It’s time cities came around to a circular economy

Cities can foster this by providing recycling facilities and promoting sharing initiatives, but the transition requires significant changes to the way we produce and consume
Providing facilities like these recyling bins in the railway station in Brussels can help cities move towards a circular economy | Photo: Alamy

By Anna-Vera Deinhammer

Anna-Vera Deinhammer is Head of International Affairs and Municipalities at the Austrian Sustainable Building Council, and Director for Circular Cities and Regions at the Circular Economy Forum Austria

16 May 2023

Have you heard of the quadruple helix approach? It’s when academia, industry, government and society collaborate to provide innovative solutions to complex problems. And problems don’t come much more complex than the relationship between urban planning and sustainability.  

Take a look at the statistics from a recent World Economic Forum report: cities cover two per cent of the world’s land surface, but activities within their boundaries consume more than 75 per cent of the planet’s material resources. 

For many, the solution lies in a just transition to a circular economy. In contrast to the ‘produce, consume, discard’ linear model, a circular economy builds sustainable societies that recycle and share resources.   

Urban areas may consume a large amount of resources, including energy, water and materials. But circular principles promote the use of resources in a way that maximises their value while minimising waste and negative environmental impacts.  

Cities can foster circular practices by providing recycling facilities and promoting sharing initiatives. However, transitioning to a circular economy requires significant changes to the way we produce and consume. This can create disruption and uncertainty, particularly for those accustomed to the current linear model.  

Some circular measures call for upfront investment that could lead to short-term costs for individuals and businesses. This could be seen as a burden, particularly for those with limited financial resources or those yet to embrace the idea of a solidarity-based framework.  

Therefore, we must put the quadruple helix approach into practice if we want the public to understand the importance of transitioning to a circular economy and successfully participate in this shift. Awareness-raising efforts end in a deeper understanding of the need to take action.

A circular economy builds sustainable societies that recycle and share resources

As a result, elected officials can make sustainability-supporting decisions without fear of being punished at the ballot box.  

To convince city-dwellers to foster circularity, it is crucial to embrace all perspectives and engage in a continuous dialogue with them. Several parallel strategies can be adopted to nudge them towards embracing circular economy solutions in urban planning, architecture and everyday life. 

First, they need to be educated about the benefits of circular economy solutions such as the reduction of waste, the conservation of resources, and the promotion of sustainability. This can be achieved through public awareness campaigns, workshops and information sessions in schools and universities. 

Cities can also provide incentives for people to adopt circular economy practices in the form of tax breaks and subsidies stimulating renewable energy, recycling and the adoption of sustainable modes of transport. 

Public officials should also involve people in the planning process for urban development, architecture and infrastructure. This can be achieved through consultations and engagement programmes. 

Community engagement programmes can promote circular economy solutions at the local level. For example, community-led initiatives for composting and recycling, and the sharing of garden tools and DIY equipment can be encouraged to reduce waste and promote sustainable consumption patterns. 

Finally, active communication and collaboration between citizens, government and industry is essential to promote a circular economy. Citizens need to be informed and engaged in the decision-making process, and industry and government need to be transparent and accountable in their actions and policies. 

If we adopt these strategies and embrace circular solutions, we can promote sustainable living, conserve resources, and create a healthier and more resilient environment for current and future generations.