Grappling with water scarcity, unemployment, waste management issues, inadequate housing, and impacts of climate change like floods and urban heat, our cities face a daunting future. According to the 2022 World Cities Report, the urban population is projected to increase to 68% by 2050; a paradigm shift from ‘business as usual' to a circular economy would not only help cities of today address these challenges, but also optimise the value of the finite resources available to future cities, offering more liveable and resilient cities.

Circular economy is a concept that emulates how nature works; materials flow through the system and never become waste. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) identifies three basic principles for turning circular economy into a reality: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating nature. Though it might sound strange, a city is an ecosystem: it requires people, information, and resources—such as money, energy, water, and food—to function; just like marine or forest ecosystems. Thanks to the three principles illustrated by EMF, circular cities can redesign, repair, share, remanufacture, recycle, and recover.

Circularity helps cities cut back on the waste that is eventually disposed of, not only through recycling but also by keeping resources and materials in use and maximising their value. The circular water economy, for example, is already revolutionising waste and pollution management in the water sector. After an alarming shortage of potable water, several cities in California transformed their wastewater treatment plants into water reclamation facilities, where wastewater is reused by industries, and treated water replenishes aquifers to restore groundwater. These facilities have contributed to reducing emissions footprint, while others are energy self-sufficient from biogas production. This example also proves that different city stakeholders must work together to identify nested opportunities for designing out waste in supply chains, and pathway junctions where new resources can be generated.

Considering the high concentration of assets, infrastructure, and people, cities are also often worst hit by climate impacts, resulting in hefty losses and damages; circularity applied to cities can promote both climate mitigation and adaptation. The building and construction sector alone accounts for about 37% of global emissions between construction, operation, and demolition. A shift to circular buildings would lead to applying regenerative materials that ensure reusability and recyclability, optimising the use of space, and integrating innovative building features that promote more efficient usage of resources, such as energy and water, in operations. 

Additionally, climate adaptation is about strengthening systems, livelihoods, and landscapes. Cities can be designed for climate adaptability through physical structures or by integrating nature-based solutions and bio-connections—a new approach to reconnect nature and society, ensuring stewardship, regeneration and maintenance of biodiversity, and ecosystem services that support circular economy. To interlink climate mitigation and adaptation, cities should create an environment for sustainable lifestyles and businesses to thrive. At CoP28, circular economy was noted in the official negotiations’ outcomes text, indicating that sustainable lifestyles, sustainable production and consumption, and circular economy approaches are all equally crucial to climate action. Transformative change from a linear to a circular economy has therefore been deemed essential to address climate change.

As the main hubs for innovation, talent, education, and capital, cities are uniquely positioned to drive the paradigm shift to a circular economy. However, they are complex systems, and circularity requires more than just material resources; it involves people, their culture, and their societies. By considering the overarching themes in cities such as poverty, inequalities, and vulnerabilities, and by adopting the 3Ps framework of People, Policies, and Places proposed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), cities can lead the way in such transformative and systemic change. The framework calls for a shift in mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours in regard to consumption patterns and business models; systemic policy changes; and implementing interventions at the right scale.

In conclusion, circular cities—with their potential to meet housing, transport, employment, and development needs—are not just a solution to current challenges. They also hold the key to addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. May circular cities inspire us all to work towards a more sustainable and resilient future.

If you’re interested in this topic, look out for our next edition of the “Circular Economy and the 2030 Agenda” course by subscribing to our newsletter and following us on social media using the links below