Future cities – Could COVID be the tipping point for the circular economy?

Future cities – Could COVID be the tipping point for the circular economy?

Contributor: Leanne Weekes, Senior Associate – MinterEllison

A circular economy aims to redefine traditional notions of growth by abandoning typical make, use, dispose behaviours. It represents a conscientious move away from mass consumption of finite natural resources towards re-use and recycling with a focus on positive society-wide benefits.

COVID-19 has changed the wants and needs of our cities’ occupants. Those changes have occurred arguably more rapidly than most changes our cities have encountered in recent times. Irrespective of the extent to which those changes are positive or negative, temporary or sustained, remains to be seen but what is clear is that people are thinking about our cities through a different lens (and will be for some time to come).

So, whilst the pandemic endures, at this critical juncture in the lifecycles of our cities, could circular economy principles be applied to rebuild economic, natural and social capital?

Public health concerns, government interventions, technological advances and societal trends are changing what occupants want and need from the physical places comprising our cities – their residences, workplaces, shops, and recreational venues including public open spaces. And these changes come at a time when there are widespread calls for urgent action on climate change and a widely recognised need to increase support for more vulnerable members of our society.

The collision of all of these factors means the risk profile for investing in real estate has fundamentally changed and that could result in change to the physical form of our cities. Traditional assets may no longer have the resilience investors require; not only to meet their income targets over the longer term, but also to meet the levels of corporate social responsibility consumers now demand.

Can our city makers and shapers look beyond just the built form and apply circular economy principles to real estate more broadly? Minimising waste and pollution, keeping assets in use beyond what would have formerly been their ‘natural lives’, helping to regenerate natural resources and address climate concerns.

Think about a shift to a more dynamic model, one that no longer sees places as having a static use. Enabling places, and the occupants who use them, to better capitalise on the opportunity to adapt and evolve.

What if developers and investors no longer had to ‘lock in’ a single use for the foreseeable life of an asset?  What if they could design places and built form to function more dynamically and flexibly over time, adapting to change seamlessly, offering new revenue streams or responsible outcomes over time? Could that hold the potential to increase more than just the monetary value of the asset, but also its more intangible social worth?

Instead of simply thinking about the built form alone (building and demolishing sustainably by utilising practices such as recycling and sourcing environmentally responsible materials), we need to start to think about all physical components of our cities being dynamic and flexible, with the aim to eliminate the need to demolish and rebuild altogether.

What would be needed to promote circular economy principles as a key component for the recovery and future resilience of our cities? Who leads – the policy makers, the innovators, or the consumers? Is it time to look at government regulation and policy frameworks including the adaptability of the planning regime? How could government and private enterprise could collaborate to unlock circular investment opportunities? How can we all innovate and educate?

In the words of Malcom Gladwell, the tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. Could this juncture, with the adaptive economy thriving, be just that moment for our cities and the circular economy?

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