High population density means that cities can be more resource-efficient than smaller agglomerations, with lower pollution and emissions per inhabitant, acting as hubs for innovation.
Cities can be incubators for new business models and lifestyles, said Francoise Bonnet, Secretary General of ACR+, an association of cities and regions for recycling and sustainable resource management, at the Green Week session on ‘Gearing up cities for the circular economy’.
“Cities can do a lot within a small geographical territory,” she said. Speaking about recycling, she noted the need to prioritise symbiosis and the shortest loop, from neighbourhoods – via city, region, country and the EU – right up to the global scale.
Urban agriculture, for example, can supplement food production, and food waste can be used for home composting. This can work in synergy with rural efforts, working towards local, sustainable and seasonal agriculture, and global efforts, where we need sustainable and fair trade, she said.
Professor Maarten Hajer, Member of the UNEP International Resource Panel and Director of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, linked the urban and global environment, referencing the PBL’s new ‘Smart about cities’ report.
“We need ‘smart urbanism’, not just ‘smart cities’,” he said. “We have to ask, ‘What kinds of technology do we want?’ In informal settlements in the global South, for example, we see uses of off-grid technologies that allow people to organise themselves.”
He spoke of the need for new ideas to help the South to leapfrog the mistakes of the developed world. Some 800 million people are expected to move to African cities in the coming decades, he added, so globally-networked urbanism would be required.
Hajer spoke of the advantages of horizontal learning between cities, including pooling data, collaboration, innovative approaches and public engagement. Temporary pedestrian zones set up in New York, for instance, had avoided the legal barriers that blocked permanent ones, and their popularity had generated the political will to make them permanent.
Merete Kristoffersen, Head of Sustainability Unit for the City of Copenhagen, agreed. As European Green Capital 2014, the city wants to be carbon neutral by 2025.
“Our 2015 goal of decreasing CO2 emissions by 20% relative to 2005 has already been achieved,” she said, helping the city to develop around a new set of values.
Public procurement has great potential to be a pull factor for the circular economy, said Mark Hidson, Director of the Global Sustainable Procurement Centre, ICLEI. He recommended greater use of life-cycle analysis in spending decisions by city administrations, and taking environmental benefits into account. Greener approaches could also be incentivised through contract management, results monitored via e-procurement, and training offered at open days and workshops.
He used the example of Amersfoort and Utrecht, which have committed to using 10 % of their procurement budget on circular-economy projects. A Dutch ministry used their procurement process so successfully that they now sell waste paper for pulping, instead of paying a company to remove it.
“We need brave politicians willing to take the long view,” he concluded. “We need champions.”