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Circular Economy Transition in Flanders. An Urban Landscape Design Contribution.

Responding to threatening resource scarcity Flemish policy documents and public tenders increasingly mention ‘circular economy’, turning waste into resources, as a goal. Nevertheless, a clear consensus about what exactly constitutes this circular economy lacks. Going to the core of the issue, resource scarcity will not be solved with endless recycling if (population and therefore) consumption keeps growing. Instead consumption needs to decrease. Increasingly, circular economy research scholars emphasize that endless growth is unsustainable and that circular economy requires a paradigm shift critically assessing who owns, manages, distributes and benefits from natural resources.Transition and sustainability sciences have developed a number of frameworks for (circularity) transitions, however they call for more place specific, multi-scalar transdisciplinary approaches. Additionally, historians critique sustainability and transition discourses for ignoring traditions of circular thinking and practice.

This urban landscape design research explores ‘learning by doing’ how circular economy can be incorporated in urban landscape design practice and vice versa, how urban landscape design practice can contribute to it. It considers working with site specific available wasted resources as well as with underused or abandoned spaces and infrastructures as a foundation for a circular economy reducing pressure on natural resources. As such this research contributes to the search for place specific transition methods for circular economy. It interprets, tests and evaluates urban landscape design instruments to design and plan multi-dimensional and place specific circular territories. It combines a variety of methods such as action research, desktop research, and semi-structured interviews. Iterative research through design in Antwerp’s twentieth century belt and Central Limburg’s former coal mining area approaches circularity as an essentially territorial question addressing the interdependency between urbanization and resources.

This book consists of three parts: research about design, research through design and research for design. Part I, research about design, develops a framework for understanding differences between circular city spatializations. Firstly, chapter one names four agendas for circularity, originating in different sustainability framings. The first two agendas, to optimize flows and to innovate with flows, are rather technological. Simply put they are essentially quantitative approaches increasing material flow efficiency through technology or new business models. The other two agendas, contextualize flows and democratize flows, tap into urban metabolism’s emancipatory potential. They engage with contextual complexities and power imbalances related to how material flows support daily life.

Chapter one’s analysis leads to the hypothesis that urban landscape design could play a crucial role to contextualize circularity questions and to find new balances between different circularity agendas. Chapter two investigates six urban design studies in the case study area, northeast Flanders. It identifies and names concrete process results supporting circularity transition.

Part II explores how urban landscape design can integrate circularity agendas adopting research through design. It reports on design investigations on future infrastructural frameworks for territorial circularity in Antwerp and Central Limburg, anchored in contextual notions of history, actors, networks and hinterlands. Chapter three focuses on historic interplays between waste flows and urban development at the eve of Antwerp’s circularity transition. Chapter four reconstructs spatial histories of the Antwerp ruien and ring road. It conceptualizes metabolic infrastructures potentially supporting future circular material flows while contributing to natural systems restoration such as recharging the ground water table. Chapter five maps historic interplays between Central Limburg’s urbanization patterns and infrastructural networks as a starting point to design contemporary connections with its regenerative resource landscape. Chapter six presents two co-productive design investigations revealing implicit ecologies such as biodiverse bufferzones as a basis for circular industry park transformations. They are inscribed in innovative planning and process frameworks supporting the Flemish Government’s transition vision for 2050.

Part III, research for design, distills urban landscape design project and process instruments adopted in part II’s design investigations to support territorial circularity transition. Chapter seven focuses on how project instruments such as resource cartographies, metabolic transects, circular resource sheds and dynamic flow agent diagrams spatialize and contextualize circularity as a basis to reinterpret the territory’s resourcefulness. Chapter eight unpacks different co-productive design formats adopted in two design investigations.

The afterword concludes with lessons for place-based circularity transition in Flanders, potential roles for urban landscape design in territorial circularity transition and takeaways for public authorities aiming for territorial circularity. Furthermore it proposes a research agenda for urban landscape design bridging disciplines and actors in circularity transition.

Date:1 Jul 2014 →  31 Oct 2019
Keywords:circular economy, transition, systemic design, urban landscape design, Flanders, infrastructure
Disciplines:Architectural design, Urban and regional design
Project type:PhD project