Building sustainable cities with circular economies | Australian Greens

Building sustainable cities with circular economies

Steven Liaros and Nilmini De Silva, Directors of PolisPlan, outline their plan for a better way of living in communities - for people and planet.

By Steven Liaros and Nilmini De Silva
Sunday, November 12, 2017

A City is the physical manifestation of the economic system at work in that place. Economic values are underpinned by social values, with the highest values expressed in the largest structures at the centre of our cities. In the past, these were temples, churches, synagogues and mosques, now they are more likely to be office towers and shopping centres—temples dedicated to The Economy. An economic system could be described as the way we organise ‘work’ and that work builds the buildings and infrastructure of our cities, currently designing it in such a way as to facilitate further work and thus expressing the value we attribute to work.

Yet the way we think about work and about cities and town planning, is anchored in an increasingly irrelevant past. People once lived close to their place of work but the massive upscaling of factories from the mid Nineteenth Century meant that for health reasons we needed to separate these polluting workplaces from the places where people lived. Land use zoning—and development controls to manage amenity—were introduced, while the consequence of separating work from home meant that we needed to build tramlines to get people to their work.

In the 21st Century, Australia’s workforce includes precious little heavy industry and much of our work is in the service industries. Technology is blurring the line between work and home, the debate about technology taking our jobs simmers along, while the sharing economy and other online platforms are transforming the way we work. Also, the immediacy of the internet together with the efficiency of modern production techniques such as 3D printing is making ‘print-on-demand’ and direct delivery from producer to consumer more cost effective than mass production. What would cities look like if the scale of our factories, warehouses and transport infrastructure was significantly reduced or became redundant?

These are just some of the challenges we are facing and the technological revolution powered by the internet is—in broad historical terms—still in its infancy. Town planning, like planning of all forms, must be about imagining the future. We need a new way of thinking about economies and cities—a new paradigm for town planning that attempts to extrapolate the future from the world as it is today not from the world of the Industrial Revolution.

Circular economy and universal basic income debates

The potential of future job losses due to technology is just a theoretical conversation in Australia. The ongoing economic recession in Europe, though, means that that conversation exists in the context of an already high level of unemployment in many areas. Coupled with the serious inequality created by the current economic system, two important debates are evolving. The first is described as a transition ‘From a Linear to a Circular Economy’ and the second debate relates to the provision of a ‘Universal Basic Income’ to guarantee all citizens a basic standard of living and to ensure the benefits of economic development are spread more equitably.

We believe that these two debates can form the basis for a new way of thinking about economies, cities and town planning.

The starting point is to think of cities in terms of what they offer their citizens. We live together, after all, as social animals because there are advantages in living and working together. What are these advantages? First and foremost it is the benefit of having our basic physiological needs satisfied. So rather than paying everyone a Basic Income, we ask how do you design a place to satisfy the basic needs of its residents? This poses the question: Which needs do you define as ‘basic’? Our approach is to separate needs that are relations between people from those that are about relationship with the land where these people are located. Communities should be free to organise services such as healthcare and education in the way the people themselves determine, whereas we are less free with respect to those needs that are influenced by the geography and climate of a place such as the provision of water, food, energy and the design and organisation of buildings and structures. Whether we like it or not, we must comply with the laws of nature and of physics.

Size matters

We are therefore proposing to design a place so that it provides these four basic natural needs—water, food, energy and living spaces—to the future residents of that place. The next question is: How big is this place? Well we want it big enough to benefit from economies of scale but we also want it small enough to ensure that residents have an effective ‘say’ in the organisation of their social relationships. We propose a number of between 100 – 200 people, which is about the size of a small village. It also corresponds with the Dunbar Number, which some anthropologists and sociologists argue is the maximum group size that can maintain stable social relationships. We would be happy to revisit this in future but our aim throughout this project is to design on the basis of the best currently available evidence.

We need to choose and fix the population for two reasons. Firstly, for One Planet Living we do not want to exceed the capacity of the land on which we are living. Secondly, we want to design the supporting infrastructure so that there is an abundance of water, food, energy and living spaces of various forms. The over-supply of these basic needs should drive their price towards zero—we should aim to offer these to each other for no monetary exchange, even though work will be necessary to provide them.

Circular economy systems

Having determined the population, the next step is to minimise the work needed to satisfy these needs so that we have time for the many more interesting pursuits in life. This is where the concept of the Circular Economy comes in. Currently, discussion about the Circular Economy is focused primarily on the production of goods in such a way as to eliminate waste. This is not about reducing, managing, or recycling waste but designing out the very idea of waste. This requires that we think in systems not in linear processes. We have taken this idea and asked how would it apply to the design of a place?

If we align with and mimic natural cycles and ecosystems we should be able to design our waste. The water cycle is the Circular Economy of water. Much research has been carried out with respect to Water Sensitive Cities and Water Sensitive Urban Design. These ideas can inform the design of a water harvesting, cleaning and distribution system. Similarly, local renewable energy generation, storage and distribution via a micro-grid would not only provide the energy we need but also power the water system. Moving water might generate energy, while stationary water could store energy. Water irrigates crops, while various plants and animals clean the water. Finally, designing buildings according to the principles of passive architectural design can significantly reduce energy demand. By thinking in systems, the delivery of water, food, energy and living spaces all become more efficient.

The City is a system that provides its residents with their basic needs. The Circular Economy Village (or Innovation Hub) can be conceptualised as a model for planning in both space and time not just for growth—as is our current mindset—but also for decay and regeneration. City planning should include water cycle design, food system design to align with seasonal food cycles, renewable energy, planning for product life cycles as well as designing for generational change and human life cycles.

Diagram showing elements such as Freedom, Compassion, Courage, and Equality connected by Creative Commons, Sharing Economy, Crowdfunding, Crowd Sourcing, Peer to Peer, and Open Source

A demonstration project

Our vision is to build a demonstration project that will illustrate these ideas, while the process should also help us to learn and develop the ideas further. The Circular Economy Innovation Hub will be a replicable form of regenerative land development. Eventually, we hope to encourage the development of a distributed network that is connected by online platforms, peer-to-peer trading and the sharing economy: An Internet of Cities. A new economy must be regenerative and distributed and the cities of the future must, in turn, reflect these characteristics.

We believe that this approach is equally applicable in rural areas as in the retrofitting of existing suburbs but early projects should support the development of rural and regional areas. Our first project is now in the research phase with the potential to implement in northern NSW after some positive early discussion with a local Council.

A number of research projects are also being developed. With the University of Queensland, we are translating nutrition plans into local agricultural plans and in a second project, modelling the urban metabolism in the local government area to identify Circular Economy business opportunities that convert waste to resources or new goods. We have started discussions with CSIRO to connect with their Urban Living Labs network and employ their expertise to develop a combined energy and water micro-grid. We have also prepared a draft architects’ brief and are looking for architects who might be interested in design development.

Please contact us if you are interested in helping to advance this project.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ~R. Buckminster Fuller

Steven Liaros and Nilmini De Silva, 
Directors of PolisPlan. Town Planners and Strategic Engineers 
Designing Cities for Freedom, Equality and Compassion using the Circular Economy &