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What is a circular city?

A circular city enables the transition from wasteful to resourceful, moving away from linear planning and practices by building circular economy cornerstones into its urban network. Circular cities by their nature favour sustainable methodologies over climate-damaging consumption: reuse and repurposing over demolition and disposability.

What does circularity mean for our cities?

Circularity is the way forward if cities are to be part of the climate action solution instead of the climate emergency problem – through a systemic and holistic approach that can deliver social, environmental and economic benefits to society. It is estimated that a global transition from business-as-usual and the adoption of nature-based solutions could generate USD 10.1 billion annually in business opportunities and 395 million jobs by 2030.

Cities play a significant role in the circular transition, and they need to stop fostering a linear mindset as a standardised practice. Instead, cities should leverage their roles as innovation hubs, economic centres and accessible spaces to set an example of how to design out waste, regenerate natural systems and keep products and resources in use. They should also focus on how to translate these principles to different dimensions, such as spatial quality, social inclusion, ecology and economic growth.

The sharing economy, material life cycle, ecological infrastructure and other efforts in European frontrunner cities highlight the broad considerations that must be planned for in a city’s journey to circularity.


Benefits of circular city design

  1. Environmental

Smaller houses can promote more sustainable living, because less space = less materials = less energy use = less waste = less emissions.

  1. Social

When the concept of shared living is implemented the right way, it can foster a strong sense of community which prevents loneliness and provides help when needed.

  1. Economic

Sharing helps to cut expenses, since not everything needs to be purchased by individual households. And smaller houses are generally cheaper, offering underserved groups the potential to own their own comfortable and well-equipped home.


Eco-village Wickevoort estate, the Netherlands

Client: AM
Designer/Architect: Studio PROTOTYPE, M3H Architects, MIX architecture
Location: Cruquius, the Netherlands
Role of Sweco: Civil engineering

In the Wickevoort estate, approximately 1,000 houses will be built in a sustainable way. A combination of private and shared facilities, this is an example of how sustainable living can be incorporated in successful business models and bridge the gap between ‘eco-villages’ and traditional urban development. Sweco was brought in as engineering consultants to support the development the eco-village. Examples of circularity in the project are self sufficiency through urban farming, sharing space, facilities and mobility.

Residents endorse the sustainable core values by actively applying for housing and are motivated to upkeep the shared facilities.

Co-living district

The co-living district of Wickevoort in the Netherlands aimed to address both social and sustainability challenges. The district approached sustainability in a broad way, considering the physical as well as socioeconomic aspects of the challenge. As a result, the district features several circular solutions that not only serve its residents, but visitors to the area and the municipality. These groups can all see what an example of sustainable living looks like in their city.28

Circular solutions in the Wickevoort district:

  1. Self-sufficiency: urban farming, energy neutral.
  2. Sharing economy: sharing spaces, facilities and mobility options.
  3. Multi-use spaces: shared buildings are used for multiple purposes, such as a healthcare centre during the day that becomes a yoga studio in the evening.
  4. Climate adaptation: There is plenty of green space thanks to the space saved by sharing and multifunctionality.

A recent study by Sweco shows that future cities can save as much as 75% of their total energy needs reduce carbon emissions by 97% compared with today.


UN17 Village

Client: NREP
Designer/Architect: Lendager, Sweco, SLA
Location: Ørestad, southern Copenhagen
Role of Sweco: Architect

UN17 Village in Ørestad, in southern Copenhagen, will be the first project ever to incorporate all of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals into concrete actions in a single building project.

A beacon for sustainable housing

UN17 Village will be constructed in reused building materials with a minimum of degasification. When the project is completed, it will meet some of the highest standards for achieving physical and mental health. UN17 Village fits in the narrative of the city as a resilient ecosystem, since it will use 100 % renewable energy sources and be able to collect 1.5 million litres of rainwater per year for recycling and recreational use. In addition, UN17 Village will further develop the area’s landscape qualities by focusing on the recreational use of water, planting, biodiversity and wildlife.

The village covers an area of 35,000 sqm, and a diverse range of 535 homes will house 1100 people, meeting the highest standards for social, economic and environmental sustainability. The project is a laboratory for creating and sharing circular building solutions of the future based on the UN SDGs.

To implement the sustainability goals, the project grouped them into six key areas: biodiversity, community, health, materials, water and energy. 300 sustainability initiatives were discussed during development, of which 200 were implemented. Savings resulting from the project include 320 tonnes of CO2e from using a lightweight, biobased facade instead of concrete, 130 tonnes CO2e from using lightweight wooden interior walls instead of concrete, and 157 tonnes CO2e by using wooden floor separation instead of concrete.

Lessons learned from circular cities


When it comes to transitioning to a circular economy, Amsterdam is a global leader. In 2017, the city received the World Smart City Award thanks to its pioneering approach to circular development, particularly its efforts to generate electricity locally, reduce fuel consumption and recycle waste more efficiently.

Value sharing

As with any economic transition, businesses and institutions must be able to take an active role in the circular transition process. The City of Amsterdam serves as a facilitator, creating the right conditions for development, accelerating research and data acquisition, and working together with businesses and partners like the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

Circular neighbourhoods

Amsterdam’s city government has also decided to make circular, innovation-oriented purchasing the new standard. For example, the rapidly developing area of Buiksloterham will be fully circular. The district will feature a biodigester, which will be maintained by the Waternet network. In this way, Buiksloterham will serve as a test case for how to maximise the recovery of energy (gas and heat) and resources from wastewater. There are also many other, smaller-scale circular initiatives throughout the city. For example, the Betondorp (‘concrete village’) area was recently renovated using recycled concrete.

More uphill than expected

A recent study showed that actual material use in Amsterdam is 61 times higher than previously thought. Material use is currently still increasing, and a trend reversal is needed to achieve the goal of using 50% less primary abiotic material by 2030. In addition, new estimates suggest that the ecological impact of material use is greater than previously thought. The CO2 emissions from consumption (scope 3) outweigh all other types of emissions in Amsterdam. At the same time, support for solutions is strong among the people of Amsterdam.


The city of Glasgow is addressing the complex issues entrenched in the mindset of a throwaway society. The concept underpinning the circular economy is not a new one: “making things last” and “mend and repair” were common mottos of generations past. The principles of creating locally, extending the life of materials, taking care of and repairing items, and ultimately reusing wherever possible all support the city at its most basic level.

Circular businesses as enabler

One of Glasgow’s success factors is an initiative called Circular Glasgow. The initiative emerged from the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, working alongside key partners Zero Waste Scotland and Glasgow City Council. Open to businesses of any size, it is a network whose members share ideas about how to develop businesses across the city interested in how a circular economy can support business growth and climate change targets.10 Its circular advantage payback for businesses and society is expressed in four benefits: reputation, revenue, resilience and relationships.

5 essential changes that will unlock a circular city future

While there are many must-haves for achieving truly circularity, we believe there are five fundamental processes for developing a thriving, liveable and resilient17 circular city.

1: Mindset shift – the city as a shared space

From refuse to reuse and recycling. Working with behavioural change.

2: Ecological resilience – the city as an ecosystem

Closing the loops and focusing on ecological regeneration.

3: Track, trace and connect – the city as the driver of change

Monitor and manage material flows, and facilitate stakeholder engagement.

4: Governance measures – lessons learned from circular cities

Clear targets, value sharing and circular businesses as enabler. A circular waste system strengthens a city’s economy, creates jobs and enables innovation.

5: Systemic thinking – taking the next steps

The importance of a holistic approach. Nothing is wasted and every resource is reused