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Glass-House Chats: Co-creating Circular Cities

Posted on 4 May 2023

Written by:

Elly Mead

Our April Glass-House Chat, Co-creating Circular Cities, explored how we can adapt the principle of circular economies (an economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products as a means of continuing production in a sustainable or environmentally-friendly way) to generate the growth of more equitable societies and therefore places. Alongside a diverse group of placemakers, researchers, students, practitioners and Local Authority members, this Chat explored what form circular cities can take, how we invite people into circular communities and how we can promote the underpinning principles of circular cities more widely through our society.

Key Themes 

We started this month’s Chat by sharing pre-established definitions of circular cities, which often focus around the core principles of resilience, reduced (or no) waste, carbon neutrality and ecologically regenerated urban spaces. We questioned the top-down application of some of these principles, and instead considered less formal, small-scale circular economics that might already exist within local communities and in neighbourhoods. 

Our conservation explored how accessible circular city networks are, and whether the term, or even shape ‘circular’ can become a barrier in itself. We discussed what we can learn from nature in creating regenerative ecologies that shifts the value we place on resources, places, people and critters. We acknowledged the value of the messy in-between spaces, and agreed that these are essential to not only creative processes, but the human experience, and wondered how these can be valued in a world that is increasingly moving towards a clean, ruthless efficiency.  

How Can We Open Up Circular Cities?

Often, when circular cities and economies are discussed they are accompanied by a circle diagram neatly representing the idea, with materials in and waste out clearly shown at different stages. Our Chat participants questioned whether this clean, circular systems approach might be creating boundaries that could be exclusionary to those looking in from outside of the system?

To root this question in an example, we spoke about how local communities based at neighbourhood levels (villages would be one example) might often have elements of circular economies already in place. This is facilitated by local level connections, an informal network that informs people about redundant or excess items (such as an old laptop, or a bumper harvest of apples). But how do you access the circle, and the circular economy inside, if you are on the outside? Does being ‘in’ create a barrier to open participation in circular places? 

One of our Chat participants defined their network as “a series of concentric circles with porous boundaries”, which allows people to participate in the network according to their need, wants and level of capacity. The porosity of each of the circles makes room for feeding information, opportunities and resources in or out, and creating reciprocal connection. It identified two of the most important components of creating successful circular cities and places – connection and communication.

We moved from thinking about these principles as circular to instead thinking about them as a network of connections. We talked about how nature is just one large circular system, recycling and regenerating, and wondered whether we could take inspiration from the natural world to refine circular cities as ecological networks that share connections and resources across its web. We were also struck by the care that this analogy evokes. We need to nurture our networks and care for each link in our interconnected chains in order to create the conditions for flourishing.

Creating Space for Messiness

Following our analogy about circular urban places being more like ecological networks, we touched on the importance of spaces for mess, which in turn can create space for surprise and serendipity. One of our participants spoke of a study which looked at the workforce of a museum that was spread out over many floors, which had resulted in their different departments becoming very siloed. They wanted to understand how they could get their employees to connect better. So, the museum experimented with creating multiple points for the employees to collect monthly entry cards that purposefully mixed up departments and created the opportunity for spontaneous meetings. This forced interaction meant that people who might not have previously met had the opportunity to talk, and create new connections through (in this case, carefully curated) serendipity. 

We agreed that if we are adapting more circular principles in our urban spaces, we also need to be building in room for surprises, for unexpected meetings and connections which can bloom to create new friendships, communities or projects. It’s this messiness (or organised chaos!) that is fundamental to the human experience, but that can be difficult to manage in larger scale urban development or regeneration projects. One of our participants pointed us towards the idea of generating and promoting mix to avoid processes, and places, that are too linear or ordered. As at each level of society there is variety, mixes of ages, demographics and backgrounds, so should our built environment be a mix. In practicality, this means that areas should feature a mix of both new and old buildings, a mix of uses (such as housing and commercial spaces, schools and parks) and intergenerationality.

Promoting Circular Cities Through Connection to Place

We considered how we can build a greater sense of responsibility for what we use and discard, and create accountability within our local communities for this – both at a personal as well as at a business or organisational level. Not only is it important for local residents to be proud of their neighbourhood, but also to have an element of love as well.

These two aspects, pride and love, can then pave the way for a deeper and more careful consideration of how to use and reuse community assets or resources responsibly in a way that promotes healthier places. Co-design is one way of integrating this love and connection to a place from the outset, welcoming people into design journeys so that their wants and needs are represented and fulfilled through their local place. It can also promote a feeling of ownership, creating identity within a place by moving from a ‘this is what is happening to your area’, to ‘what can we create together’ mindset. However, the generation of pride with local people also needs to be accompanied by a sense of humility from professionals or local authorities to recognise that development should not be a top-down experience. With humility, we can admit we don’t know it all and give space for other opinions and ideas to emerge.

We also touched on the difficulty of building these values in places with very transient populations, who might feel that as they are moving through places at speed that they either can’t, or shouldn’t, contribute to the places and networks around them. We drew from ideas of nature to consider how we promote welcomeness in places. Seasons have a circularity that come and go, and each season has an important role to play. They last for a time, and then they move on. By acknowledging that like the seasons, we all have a role to play, whether this is big or small, we should still value, respect and feel pride in places whether we are there for a day or 10 years.

Wrapping Up

Our Chat this month was bursting with ideas, analogies and conversation about how we can co-create circular cities, but also considering how we can operate more as circular citizens within places. We highlighted the importance of top-down policies that create the infrastructure for circular places, but also the importance of existing, informal circular communities and ecologies of people who are already using these principles in their own neighbourhoods. This balance between our actions as individuals and as collective communities is essential to conversations around circular cities that often rely on our interconnected networks working together to create a system larger than ourselves.