Circular Cities


Frontier-cities, laboratory-cities, hope-cities: these are terms that the great Italian writer Italo Calvino would have probably used if he were to add a new chapter focused on modern environmental challenges to his famous 1972 book Invisible Cities. This is because the front lines in these environmental and socioeconomic challenges are in cities. And if it is in these cities, more than anywhere else, that we will have to overcome these challenges, serving as the first testing ground, so that we may deliver a better planet to future generations.

These issues were discussed at the conference on “Circular Cities: Impacts on Decarbonization and Beyond,” which was hosted at Enel’s Milan headquarters on October 1st. The event was held during the same week that the capital city of Lombardy hosted Pre-COP26, the UN meeting in preparation for the Glasgow climate change summit. The conference also focused on the fourth edition of the study on circular cities produced by the Enel Group in collaboration with Arup, and which will be presented at COP in Glasgow.

“Cities today bear the unavoidable responsibility of leading the transition,” said Enel Chairman Michele Crisostomo during his opening speech at the conference. The data speaks for itself: cities are already responsible for 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions, consume 60 per cent of resources and produce half the world's waste. These figures are set to increase significantly by 2050, when seven tenths of the world's population will live in cities. Cities are clearly an important part of the environmental problem, which is also why they are the ideal (or better still, the compulsory) setting for identifying solutions that can then be applied on a global scale.

These are solutions that many cities worldwide (like Bogotà, Glasgow, Genoa and Milan, which were chosen as case studies for our Group's paper) are already trying to implement. They are based precisely on a circular city model, which, just like the circular economy principles that inspired it (sustainable materials and energy, new ways of using and reducing waste, recycling resources, greater energy efficiency, extending the useful life of products, collaborating within the ecosystem in the broadest sense), is key in limiting the negative impact that cities have on our planet. This includes leveraging electrification and decarbonization, which are essential elements in limiting the rise of average temperatures across the globe.

A circular city not only curbs global warming, but also aims to significantly improve the quality of life of its inhabitants. It can do so by offering more breathable air, less noise and light pollution, more livable public spaces and more efficient and accessible services, which are particularly important for the most vulnerable groups, like children and the elderly. In general terms, a circular city is also more resilient to catastrophic events such as extreme weather phenomena, which are increasingly frequent, or a pandemic. “Precisely during the pandemic,” said Crisostomo, “many cities showed their capacity to respond to social disintegration by establishing communication, solidarity and support networks. These networks were all powered by electricity, the lifeblood that made it possible to socialize digitally in an age of social distancing.”

“Today,” Crisostomo added, “we have all the technologies for decarbonizing, for digitalizing electricity grids, for increasing the use of renewables, for achieving greater energy efficiency, and for reducing and recycling waste in smart ways. In other words, we already have all the tools for immediately applying the principles of circularity to cities.” The problem, according to Crisostomo, lies “in the cultural realm and in governance: on the one hand, citizens should better understand that the transition is based on the virtuous behavior of individuals, and on the other, the bureaucratic processes that often limit the capacity of local government administrators should be streamlined in order to set certain processes in motion. Therefore, we should re-frame cities with a long-term perspective in mind and look beyond the limited time frame of an administration's term in office.”

Crisostomo gave an example of the Circular City Index which was recently launched by Enel X: “An analytical tool that we made freely available to all Italian municipalities, and which allows us to monitor the main circularity parameters of a city: from how much waste is produced and how it’s recycled to the environmental impact of mobility, from the digitalization rate to energy efficiency. This tool enables local government administrations to take action in a targeted manner and with great efficiency in areas where the parameters are still far from ideal.”

To sum up, the key takeaway of the meeting in Milan (a point which all participants agreed on) is the following: we must immediately invest in the cities of the future, with a joint public-private partnership that provides for the broadest possible involvement from the private sector, public sector, organizations (environmental and others), academia and technological research sectors, but, above all, we must involve citizens. This is because, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “a village is a collection of houses, but a city is made up of people.”


Download the fourth edition of the position paper “Circular Cities - Impacts On Decarbonization and Beyond” here.