The Bartlett


Circular cities

Associate Professor Joanna Williams is using a new network to test how models of the resource-conscious city might work in practice.

A 360 degree photograph taken in a built-up city
The circular city is regenerative, resilient and resource efficient. It is an approach to the way we design, plan and manage our cities; ensuring that we reduce our resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while adapting to change and regenerating essential urban ecosystem services. 

Joanna Williams, Associate Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at The Bartlett School of Planning, established UCL’s Circular Cities Hub in 2016. It is the first of its kind: an international, interdisciplinary virtual network of academics and practitioners interested in creating circular cities.

Williams was conscious that the circular city concept suffered from being seen as subjective: “There has been a tendency to focus on the circular systems of production for businesses operating in the city,” she says. “The more strategic issues surrounding the planning, design and management of a regenerative, adaptive urban form, which enables the recycling and reuse of infrastructure, land, water, energy and materials is just not being discussed. So we formed the Hub to enable this discussion to start”.

Part of this has involved viewing cities holistically. This means not just looking at resources, but seeing urban areas as organisms that constantly adapt to changes, such as migration and increasing diversity, as well as considering different trajectories of development, from shrinking, post-industrial cities such as Detroit, to places like London, where corporate and foreign investment is squeezing out lower-value, circular activities.

In terms of solutions, this requires a multi-faceted response. Williams explains: “For example, in London we have been looking at 11 innovative, experimental schemes, which demonstrate how a circular city could function. These include: urban forestry and farming; biogas plants using food waste; community renewable energy schemes; local currencies promoting the looping of local resources; ‘re-makeries’ and flexible buildings; collective co-working and co-living spaces, pop-up developments and ‘meanwhile spaces’. We are trying to determine what mechanisms would be required to scale-up these projects.” 

The Hub is interested in how such ideas might be implemented. Crucial to this, says Williams, is working with organisations on the ground, such as utilities, construction companies, consultancies, city councils, community groups, developers, financial institutions, innovators and entrepreneurs.

“Also crucial to our success is working with academics and cities in other countries that are in the process of implementing circular solutions. We have many in our network and we compare our results with cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Stockholm, Hamburg and Lisbon.” The network met to discuss its first results during the European Week of Regions and Cities in Brussels in October 2018. 

Most of the Hub’s studies are yet to conclude, but the first results should be published in 2019 and the book Circular Cities: A Revolution in Urban Sustainability written by Williams will be published by Routledge in 2020.