The Circular City – Flying over Amsterdam’s Metabolism

WASTED is an initiative rooted in Amsterdam, which introduces a sustainable solution to a growing, global concern: the destructive impact of waste on our economies, environment, and society. Zooming out from the global urban metabolism debate, WASTED can be seen as a link within an upcoming circular city system.

Flying over Amsterdam's Metabolism


March 2018, Oukje van Merle

Circularity is gaining traction. When walking down the street, it won’t surprise you to see advertising messages emblazoned with circularity inspired slogans and mantras. It is present in the cheering of NGOs, political promises and visions of multinationals. It is also a movement of action. Articles and interviews published on CITIES Foundation website, The Wasted City publication, and other resources are showcasing small scale, bottom-up initiatives that instigate local, collaborative action.

A central goal of WASTED is to influence human behavior and perceptions. However, what does this premise mean within the bigger picture of circularity? To find out, you are kindly invited to step into a hot air balloon, giving you the ability to zoom out, and to look at the scales that play a role in circular city making.


The smart companion

Joining us on our balloon trip is Alexander Wandl – urbanist and fellow hot air balloon enthusiast from Delft University of Technology. Currently, our travelling companion works on circular economy strategies with the REPAiR research team. The research group makes use of the model of Urban Metabolism, a method that is utilized in order to better understand the flows of a city. Flows describe water, energy, food and people, amongst other things – in essence, elements that form a city’s ‘ecosystem’. Wandl explains that these flows follow the path of produce-compose-dispose. With the urgency to make cities more sustainable, REPAiR conducts research analyzing the flows spatially, to identify potential opportunities for making those flows circular.  (For more information about Urban Metabolism, head here.)


Bigger than Amsterdam

The flows and their corresponding infrastructure are visible through all city scales. From up high in the hot air balloon, we have a bird’s eye view of the interplay between those flows; Amsterdam region, Amsterdam the city, businesses within the city, the residential areas and households. In the distance, we observe plumes of gas emitting from the TATA Steel factory in Ijmuiden. Within a circular model, the CO2 that this factory is pouring out, can be reused as input for the growth of Dutch tulips in glass-houses located in the south of Amsterdam. The regional scale is an interesting scale for urban metabolism research, because it provides an insight into the systematic processes of the flows, and the potential to create new circular processes and opportunities across municipality borders.


Amsterdam the frontrunner

As the balloon drops lower, and flies above Amsterdam Central Station, area, Wandl explains how Amsterdam is often considered to be a frontrunner in circularity. He believes this is the case because the concept is so deeply embedded in the city’s public policies. Wandl points out that every “city should build a policy framework that does not give advantage to a few, creating monopolies. Quite the contrary, the task of city-governance is to allow diversity, and to continuously stimulate better ideas from an environmental, economic and social perspective. ‘’


Sustainable Starters

Flying above Amsterdam North, you can spot a variety of sustainability-oriented initiatives nestled around the old docks. ‘’There is a danger for circular economy to be only about the business, it should be about the desire to live in a sustainable ecosystem that covers all three pillars, including social aspects”, our companion says. According to Wandl, NGOs and other businesses play a crucial role here, because they emphasize inclusive change. Thus, sustainable businesses have a responsibility to integrate inclusivity into their business approach, and avoid free-riding or jumping on the ‘trendy’ development bandwagon.


Choices and Community Collaboration

The balloon descends towards the street level, where we can observe the last two scales: the community and the households. We see a lady passing by on a ‘bakfiets’ packed with glass and textile waste, on her way to the bins. ‘The contribution a household can make towards a more circular society, rests on their consumption pattern” Wandl says. He advises that we should become more conscious about our consumption behaviour. For example, the type of products we choose (e.g. green energy, unpackaged food), and our approach to waste disposal. Changing daily routines requires commitment from citizens, along with environmental consciousness and collaboration. The sense of necessity for change is key, because a systematic change has to be a cumulative, all-encompassing effort. The neighborhood level – the scale above a household – has a capacity to generate multiple flows of benefits to residents in direct correlation to their level of commitment to sustainability. ‘’As neighbours you can start sharing things – like tools, and for example, you can share space for composting green waste’, says Wandl. Amsterdam consists of 88% high-rise buildings, with an average living space of 75m2. In making a difference within Amsterdam, the diversity of space within a neighborhood can provide even more opportunities than the household level.


Role division

Next time you find yourself reading a poster at a bus stop, which says ‘we work circular’, realize the circular movement is not just a business talk, but a path towards a systematic change that will have an influence across the spectrum of scales; from the household and neighbourhood scales right up to the global level. ‘’…As we touch back to the ground, we would like to thank you for joining us on this hot air balloon ride. In the meantime take some time to digest, and rest up. Because next time, for an overview of an even bigger scale, we will be stepping into a rocket ship, as Wandl notes waving good-bye ‘… Working on environmental issues, we always end up looking at the whole planet’’.



Bakker, C, & Hollander, den, M. & Hinte, van, E., (2014) Products that last, Delft

Gemeente Amsterdam (2015), Afvalketen in Beeld, Grondstoffen uit Amsterdam, Amsterdam

Timmeren, van, A. (2014) The concept of Urban Metabolism (UM), Delft

Wandl, A. Interview 9th of October 2017, Amsterdam

Created on 19 March 2018
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