Circular Economy in Construction: How Cities Can Build a Greener Future

By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. The pressure on the Earth’s resources will be immense, but with careful planning urban areas can becomes circular cities: centres of sustainability and fairer economies.
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The Future of Urban Planning 

Almost half of the 7.9 billion people living on Earth reside in urban areas. Some forecasters predict that by 2050 the proportion of people living in cities will have risen to two-thirds of the world’s expected population of around 9 billion. 

As more people move to cities, lured by improved job prospects and a better quality of life, pressures on the world around them will increase. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in 2050 city dwellers will consume 75% of the Earth’s natural resources, produce 50% of global waste and more than 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

It is clear that without remedial action, the expansion of the urban environment has the potential to cause potentially long-lasting problems for those living in it, as well as the wider environment.  

A City’s Circular Potential 

However, while they can clearly pose a threat, cities can also play their part in the drive toward a greener society. Given their size and access to resources and waste management systems, cities are regarded by some as “circular cradles,” or ecosystems, where circular solutions to pressing problems and challenges can be identified and put into practice. Planned and governed properly, circular cities can advance the cause of a circular economy in a number of ways.  

What is a circular economy? 

The Circular City Funding Guide (CCFG), which was established under the auspices of the European Investment Advisory Hub, defines a circular economy as an economic system “in which the value and life of materials, products and assets are maximised and preserved in the system for as long as possible.  

What is circularity? 

“Circularity refers to the efficient (re)use and recycling of resources, materials and products in closed loops. This is an economic model that represents sustainable development: moving from a consumption and disposal-based linear model to a model in which the use and lifetime of products is extended and materials and waste are minimised,” the CCFG adds. 

Meanwhile, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation came up with three principles that it believes characterise the circular economy:  

  • Preserving value by designing out waste and pollution 
  • Optimising resources by keeping products and materials in use
  • Having an effective strategy in place, which helps to regenerate natural systems 

Leading the Circular Economy in Construction 

With such pointers, cities can definitely be catalysts for change, and everyone—at least in theory—stands to benefit. Aided by a raft of environmental organisations, city authorities in many countries are looking at ways of encouraging the development of circular economies to maximise the usage of material and services, minimise waste and improve infrastructure, housing and amenities.  

Many local councils do so under the banner “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” while the concepts around circular economies tap into the ambition—and hopefully success—of investment strategies, community engagement and political commitment. 

Circular Design Principles: Reusing Materials, Better Waste Management 

Developers, spurred on by environmentally conscious clients, are also seeking ways to increase the circularity of the projects they work on. There is a growing view that a building is a material “bank” by being a repository of high-quality materials that have substantial economic value and can be easily dismantled and reused—not just merely treated as rubble to fill potholes in roads after demolition. 

Buildings are also being designed and constructed in ways that will reduce waste, with projects being issued with “materials passports,” which can identify and monitor the components of a building and enable them to be reused.  

The U.K. Green Building Council highlights a number of projects where material from a demolished building has been reused to deliver another scheme, including “Resource Rows” in Copenhagen, Denmark’s first residential area built out of materials from abandoned homes. 

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), higher-quality recycling and increased waste prevention can be achieved by tackling uncompetitive pricing, promoting the quality of secondary materials and providing better information on the makeup of materials used in existing buildings. 

 Circular Construction Around the World 

The Netherlands 

In terms of practical examples, Amsterdam is acknowledged as one of the early pioneers of circular city thinking. A report by nonprofit organisation Circle Economy highlighted the benefits of a circular supply chain for the city’s construction sector.  

The report said Amsterdam has the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while drastically cutting material consumption by 500,000 tonnes through re-use strategies.  

The report’s authors said by creating a circular building supply chain the city could achieve a 3% productivity increase worth €85m a year, although they admitted this would not happen “overnight.” 

Sweden 

The Swedish city of Umeå has a strategic plan to encourage local businesses and community groups to support the implementation of sustainable projects to help accelerate the shift to a greener and “fairer” economy, one with more sustainable transport and mobility networks. 

A key challenge, Umeå’s plan says, will be engaging stakeholders to identify opportunities within the circular economy beyond the idea that it’s merely another word for recycling. 

Looping the Loop 

The idea of “loop” thinking is going further. By informing how people consider urban design and building the green city of the future, the hope is that circular economy principles can become part of project briefs going forward. Planning departments will play a crucial role in the success of circular cities, experts say.  

It is important for cities to think about how they can be open to adaptation, said Jo Williams, director of the Circular Cities Hub and an associate professor in sustainable urbanism at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. 

“City authorities need to ask themselves how they enable that through new development. How can they enable things to be deconstructed, reconstructed and renew themselves without generating waste? There needs to be the space not only for this sort of green infrastructure, but for innovation,” she added. 

Clearly creating a circular city, one that is socially, economically and environmentally responsible, is a challenge. It requires significant stakeholder commitment and collaboration, investment and political support. But it is heartening to see so many communities around the world acknowledging it is a challenge worth tackling.

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