Dispersal into networks of circular economy villages
It has become commonplace for articles and presentations about cities to start with facts such as that in 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population was urban and by 2014 that number had reached 54 percent. Reference to this trend is invariably followed by an assertion that the trend must inevitably continue into the future, suggesting, for example, that by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to be urban. In this article I ask whether we have the courage to question whether this trend is inevitable or, indeed, desirable?
I start with a deliberately provocative title and question because significant decisions and substantial long-term financial commitments are regularly made—by governments, corporations and individuals—based on this untested assertion. Any good financial adviser will always offer the disclaimer that ‘past performance is no guarantee of future results’. Yet economists, planners, politicians and many others continually make this statement, often simply in passing, to confirm a broadly agreed ‘fact’ or inevitability. Broad consensus does not necessarily imply that a proposition is correct.
Urbanisation is not inevitable
Let’s begin by examining whether the trend of increasing urbanisation, and centralisation of people in cities, is inevitable and later we’ll explore whether it’s desirable.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Ebenezer Howard, lamented that “it is deeply to be deplored that the people should continue to stream into the already over-crowded cities, and should thus deplete the country districts”[i]. For Howard, this flow of people into cities reflected the various attractions of city life, which were being ruined by over-crowding. He therefore proposed the development of Garden Cities—new settlements blending the best aspects of town life and country life—which would act as an alternative attractor drawing people out of existing cities. This would reverse the flow and redistribute the population in a “spontaneous and healthy manner”. After writing Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Howard helped establish the Town and Country Planning Association in the UK, securing the first town planning legislation in 1909 and sparking a worldwide interest in town planning. Given these origins of the town planning profession—where the ambition was to plan for innovative new settlements—it is odd, to me at least, that most in the profession like to call themselves urban planners and focus almost exclusively on managing what they perceive as the inevitable and inexorable growth of the major cities.
The growth of cities is inevitable so long as town planners continue to believe that the trend is inevitable and therefore fail to critically question whether it is desirable. The project of planning any individual town or neighbourhood should be undertaken in the context of a broader National Settlement Strategy as the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) has long been advocating. Where people live depends on where housing, work opportunities and infrastructure are provided which, in turn, depend on the outcomes of a settlement strategy process. For that process to be rigorous it must examine whether populations should be distributed across the continent or centralised in a few cities. We can only critically consider whether ever-increasing urbanisation is desirable when we are open to the possibility that is not inevitable—that we have agency and can plan strategically for something different.
Nor is Urbanisation desirable
While a National Settlement Strategy is desirable for planning where we live—and whether this is centralised or distributed—it should also examine how we live on the land. Do we organise settlements to be extractive—taking from the land and degrading it—or regenerative, where we have a net positive impact on the land?
To answer the question of whether increasing urbanisation is desirable, we should also consider how we design settlements in relation to each other and in relation to the surrounding landscape. I argue, with Ebenezer Howard, that the growth of cities results in the depletion of ‘country districts’ just as the growth of ‘the economy’ results in the depletion of natural ecosystems. This parallel is not accidental. Economic growth does not happen evenly, particularly in terms of geography, it happens in cities while rural and regional areas invariably struggle. We often hear that ‘cities are the engines of economic growth’, ignoring that the food, energy and resources that underpin that growth are extracted from rural areas outside the city. By viewing the settlement patterns more broadly we can appreciate that growth in one area only occurs at the expense of another.
There is a clear link between the unlimited growth of cities and the narrative of unlimited economic growth. Both assume that unconstrained growth, ad infinitum, underpins social progress. Neither acknowledges environmental limits. Both draw artificial boundaries around their area of interest allowing them to ignore dependencies and externalities. Our cities and broader settlement patterns are shaped and organised by our economic system.
Economics is about how we organise ourselves to satisfy our needs and wants. This ultimately translates into the arrangement of human settlements; the spatial relationship between living spaces, workspaces, and their connection to food, water, energy and other resources needed for surviving and thriving. The current linear—take, make, use, dispose—economic model is expressed in the landscape as a city that takes resources from outside the city limits and similarly disposes waste.
The striving for the growth of cities will necessarily cause depletion and degradation in other regions when we fail to appreciate the connection and interdependence between them.
A circular economy creating a circular city network
In contrast, a fully circular city would not need to extract food, water, energy and resources from outside as these would be kept circulating within it. Using renewable energy to circulate water, would help grow more food close to consumers, eliminating the waste and pollution associated with transporting food over long distances[ii]. Indeed we could design to eliminate all organic and inorganic waste, converting it to resources or new products within the city system. Planning for a regenerative agricultural system to produce food and manage organic waste will also assist in regenerating nature. These characteristics are consistent with the definition of a circular economy[iii] as a system that is designed to:
- Eliminate waste and pollution,
- Circulate products and materials, and
- Regenerate nature
The transition from a linear to a circular economy would necessarily result in a reorganisation of both individual settlements and settlement patterns. The city will become a more distributed system, a network of circular economy precincts or villages.
The circular economy also aligns precisely with Indigenous ontology and a cyclical view of the world. When people living a given place align their economic activities with the local seasonal cycles and the life-cycles of other species, they establish a meaningful Connection to Country. As described by Graham and Maloney:
This produces reciprocity – the land looks after us, we look after it, it looks after us, we look after it, and right across the country, North, South, East and West, all the different groups have their own particular relationship with their particular part of the land, their country.[iv]
The consequence is a continent-wide distributed network of nations, each Caring for the Country on which they are located. This management of local ecological cycles as a circular economic process, results in the production and reproduction of an abundance of energy, water and food. Each settlement could then be perceived as a waterhole, a place to stay or rest for a while in our journey through life.
In the minds of First Nations peoples, no waterhole exists in isolation, it exists as a node in a network of waterholes connected by songlines[v]. The songs or stories guide people through life, while helping to navigate the landscape. There is a need for new narratives, new songs to guide us. Perhaps the most important is the story of a transition from a linear to a circular economy – that is, from an endless growth narrative to one that acknowledges the natural cycles of growth, decay, death and regeneration. Another is the transition from an extractive to a regenerative mindset. Rather than just taking what we can, how can we give more than we take? This is the circle of life. Rather than always aspiring for more, how do we seek moderation, harmony and balance?
The stories we live by guide the work that we do and so shape the human settlements that we create. The transition from hierarchical social structures to egalitarian ones will be reflected in the changing pattern of human settlements from highly centralised cities that dominate the land and its people, to a distributed network of settlements. This change will also be reflected in a change in lifestyle. From being permanently settled in a home and anchored to a job, we would instead be free to travel, explore and find the place and people we connect with, who help us be our best and who value our unique contribution. We would also be free to find our own balance between the mobile, nomadic life and the settled life.
This should not be interpreted as a return to agrarian past but as the next evolution of the human habitat, a blending of modern technologies with ancient wisdom. Economic activity in this context need not be limited to the production of food, water, energy and shelter. Instead, the aim should be to create places where communities can support each other to provide these basic necessities, creating a solid foundation for individuals to engage in the broader economy.
Global megatrends shaping the way we live
To further develop this concept of a circular city network it is useful to examine the many technological, social and environmental changes happening in the world and ensure that our proposal is aligned. In 2012, CSIRO prepared a report[vi] examining the global megatrends that are changing the way we live.
Resource depletion and biodiversity loss
The first identified megatrend is resource depletion, which our proposal responds to by circulating the same resources within the city system. The second is biodiversity loss which could be reversed through the previously mentioned regenerative agricultural practices.
In the 2012 report, the third megatrend—geopolitical shifts—primarily referred to the rise of China and the consequent increasing economic opportunities. CSIRO’s updated report in 2022[vii] now emphasises global instability and uncertainty. The risk of disruptions of global supply chains evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the imperative of local resilience. While this is often interpreted as national resilience, the pandemic lockdowns reinforced the importance of local communities and our immediate neighbourhoods. Optimal resilience would be achieved if we could produce, store and distribute energy, water and food in and around our local communities. Imagine a neighbourhood-scale renewable energy micro-grid, powering our homes as well as a fleet of shared electric vehicles, while also helping to circulate water. With abundant water, significant food production would be possible. A diverse, regenerative agricultural system could produce a substantial proportion of the community’s nutritional needs, while regenerating natural ecosystems. Integrated together, the food, water and energy systems would form a nature-based infrastructure ecosystem[viii].
Known for some time, the fourth identified megatrend of ageing populations has resulted in a burgeoning number of retirement villages. Yet recent research shows that the word retirement is redundant and that the concept of the retirement village should itself be retired[ix]. While people are living longer most wish to continue to lead productive and purposeful lives in ‘micro-neighbourhoods’ with diverse and inclusive infrastructure and amongst a broad age demographic. Social and community facilities would complement the food, water, energy and transport infrastructure previously mentioned. The consequent additional costs for the design, delivery and management of infrastructure and facilities can only be achieved with an appropriate business model. Kennedy and Buys (2020) suggest that micro-neighbourhood development projects could be funded by “long-term capital rather than short-term debt, for greater financial and community returns”. This aligns with proposals for embedding circular economy principles into the business case for precincts and infrastructure[x] and the design guidelines for circular economy villages[xi].
The fifth megatrend refers to the transformation of society due to the internet. An example is how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to ‘work from anywhere’ for many, so the need to concentrate work opportunities in large cities is less necessary. Online retail also diminishes the need for centralised markets, allowing producers to sell directly to consumers, neither of which need to be in a major centre. The internet, as a distributed network with no centre, enables the development of a network of human settlements with no central city.
From ownership to access
The sixth and final megatrend identifies the rising demand for services and experiences over products—a preference for access rather than ownership. Software is no longer purchased in a box but is downloaded when we sign up to a subscription service. Following the lead of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) there is increasing interest in the concept of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), which already includes ride-sharing and car-pooling. Translating this into the built environment we can imagine a circular economy micro-neighbourhood offering lifestyle-as-a-Service (LaaS). Instead of planning for dormitory suburbs, a village could be planned, designed and built to offer food, water, energy, transport, housing, work hubs and entertainment in one integrated system, funded through long-term capital. These services could be offered as a package under a single rental agreement.
Rather than centralising power, production and people in cities, a circular economy, understood in the context of the various megatrends transforming our society, would enable the dispersal of populations into a distributed network of community-scale settlements—each connected to the Country on which they are located, collectively managing the circulation of resources while simultaneously regenerating natural systems. This, in my view, is a more desirable future than the continued centralisation of populations in congested and unaffordable cities.
The potential to respond to a range of social and environmental crises is constrained by the perceived inevitability of urbanisation. Until we can let go of this assertion, it is not possible to imagine an alternative and more desirable future. We cannot plan for something unless we can first imagine it.
In doing so we can also move beyond lip-service to Indigenous knowledge systems and actually learn how to achieve sustainable development through Connection to Country. We may then also see a continent-wide distributed network of nations, each Caring for the Country on which they are located and envisioning the landscape as a network of waterholes connected by songlines[xii].
[i] Howard, Ebenezer. (1902). Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46134/46134-h/46134-h.htm
[iii] Ellen Macarthur Foundation. What is a Circular Economy. https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview
[iv] Graham, M. & Maloney, M. (2019). Caring for Country and Rights of Nature in Australia: A Conversation between Earth Jurisprudence and Aboriginal Law and Ethics. In: La Follette, C.
Maser, C, eds. Sustainability and the Rights of Nature in Practice. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press,
[v] Liaros, Steven. (2022). Becoming Indigenous: Future Cities as Networks of Waterholes connected by Songlines. In: Behrendt, Larissa, ed. Networks: Being a Part and Apart. Sydney: The University of Sydney, pp. 277-283. https://sydneyuniversitypress.com.au/products/187065
[vii] Naughtin, C., Hajkowicz, S., Schleiger, E., Bratanova, A., Cameron, A., Zamin, T. & Dutta, A. (2022). Our Future World: Global megatrends impacting the way we live over coming decades. Brisbane, Australia: CSIRO. https://www.csiro.au/-/media/D61/Our-Future-World-Megatrends-report/Our-Future-World-report-2022-2.pdf
[viii] Liaros, Steven & De Silva, Nilmini. (2022). Human settlements arranged as networks of regenerative villages with nature-based infrastructure ecosystems. Civil Engineering and Environmental Systems 39: 328-346. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10286608.2022.2128341 .
[ix] Kennedy, R. & Buys, L. (2020). Retire the retirement village – the wall and what’s behind it is so 2020. Australia: https://theconversation.com/retire-the-retirement-village-the-wall-and-whats-behind-it-is-so-2020-135953
[x] Liaros, S., Rifkin, W., Walford, S. A., Abbas, A., Baynes, T., Wright, S., Strezov, V., Gower, D. & Weiss, G. (2022). Embedding circular economy principles within precincts and infrastructure business case processes in NSW. Sydney: NSW Circular. https://circularaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/NSW-Circular-Precincts-Infrastructure-Rapid-Review-2022.pdf
[xi] Liaros, Steven. (2021). A Network of Circular Economy Villages: Design Guidelines for 21st Century Garden Cities. Built Environment Project and Asset Management 12: 349-364. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/BEPAM-01-2021-0004. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/BEPAM-01-2021-0004/full/html
[xii] Liaros, Steven. (2022). Becoming Indigenous: Future Cities as Networks of Waterholes connected by Songlines. In: Behrendt, Larissa, ed. Networks: Being a Part and Apart. Sydney: The University of Sydney, pp. 277-283. https://sydneyuniversitypress.com.au/products/187065
Dr Steven Liaros is a polymath and futurist with expertise and qualifications in civil engineering, town planning, environmental law and political economy. He is an honorary associate at The University of Sydney and director of strategic town planning consultancy, PolisPlan. Steven is co-creating a new category of land development to enable a collaborative, affordable and sustainable mode of living in a connected network of Circular Economy Villages.
Article image by Christian Barrette, “You are here”, 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).