strong environmental case but are lacking on the economic point of view – a consideration on how to proceed towards a change is missing. So the circular city offers more systemic approach that can solve problems whilst generating profit and improving quality of life in cities.

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