Urban Design for a Circular Economy

  • Cities are complex ecologies of intersecting natural systems and urban infrastructure.
  • Environmental degradation has brought attention to the asymbiotic relationship between man-made and natural systems.
  • A new economy is emerging where interdependence and environmental stewardship are valued.
  • Designing for a circular economy requires consideration of human habitats not as towns or cities, but as bioregions. 

In relation to the built environment, the circular economy model encourages reusable components, regenerative energy sources, and durable buildings. Circular architecture must be well integrated into its surroundings in order to give and take in conjunction with nature. Designers must study the location and context of a building site to ascertain how the new construction can contribute to the existing ecology. What is required is an understanding of the site’s bioregion – an area defined by characteristics of the natural environment rather than by man-made divisions.

Bioregions 2020: a new map of the Earth created by intersecting biomes with large-scale geological structures to delineate 185 discrete bioregions. Image © Karl Burkart, One Earth

If the map of the world had been drawn to outline diverse ecologies and landforms, it would highlight the colossal number of bioregions existing on earth. A bioregion is defined by its unique natural characteristics that occur in its geographical areas such as climate, landforms, watersheds, soils, native plants and animals, and other features. They also include human activities that sustainably interact with natural systems.

The earth is home to over 800 ecoregions. Each one requires different ways of inhabiting it in an environment-friendly manner. Circular buildings should be designed in harmony with the cyclical functions of its bioregion – sharing energy, and resources, and eventually healthily decaying into the region. Urban areas must be reconceived so that they can assume a responsible position in the Earth’s biosphere.

Urban Farming Office / VTN Architects. Image © Hiroyuki Oki

Bioregional Architecture

Architecture that interacts and integrates with its bioregion is capable of sharing resources and energy in a circular manner. In a region. Buildings can exhibit circularity in multiple ways. Structures composed primarily of ecology-sensitive biodegradable materials can decompose into the soil at the end of their life. Biomaterials are also capable of filtering the air in the atmosphere and generating energy for the building and its neighborhood to use. Urban farms are another regionally receptive intervention that contributes to its community, closing the loop of resource production and consumption.

Bioregionalism in architecture and urban design demands an approach that deeply understands vernacular techniques beyond their political boundaries. Rather than replicating traditional built forms across an entire country, examples from similar bioregions can be prototyped to better suit the area’s geographic features.

Earth covered farm homes in Keldur, Iceland. Image Courtesy of Chris 73

Relocalizing Cities

For generations, architects and urban planners have focused their efforts on envisioning a “green” model of the city. In order to plan, design, and build human communities for bioregional sustainability, the preservation of natural systems in parallel with human activities is imperative. Citiesmust be seen as entangled with natural systems in all of the basic functions and activities of urban life.

Retrofitting urban areas through the integration of natural systems, while fostering active community engagement can deepen human-environment connections. Building codes would require architectural responses that substitute mechanical systems with more passive systems. Policies, plans, and programs that incorporate ecological design must influence the physical environment and form of the city.

Warka Village, Cameroon. Image © WarkaWater, via CicloVivo

A bioregion anchors humans within living systems through shared space and resources. It acknowledges that human habitats are more than skyscrapers and boulevards. They are extensions of watersheds, foodsheds, fiber sheds, and food systems. Living beings are what forge relationships between the city and natural systems, and are integral parts of a bioregion. To restructure our cities as ecologically responsive centers, multidisciplinary perspectives must come together to address the holistic needs of the community and bioregion.

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This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.

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