The term circular cities may sound like it could be a chapter in the late Italian author Italo Calvino’s novel "Invisible Cities", but unlike those dreamlike places that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan in the book, the idea of the circular city is becoming increasingly tangible and necessary. And just like the plots of novels, their infinite possibilities can often go beyond what we thought was imaginable.
“Circular Cities of the Future” was the theme of the 20th edition of #EnelFocusOn, which was held on 24 September. The panel (whose members spoke from their homes) included our Group’s CEO and General Manager Francesco Starace, keynote speaker Martijn Lopes Cardozo, CEO of Circle Economy, Joanna Rowelle, director of Integrated City Planning at Arup, and Gabe Klein, an entrepreneur who previously headed the municipal transport departments in Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
People make cities
This edition of #EnelFocusOn, like the previous one, was held in the form of a webinar in order to respect the social distancing regulations introduced as a result of the Covid-19 emergency. In actual fact, the lockdown at the height of the pandemic really underscored how fundamental cities are in our lives with their networks of services and interconnections, as well as their mechanisms for providing mutual assistance and responding to emergencies. Seeing them suddenly deserted and paralysed was an alienating experience. In other words, it became extremely apparent how important it is that we take the utmost care concerning the future of our cities.
A circular city, by definition, bases life, activities and services on the same principles as the circular economy. This system takes a new approach to the use of resources and energy, focusing on renewable resources and electrification, rethinking our approach to mobility and the food production cycle. It gives life to a new mechanism modelled on nature’s cycles, one that is capable of regeneration and minimising its impact on the surrounding environment. For cities, this is the only way to achieve development that is genuinely sustainable, reconciling the ambitions of competitiveness with the imperative to preserve the future of our planet. We also need to ensure that the priority is always the people who live there.
The future will be in the cities
According to the United Nations’ forecasts, by 2050 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban agglomerations; these are destined to become increasingly vast and, unless action is taken, unliveable. There is, however, no better laboratory than a city in which to apply the principles of circularity to every aspect of its management and to keep on gradually refining the approach as results emerge.
“We are convinced,” Starace said, “that the world can be changed through its cities, because where these go, nations go too. Cities are where problems emerge before they appear elsewhere, the first place where life can become unsustainable, therefore they are a powerful lever with which to bring the change that we want in all the world. Whether we like it or not, soon the majority of the human population will be living in cities, and it will be up to them to determine whether or not we succeed in creating a sustainable future. We have to listen to them.”
The three steps for circular cities
But what is the formula, if there is one, to build the ideal city? Lopes Cardozo began with an evocative image: “When I was a little boy, I used to talk with trees,” he said. “I would sniff their scent, observe the details of their leaves and feel in harmony with nature. Years later, I took part in the New York Marathon and what struck me immediately was the energy, the diversity, the excitement that you could feel in the air as we ran through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. For me, that’s what the ideal city is like: vibrant, full of energy and possibilities, safe and socially just, but at the same time capable of making me feel in harmony with nature, like when I used to talk with trees.”
According to Cardozo, there are three fundamental steps to take in order to achieve a genuinely circular city: “First of all, we need to be clear about our goal and decide with which parameters we want to measure prosperity: does possession of material assets necessarily mean prosperity? For example, we have to begin to ask ourselves if it makes sense to have parking garages that are only used 10 to 20% of the time, as happens in most cases. Secondly, we will need to reintegrate with nature, to take greater care of that which, in a city, are primary resources: land, water and air. Finally, we need to rebalance the global and the local. We know that global economic growth has brought many benefits, but it has had a real downside for the planet. Alternatively, enhancing the local economy, by choosing zero food-miles products, for instance, has a positive impact on both the community and the environment.”
Cardozo admits that all of this could seem arduous and almost impossible to achieve, but he also points out that “due to the Covid-19 emergency, in the last six months we have revolutionised many aspects of our lives in a very short time and in ways that just one year ago, we would have thought unimaginable. It was hard, and sometimes painful, but not impossible.”
On the subject of Covid-19, Joanna Rowelle – who spoke from her home in London – pointed out that “since the beginning of the pandemic, an increasing number of people have made health one of their top priorities. Therefore, urban planning must in turn ensure a healthy environment. It must consider people’s wellbeing, founded on a general principle of social equality. Without forgetting the cornerstone of sustainability, based on the awareness that resources are not infinite, therefore avoiding, as much as possible, putting pressure on the production chain.” In order to achieve this vision, Rowelle says that “it is essential that there is a collaboration between the private and public sectors.”
Circularity in mobility and urban planning
Another important aspect to concentrate on, according to Gabe Klein, is mobility. “Circular design will help us to extend the useful lives of products, including cars. Nevertheless, I think that cities should make capital investments in forms of public transport that are increasingly sustainable and electric, contributing also to changing the general culture, which today still incentivises private car ownership. A circular future is one in which we share as much as possible.”
But this is just the first step. For Klein, we need to radically rethink urban planning: “Streets and neighbourhoods should be designed in such a way as to foster proximity, with the majority of essential services being located nearby, so that they can be reached on foot or by electric bike. It is important to ensure that in a city the car not only ceases to be an object of desire, but that there will be no need for it.”
The city is a complex machine
In short, the challenges we face concerning the future of the circular city are various and all of equal importance. “Ultimately,” explained Starace, “the city is the most incredibly complex machine that man has ever invented.” Like every machine, it needs energy to power it: “An unimaginable quantity of energy.” Our Group’s CEO added that “therefore, it is natural to ask ourselves how we can contribute to improving life in the city. The combination of electricity and innovation that we are able to propose enables us to offer extraordinary solutions that only recently would have seemed unthinkable, like those we are discussing with mayors of many cities as part of the World Energy Forum. Today we can provide cities not only with cutting-edge technologies that can significantly boost energy efficiency, but we can also provide local government organisations with a direct interaction with their citizens in real time, to listen to their needs, acquire feedback on what has been achieved so far as well as ideas about what remains to be done. This ensures that playing the central role in cities are their inhabitants, and this is one of the cornerstones of circularity. People must be capable of perceiving, in a tangible way, what this concept means, otherwise it risks remaining abstract.”
The journalist Herb Caen once wrote that “a city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.” While he was probably referring to his home city of San Francisco when he wrote this, the same idea applies in the same measure to the cities of the past – and to the cities that we aspire to create in the future.
Download the third edition of the “Circular cities - Cities of tomorrow” position paper here.