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How cities are using policy to drive the circular economy transition

The following article was developed through the collaboration of several Arup experts, including Zach Postone, Isobel Vernon-Avery, and Anna Surgenor. 

From material selection to construction methods and resource management, there are countless opportunities to adopt a more circular approach across the built environment. Reimagining how we design and build for greater sustainability and circularity is critical to addressing the climate crisis, and cities around the world are increasingly leveraging policy and strategy to advance the transition. 

In March 2022, Arup and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation convened a global workshop, bringing together public sector policymakers to share experiences and the challenges they face in developing policy to support a circular economy transition in the built environment. The intent of the workshop was to create a collaborative space to share successes and lessons learned, building connections and exchanging knowledge across a diverse range of cities and related public entities on a similar journey. 

Targeted approaches to advancing circularity in the built environment

Speakers and participants shared the ways in which their cities are finding leverage points and identifying strategic areas to push for higher ambitions in terms of circularity.  

Katie Lindsay, Principal Policy and Programme Officer for Waste and Green Economy at the Greater London Authority (GLA) explained the approach used in the London Plan.  

This involved targeting developments of a certain scale to comply with more rigorous circular economy requirements: all developments referable to the Mayor must submit a Circular Economy Statement with their application. Boroughs are encouraged to adopt similar requirements for developments under the threshold. A key lesson shared was the importance of ensuring that cities measure a baseline before implementing circular policy to understand the impact that has been achieved. Since the workshop we have seen the launch of updated London Plan Guidance for Circular Economy Statements which requires projects to focus on the reuse of buildings over demolition.

Presentation by Katie Lindsay, Principal Policy and Programme Officer for Waste and Green Economy at the Greater London Authority (GLA)
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Mikkel Stenbæck Hansen, Head of Sustainable Buildings and Reuse Division at the City of Copenhagen, shared that, despite limits to what the city can specify in local planning policies, it is able to be much more ambitious with the city’s own construction - as well as on building projects that are directly financed by the city.  

The Copenhagen Building Department has developed a Handbook for Circular Economy for its own construction activities, which includes 29 principles as well as 17 requirements for circular economy to be used in tender materials. Copenhagen identified a set of strategic projects that can drive transformation in the market, with set aside finances to implement circular economy opportunities in these projects which can drive supply and demand. This creates an opportunity to test out circular economy practices, from material salvage to reuse of space. 

Presentation by Mikkel Stenbæck Hansen, Head of Sustainable Buildings and Reuse Division at the City of Copenhagen
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Developing the data to support circular approaches

The role of data access and information transparency in formulating successful policy was a central topic among workshop participants. Embedding circularity into policy requires cities to have access to the right data and information: to develop an understanding of existing conditions, and to better define and measure success. In the absence of access to relevant data – whether due to lack of mechanisms to capture or due to organisational silos – many local jurisdictions are cautious about building specific targets into policy in the absence of clear, defensible data for defining and measuring targets.  

Policymakers are planning with this in mind, creating requirements that will begin to encourage circular practices and help them to collect the evidence as to what is possible. Programmes to collect project information at the detailed design stage and over the lifetime of project will shed light on the impact of various circular strategies. As precedents from project experience cycle back to policy makers, future iterations of policies can articulate more specific standards that advance the circular economy with increasing rigour. Intergovernmental organisations are playing a role in tackling these data and information challenges, operating across countries and working with data agencies to understand the state of circular practices, as well as identifying who holds key information on the built environment and public works. 

In addition to developing the evidence base to support defensible policy, a range of initiatives are addressing the data challenges that impede other stages of circular project development. Better information to match supply and demand is critical to the growth of the secondary materials market. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) is funding the development of an online exchange for building products and other resources, which will give businesses key insights into available resources and simplify transactions for surplus and salvaged resources. Data and information exchange can lower transaction costs and help to address barriers related to risk and liability. 

Fostering stakeholder dialogue and change

Solving challenges in coordination and collaboratively with stakeholders is just as critical as the technical aspects of implementing circularity in the built environment. The importance of the organisational and interpersonal dimensions of the challenge was evident from the stories shared by participants during the workshop. Language and perception are key to project success: some have found that efforts to encourage circular approaches have been met with community resistance if they are seen as involving waste, second-hand products, or downgraded quality. Cross-departmental coordination also requires the establishment of a shared language across procurement, planning, sustainability, buildings, and other agency functions. 

Cities are finding new channels for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and community engagement. A key lesson shared was the need for training and knowledge exchange to ensure that policy makers and planners have the information needed to set the right policy and to understand good examples of circular economy in projects. In Paris, some circular economy projects have brought schools into the process, transforming projects into educational collaborations that make end users invested in the final results. In Copenhagen, the city has developed a Dialogue Tool for the planning process, which engages builders and developers and prompts them to make considerations around circular construction that can support more sustainable city planning. 

Projects such as Circular Construction in Regenerative Cities (CIRCuIT) - a multi-year initiative bringing together 31 partners across the built environment chain in Copenhagen, Hamburg, the Helsinki Region and Greater London – also create venues for collaboration and knowledge sharing to support the implementation of sustainable and circular construction practices. Launched in 2021 and currently in a pilot phase, the European Investment Bank (EIB) Circular City Centre (C3) is a platform intended to support European Union cities in their circular economy transition through resource and information sharing, advisory, and connection to funding opportunities. 

The Universal Circular Economy Policy Goals (UCEPGs), developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, are another tool to align ambitions across cities, governments, and businesses and create a common direction of travel towards a circular economy. The UCEPGs provide a way to understand how policies can work in concert to strengthen key pillars of the circular economy, and to assess which types of policies may be more developed than others. Discussion on this in the context of London, New York City and the European Union can be found here.  

From strategy to action

Moving from high-level ambitions to implementable strategies requires cities to better define the “how”, and build the case for circularity backed by precedent and evidence. Cities can continue to lead by convening to share knowledge, exchanging data and evidence that will strengthen the case for circularity and build a baseline for the establishment of new policies and standards.   

This need to define action has been the driver behind the Circular Buildings Toolkit launched by Arup and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to bring together strategies, case studies, and tools for designing more circular buildings. The toolkit helps chart the path from high-level strategies to concrete actions and key stakeholders involved.  

Arup circular economy experts can help you to take advantage of the Circular Buildings Toolkit. Contact us today for a guided tour and learn more about our supporting workshops.