Circular cities and territories: from theory to practice

Note rapide n° 822

novembre 2019

Institut d’aménagement et d’urbanisme de la région d’Île-de-France (IAU)

A malleable concept, the circular economy is emerging as one of the new paradigms to be integrated into the field of urban planning. Through experiments conducted in three French-speaking metropolises, Montreal, Paris and Brussels, the Paris Region Institute reports on how initiatives related to this « new economy » are taking place within territories. It examines the theoretical and practical issues at stake by looking at the typology of projects, whether or not they are supported by public authorities, the multiplicity of actors and the logic of their development.

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The Université de Montréal and the Institut de l’environnement, du développement durable et de l’économie circulaire (Eddec) launched the first edition of the international summer school « Ville, territoire, économie circulaire » in June 2019. In partnership with the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Labex Futurs urbains-Ifsttar of the Université Paris-Est, this school aims to train players in the circular economy, using Montreal, Paris and Brussels as experimental sites. This Note thus puts into perspective the workshops carried out and the projects discovered during this session. For if urban spaces concentrate environmental problems, they are also considered as leaders who experiment with solutions. The circular economy is indeed emerging as a more operational means of guiding the ecological transition, to the point where « circularity » tends to be confused with, or even replace, sustainability [Prendeville et al., 2018]. The application of the principles and values of this economy to the scale of cities and territories, i.e. the search for a more sober and circular urban planning, calls for a crossover of three fundamental aspects:

At the heart of the ecological transition: the diversity of projects and actors in circularity

Circularity is expressed through a first type of project bringing together the actors who make it an objective, both for environmental reasons and in a logic of cost reduction. These projects can be included in the register of operational urban planning (Lexicon) and can also be found in industrial ecology approaches. What they have in common is a way of « shaking up existing codes », by resorting to pioneering experimental approaches, sometimes going as far as the technological and institutional limits of the system. Examples of this type of project include: the La Vallée eco-neighbourhood in Châtenay-Malabry, built on the former site of the École centrale; the conversion of the KDI wasteland in La Courneuve, on the site of the metallurgical products trading company; but also industrial symbiosis approaches in Europe and Quebec, etc. These projects are often encouraged by territorial institutions at various scales. The summer school made it possible to observe that, under the impetus of the European Union, European cities are leaders in the implementation of circular economy policies. This is an important breaking point with regard to the North American situation, where the integration of circularity principles is not yet as much on the agenda .

A second type of project brings together all those in which circularity and the social and solidarity economy are intertwined, thus demonstrating the malleability of the former. These are initiatives that integrate the challenges of circularity in a more indirect way. Mainly located in third places (wastelands, vacant spaces, etc.) that may be part of transitory urban planning (Lexicon), they are more « hybrid », in the sense that they do not show a clear will to work towards the transition to circularity. On the other hand, because they share the values of the circular economy (pooling, proximity, reciprocity, cooperation, etc.), and because they are most often carried by start-ups engaged in ecological transition or social integration, these initiatives are potential incubators for the concentration of other approaches or projects, this time more directly related to circularity. In this category, we should mention in particular Les Grands Voisins in Paris, a « temporary » occupation on the site of the former Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital (14th arrondissement), bringing together start-ups, craftspeople, artists, emergency accommodation, etc.; Building 7 in Montreal, a former railway wasteland converted into a self-managed community space dedicated to the development of socio-cultural projects; Estrie Aide in Sherbrooke (Quebec), a social economy enterprise specializing in the recycling of furniture, clothing and everyday objects for the most disadvantaged, etc.; and the « Grand Voisins », a « temporary » occupation on the site of the former Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital (14th arrondissement), bringing together start-ups, craftspeople, artists, emergency accommodation, etc.; Building 7 in Montreal, a former railway wasteland converted into a self-managed community space dedicated to the development of socio-cultural projects; Estrie Aide in Sherbrooke (Quebec), a social economy enterprise specializing in the recycling of furniture, clothing and everyday objects for the most disadvantaged.

Beyond these two categories of projects, circular economy initiatives in urban spaces have shared characteristics. Food products, water and building materials are the three most targeted by the initiatives. On the other hand, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (Lexicon), essential elements for the sustainability of the planetary system, were not directly addressed in any of the projects discovered during this summer school, which testifies to the « experimental » nature of the few initiatives that have emerged in Europe. It is also easy to see the importance of the human factor in projects often led by charismatic and dedicated personalities.

Another element common to Montreal, Paris and Brussels, circular economy projects involve a multiplicity of actors, from different horizons and with plural logics (promoters, associations and citizen collectives, municipalities, regions, provinces, universities, etc.). Beyond these common points, several recurring issues should be highlighted.

Positioning of project leaders: complex relations with public authorities

Two logics can be observed among the promoters of projects and initiatives in the circular economy. Some project leaders express the desire to remain « off the radar » of public action in order to avoid any recovery. Others prefer to be on the radar in order to obtain human and financial support from institutions or, sometimes, to work towards a more profound change in the material flow management system.

The way public actors are perceived by project leaders is therefore very ambivalent. On the one hand, they may perceive the public authorities and their multiple scales as allies, providing technical, financial or human assistance (provision of land, financing of studies, subsidies, networking, etc.). On the other hand, they may consider them as a brake likely to jeopardise the sustainability of projects (roughness and compartmentalisation of institutions, turnover in their services, etc.). This ambivalent positioning gives rise to projects that « showcase » the territory’s commitment to a more circular model (Plaine Commune, for example, is becoming a veritable open-air laboratory for the deployment of the circular economy in the construction industry), or to much more radical and critical initiatives that refuse to endorse their municipality’s choices (Building 7 in Montreal is claiming its position outside the market and against Montreal’s municipal policy). Other projects directly fill gaps in the system: these successes lead the promoters to act in complementarity or competition with the flow management authorities and players (Estrie Aide in Sherbrooke, Quebec). The multiplication of circular initiatives constitutes a real challenge for territorial public action because it invites it to « break its codes » and to adopt a more flexible operating mode that is likely to adapt constantly to changes in practices, particularly at the local level.

This proliferation is accentuated by the extreme diversity of economic and environmental plans and programmes, sometimes regulatory but above all incentive-based, which are a way of integrating the principles of the circular economy (action plan in favour of the circular economy backed by the regional waste plan in the Île-de-France region, regional circular economy/PREC programme in the Brussels region, etc.). More generally, in Europe, almost all territorial public action, at its various scales, is committed to integrating the principles of the circular economy into its plans and programmes.

We are thus witnessing a situation of double proliferation: a proliferation of actors and, in particular, of institutional territories whose competences cover all or part of the circular economy, and a proliferation of their productions via extremely numerous plans and programmes.

Several types of support exist in terms of funding, technical assistance and animation, to encourage all these projects. However, this plethora raises the question of the coherence of public action, as all the actors do not share the same vision of circularity, both in terms of the perimeters and the associated paradigms. It also raises a risk of competition between institutions and actors, at a time when, in a context of reduced public spending, everyone wants more visibility in order to obtain funding.

This tangle of actors and actions is also part of an institutional fl orm, making it difficult to know precisely who to mobilise to set up a project. Public action can then play a networking role, with useful soft power to federate the chain of actors and match needs. However, this presupposes being able to identify circular economy initiatives in a given territory.

A challenge for the evaluation of public policies?

Overwhelmed by their base, territories are not always in a position to grasp circular economy projects, which sometimes go beyond their codes and operating methods. Circular initiatives re-interview public action and complicate the environmental, social and economic impact assessment exercises that they can generate, which can lead to externalities or « rebound effects » that are sometimes not negligible. Generally speaking, it must be noted that most initiatives involve particularly small volumes or tonnages in relation to the orders of magnitude involved. They are not yet able to make the city completely circular1. Moreover, as Karine Thibault, Coordinator of Industrial Symbiosis and Residual Materials in Quebec, points out: « If we spend 50% of the time justifying our indicator, we do not achieve synergies during that time. « This is a question of balancing the resources allocated between project implementation and evaluation. Because of the experimental nature of the initiatives, the promoters seem to care little about the quantitative impacts (tonnages recycled, GHG emissions avoided, etc.) that their project has generated. In addition, they have little human, financial or technical leeway to monitor and evaluate these impacts. Moreover, beyond the quantitative aspect that interests institutions, these projects often have intangible impacts that are difficult to measure, particularly in terms of the cognitive changes needed for the ecological transition [Lorrain et al., 2018]. In this sense, isn’t the issue at stake here to increase the number of initiatives and encourage their reproduction?

A need to « go to scale »?

The economic models of projects are varied, but their credibility and sustainability often depend on their « going to scale », i.e. the massification of the materials to be managed, via deployment over a larger area, at the cost of greater investment. For projects with a desire to expand, their economic « good health » is not always synonymous with a total integration of the principles of circularity: harvesting unsold food without taking into account the issue of upstream prevention, for example. In other words, some projects have no interest in seeing the deposits of matter diminish, at the risk of slowing down their growth, while others have perfectly integrated the idea that their existence is (in theory) temporary and that they will disappear if the system improves. However, not all projects wish to grow and scale up. Their economic model and the quantities produced or harvested are destined to remain local niches in an associative logic.

More generally, the initiatives discovered in this summer school often put in tension two visions of the transition towards a more sober and circular model: a rather « industrial » vision of circularity and another more « decentralized » one. This crystallizes, for example, around the management of organic matter in Brussels and Paris, where methanisation and local composting share the organic deposit. While some authors underline the difficulties of public authorities in including a decentralized vision, denouncing an industrial reading of the circular economy [Desvaux, 2017], others note a porosity between these two conceptions. Sobriety, economic profitability, integration of citizen approaches, or even technical innovations: the deployment of the circular economy must, like that of sustainable development, reconcile these different issues, leaving significant room for manoeuvre at the territorial level.

1 As an example of the effort made and the distance still to be covered, Société du Grand Paris estimates that to date 40% of the 8 million tonnes of excavated material produced by the Grand Paris Express site have been recovered, but only 2% in the form of material recovery and 98% in terms of volume recovery (backfill, filled quarries, etc.).


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