July 1, 2020

Transforming cities into thriving circular societies: Five lessons from covid-19

How can cities use circular principles to not only rebuild their economies, but also to create more just and inclusive societies?
Max Russell
Max Russell
Project Manager Cities
Max Russell
Ilektra Kouloumpi
Senior Strategist Thriving Cities

By Max Russell and Ilektra Kouloumpi

This article was first published at Cities Today. It is part of Circle Economy's series on covid-19 and the circular economy. For previous blogs in the series, please see here.

As some cities begin to ease lockdown restrictions and people navigate back into their daily routines, many of us are more aware than ever of the stark challenges we face in the 21st century. Although none of them new, covid-19 has made the underlying shortcomings of our systems unignorable. Nowhere have these stark flaws been more pronounced than in our cities. Mayors and leaders of the world’s largest cities warn that there can be no return to business as normal.

‘Covid-19 has exposed the inequality in our society and deep flaws in our economy, which fail people from deprived communities more than anyone else[…] We need to come out of this embracing a new normal and with a renewed drive to address the climate emergency.’ - Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. 

Yet, if history has taught us anything, it is precisely such times of global shocks that enable systematic shifts in our prevailing systems. Dismayed with the inefficacy of the status quo, we reach for alternative ideas that are ‘laying around’ to collectively rethink and reorientate. The covid-19 crisis is no exception, rather symptomatic of a system designed for excessive and inequitable consumption. And with the impending climate crisis set to have even greater impact on daily life, it is clear that change is inevitable. 

One such idea that is ‘laying around’ and gaining attention from businesses and policy-makers at the highest level, is the circular economy. The circular economy provides a means to fundamentally reorientate our systems of resource production and consumption—to create a system that is regenerative and restorative by design. Far from being a panacea, the circular economy could offer cities an aspiration around which to focus recovery efforts towards creating cities that are resilient to future shocks. 

The impacts of covid-19 on cities highlight five lessons on how cities can use circular principles to not only rebuild their economies, but also to create more just and inclusive societies.

1. Reframe the urban commons

One of the tragic realities of the pandemic is that those with the least are also the ones who are worst affected. Whether it’s providing safe housing, sanitation, access to green space or sufficient nutritious food, covid-19 has underscored the importance of ensuring that the basic needs of all residents are met, to allow citizens to protect themselves and alleviate the worst impacts of a crisis. Yet, with cities already accountable for 60% of global CO2e. emissions, they must grapple with the reality of meeting the needs of a growing urban population without tipping the scales too far towards climate catastrophe. 

To deal with the immediate impacts of the pandemic, cities may have inadvertently embraced a solution. To protect vulnerable unsheltered residents, some cities have opened vacant hotel rooms. Enabled through innovations in the sharing economy and circular (PaaS) business models, cities are beginning to recognise the potential to provide basic needs through shared resources, while reducing their environmental footprints; such as for sanitation (Samagra), housing (Co-Living Spaces), energy (the iShackProject), clothing (LENA), and mobility (Green Wheels). 

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

But will such innovative models ensure equitable access to those most in need? Pioneers are embracing such models across entire cities (Seoul Sharing City), breaking from the dichotomy of the market and the state into alternative forms of meeting needs through a resurgence of the ‘urban commons’. Not a new concept in itself, innovations are helping to re-conceptualise the relationship between residents and resources, and bringing in the future of ‘access over ownership’ and shared prosperity. 

2. Co-create a just and inclusive future

The rapid shift towards a new post-pandemic reality has touched the lives of everyone, yet to drastically different degrees; while many service sector jobs have been cut, those in knowledge sectors are able to relocate to a home office. Like covid-19, transitioning towards shared and circular means of delivering prosperity will similarly impact people’s lives in different ways, both locally and globally; certain resource extractive sectors may all but disappear, while patterns of ownership will similarly shift. To ensure that there is not a similar divide between those that own things and those that do not, those that can afford to be sustainable and those that cannot; innovations in circular models need to be partnered with innovations in governance. 

Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash

Certain cities have already embraced the urban commons at the heart of new inclusive governance processes—such as Ghent’s dedicated department the Chamber of the Commons—democratising the management of an expanded commons (from space, buildings, food and data) to transform the ‘tragedy of the commons’ into a triumph of the commons’. While other regions (such as the Rhur), recognising the seismic shifts in the job market that a more sustainable future will catalyse, are embracing notions of a Just Transition to proactively engage and give a voice to marginalised communities to co-create a future that is as inclusive as it is sustainable. 

3. Embed resilience at the core of the city

Since the industrial revolution, cities have been designed with a fundamental principle at their core; maximising revenue. Yet, the commodification of all public benefits into chargeable services accessible only to those with the economic means have also made our cities vulnerable to shocks. With the retraction of global supply chains as a result of covid-induced anxieties, cities throughout the world have been battling to provide sufficient resources for their residents (from personal protective equipment (PPE), to food). Such economic vulnerabilities of cities have only been compounded by physical overcrowding, enabling covid-19 to rapidly spread unchecked. With the ever present 21st-century threat of climate induced crises, resilience must find a new conceptual home at the core of how we design our cities, both in physical and socio-economic systems. 

Encouragingly, circular principles can support cities in this resilient redesign. Pioneering cities are already recognising the potential of regenerative urban infrastructures to lessen the magnitude of future shocks to the urban environment (from China’s sponge cities that absorb rainwater to reduce flooding, to Basel’s green roofs to mitigate the urban heat island effect). What’s more, local and decentralized forms of production enabled through circular strategies could serve to dramatically increase the adaptive capacity of local economic systems. In times of shocks and crises, distributed networks of manufacturers (such as 3D printing PPE) can dynamically adjust to meet the changing needs of an increasingly uncertain and volatile future.

Photo by Nerea Martí Sesarino on Unsplash

4. Reinforce a local and global identity

While moves towards more decentralised and localised means of production in cities can help to build back more resiliently (and less carbon-intensively) from covid-19, their global mindsets should not withdraw in unison. Rather, the covid-19 pandemic has served to underscore the importance of global collaboration to combat the challenges faced by humanity at large. Covid-19 has helped people to realise that humanity is connected through numerous overlapping systems. It has provided a visceral understanding that the actions in one city, within weeks (even days), can impact the entire planet. Despite being physically distanced, city leaders and health professionals have also been able to leverage the advantages of this interconnection by sharing data, resources and best practices to unite in the fight against covid-19

For cities to tackle the 21st century challenges of equity and climate change, we need to adopt this same ‘glocal’ mentality in the way we produce and consume. Movements like FabCity (originating in Barcelona) advocate to localise the ‘heavy things’ (such as materials) through decentralised production, while globalising the ‘light things’ (like knowledge, data and ideas) through open-source sharing via the internet. Imagine a future where wealthy cities (reaped from decades of resource extraction and consumption), collaborate with less wealthy and rapidly growing cities towards solutions that inclusively re-localise resources to meet the needs of all residents. 

5. Redefine the goal

Above all, the covid-19 pandemic has served to call into immediate question the overriding goal of our cities since World War II; maximising GDP growth. In the face of the pandemic, it has become increasingly clear that growth cannot continue infinitely within the constraints of the planet and it is not a reliable indicator of human wellbeing. Imagine, urban economies grow when residents purchase medicines to manage the symptoms of a condition, but not when they avoid getting the condition by building a strong immune system through adequate nutrition. Is this really the goal our cities should be pursuing? 

Photo by Vernon Raineil Cenzon on Unsplash

This overarching goal calls into question the nature of our urban recovery. Will we use the circular economy to rebuild our cities to kickstart the growth engine of our economies? Or will we rebuild our cities back to ensure the wellbeing of their residents and the restoration of the ecosystems we depend on? Spurred by the increasingly glaring inadequacies of our prevailing GDP and growth narrative, public attitudes are already beginning to shift and governments have already begun to actively measure and use the wellbeing of their residents to inform decisions and budgets. Changing the goal of our cities, from growth to ‘thriving’, can help cities face the coming challenges. Pioneering cities like Amsterdam, Portland and Philadelphia have already started to embrace notions of Doughnut Economics, together with DEAL, C40 and Circle Economy, to pursue this very 21st century ambition through the Thriving Cities Initiative

What next? 

As cities begin to gradually ease restrictions and confront the realities of a post-covid-19 future recovery, urban changemakers and city leaders must take proactive steps to turn ambitions of equitable, carbon neutral cities into reality. The building blocks of such a future are all around us, we need only to reach out and grab them. Under a new and collective goal of a ‘thriving’ future, cities can make the necessary strides to redesign their systems to prioritise resilience and inclusivity, embracing new models to deliver shared prosperity. Yet, such transformative change cannot happen in isolation. Now more than ever, cities must strengthen such connections via networks and initiatives to promote new forms of local and global collaboration to transform cities into thriving circular societies.

Circle Economy's Cities Programme guides cities on their journey to implement a circular economy and become places where people and the environment thrive. Learn more here.


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