EU research meets local case studies – Making sense of theoretical complexity in circularity practices

What do EU research findings have in common with locally adapted circularity strategies? They are both integral parts of TU Delft’s latest online course supporting sustainable regional development – Spatial Circularity Strategies for Sustainable Regional Development – a welcomed addition to the portfolio and a well-received answer to the needs of sector professionals.

“Widespread principles for circular city (regional) planning often reduce the challenge to the redesign of value chains. They primarily aim to reduce waste and pollution and to keep resources and materials in loops as long as possible” says Alexander Wandl, Associate Professor at the Section of Environmental Technology and Design, Department of Urbanism (Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment) and course initiator. “This approach, however, ignores the fact that the transition also has a spatial aspect to consider”, he explains, “Future circular cities and regions will look vastly different from our contemporary linear built environment, and will need different forms of infrastructure, buildings, open spaces, urban configurations and relations between the city and the countryside”. 

To help people fill this gap, Wandl, who together with Lei Qu and others has been teaching campus students how to include spatial dimension in the operationalization of circularity (see earlier article), recognized the need to also provide education specifically tailored to the challenges faced by industry professionals – by those in the sector who wish to bring their knowledge up to date with the latest research and play a leading role in the circularity transition of cities and regions.

“There was a call by many practitioners for a course that brought the latest theoretical knowledge together with real-life applicability, a course whereby they could access the principles as well as gain concrete tools to relate theory to their own cases” continues Lei Qu, Assistant Professor of Spatial Planning and Strategy, “and this what we developed the new online course Spatial Circularity Strategies for Sustainable Regional Development to deliver”.

In this course, participants gain knowledge of the circular economy in general and the specifics that apply at the regional level. They learn how to identify and develop spatial strategies that stimulate the circular economy in a region, to understand their multi-disciplinary and multi-scalar nature, and to examine how these strategies conform to regional spatial and circularity strategies and the correlated actors.

Making sense of theoretical complexity – EU research findings

The course team – led by Wandl and comprising Lei Qu, Arjan van Timmeren, Mariette Overschie and teaching assistants Matthew Roberts and Oviya Elango used a combination of examples from frontrunner cities and regions, such as the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, South-Holland, London and Copenhagen. To this, it added student work from their Urbanism Master courses and the latest research from two EU-funded projects: REPAiR (REsource Management in Peri-urban Areas), and CINDERELA, a collaboration between 10 metropolitan regions across Europe. For example, within the REPAiR project, 60 researchers and stakeholders from six European cities – Amsterdam, Gent, Hamburg, Naples Lodz, and Pecs – developed co-creative methods and tools to establish around 100 eco-innovative solutions (available on an open platform): these include regional spatial development and the use of waste as a resource to push the circularity transition further. The overall project results are shown in an online exhibition.

The matching of academic knowledge with the latest research findings from current projects on the ground produced that added-value mix of theory and practice that sector professionals had been looking for. It gave them a comprehensive overview of diverse ways of tackling the circularity transition whilst also showing the diversity in approaches. It further helped them to benchmark the route of a city and region along the transition from linear to circular in comparison to other regions as a means of looking for opportunities for knowledge transfer. In the words of one of the many testimonials received from participants:

“As someone with a previous background on circular economy, the course Spatial Circularity Strategies helped me to revisit in detail the theories and tools regarding circular economy and systemic design. The continuous display of existing cases and practices was especially interesting to break down and make room for a ‘spatial’ interpretation on the theoretical complexity. With this structure, the course reinforces the need to be critical on past practices and to continue pushing towards a transition process, by testing, monitoring and evaluating.” (Felipe Chaves Gonzalez, TU Delft Urbanism alumnus and adjunct expert – architect and urbanist at BUUR Part of Sweco) 

“Even the frontrunners are struggling with the integration of circularity strategies and spatial development. That is why including examples from the ground – both by our Master students and from the EU research projects – was a great addition to help show how such integration could take shape”, comments Wandl. “We designed the course to be very much hands-on and we encouraged learners to also use their own city/regions as test cases. If they were not confident or lacked data from their region, we prepared a Dutch reference case they could use to still be able to directly put into practice the skills acquired in the course – however, none of the learners chose to take up this option: they all contributed cases from their own experience”.

Participation from the four corners of the world

Just in its first run, the course attracted more than the maximum allowed number of participants (25) and included professionals involved in the circularity transition from all around the world – quite literally, the only continent not represented was Antarctica!

The diversity of the learners' professional and personal backgrounds was wide, ranging from spatial planners to environmental engineers, and from human geographers to Circular Economy project managers. Such diversity contributed greatly to the creation of a constructive and interdisciplinary mentality within the course. “None of the learners has all of the skills, that is why we bring them together!" says Qu. “Having such a diverse group is really of great value, especially when it comes to sharing and commenting on each other's work – something they particularly appreciated in addition to the personalized feedback they would receive from us instructors”, adds Wandl.

This acknowledgment is echoed in the comments by another participant: “The course was very insightful and pushed me to think about spatial relationships with a new perspective. It was highly interactive with real projects and pressing issues, and the instructors were very involved in the students’ work and provided personalized and detailed feedback and insights.” (Dima Al Srouri, Urban Planning & Sustainable Development Specialist M.Sc. PMP PQP).

Visualisation of the geographical spread of case studies brought by course participants.

Research meets local case studies

The variety of cases brought by the participants was huge and thus difficult to categorize; moreover, given the course duration and hence the limited time available, participants were asked to focus on a particular aspect/sector (for example starting from certain material flows such as water, agriculture/farming, or construction) rather than on creating a full vision and strategy for an entirely circular region – although they were given the instruments to be able to do so post-course.

Of particular interest were the different approaches and end results produced by participants who worked on circularising the same focus aspect/sector. Such case studies strongly highlighted how physical, political, and social context play as significant a role as any technical solution in defining an end vision. 

Wandl explains: “Many of the regions the learners worked on are somehow stuck in a reuse-economy thinking. That is, they aim to find ways to use waste as a resource instead of thinking about redesigning processes and spaces that help to narrow, slow and close loops. It was thus good to see that several of the learners took this further step, going from re-using to circular in their proposals.”

 The regional circularity transition is a broad topic involving different actors and issues of scale, graphic presentation, co-creation and even forced collaboration. Several of these aspects were represented in the course and in the many case studies.

“We had very interesting cases brought by learners, covering examples from all over the world”, Qu continues, “These cases showed clear differences in terms of planning systems and stages in the circular transition, as well as in the ‘sizes’ of the study cases themselves. What we used in our teaching were mainly experiences from the Dutch and European context and giving learners the opportunity to bring their own local experiences to the table and get expert feedback on their work made for an enriching experience for the whole group, including us instructors. More in general, it also added to the overall discourse on spatial circularity and sustainable development for the future. Furthermore, it helps learners to critically reflect on the specific conditions of their own region and accordingly apply the concepts and tools we equipped them with.”

The figure above shows an example of a case study by a course participant – Cristina Ramos Caceres –and the application of tools taught in the course. It regards the integration of data centres in a synergetic way, cascading electricity, heat and cold, in the spatial development of Lulea Sweden. An integrated flow map showing sinks and source, potentials symbiosis and related infrastructure (top right). Typology of spatial integration of data centres with other functions, like outdoor swimming, steel production and urban farming (top left), and a systemic section combining flow relations with different spatial conditions and qualities (bottom). 

Tools and methods – from course to practice

The course emphasizes an integrated approach, linking circular transition with spatial development strategies. In line with weekly input and workflow and true to its aim of supporting applicability in practice, learners are given tools and methods that can be used for circularity transition assessment, AS-MFA (Activity-based Spatial Material Flow Analysis, using Systemic Diagram, Systemic Section and Integrated Mapping), systemic design and narrative building. 

Some of the tools were developed within the REPAiR project, for example the circularity transition tool to assess region’s pathway towards circularity. Tested in stakeholder workshops in six European regions, it provides an integrative approach to grasp the complexity of the challenge of a transition towards a Circular Economy, and it is extremely helpful in steering the discussion among involved stakeholders. Such a tool met with an enthusiastic reception by many of the participants, who after the course will be able to use it in workshops with their own relevant stakeholders.

Participants learn to conduct activity-based spatial material flow analyses and to make use of systemic diagrams and systemic sections. Through these they can relate material flows to specific locations and their spatial qualities, and by interrelating these with the involved stakeholders within the material value-web, learners can analyse current situations and propose alternative pathways.

Additionally, the course introduces learners to the Circular Benchmarking Tool, which brings together experts and actors from different disciplines to assess the status of a region on its way towards higher circularity, thereby breaking down disciplinary silos.

Fostering engagement

The sharing of case studies and the opportunity to analyse these with peers, in addition to receiving expert feedback from the course team, made for lively discussions and good participation in the course forum. In the latter, participants could engage with each other on a weekly basis to review mini-assignments and to clarify questions on course content or quickly solve technical issues. Additionally, learners completed their assignments on the Miro platform, thus in a single shared environment, where they could take advantage of looking at each other’s work for reference.

Most significantly from an ‘engagement’ perspective, the course team ran three live online sessions, which were well attended and where conversation sparked ideas and further discussion amongst the learner group and with the instructors.

What next?

The course team is intent on authoring a joint article on lifelong learning and furthering knowledge acquisition in planning for the circularity transition in the field of the circular built environment. It is also considering using the teaching materials for blended learning in some of the Urbanism Master courses, for example in the Master course Spatial Strategies for the Global Metropolis, starting in Spring 2022 and focusing on stimulating the transition of a Dutch region towards a circular economy through region-specific design. 

More information

The next run of Spatial Circularity Strategies for Sustainable Regional Development starts on 5 October 2022. For more information, visit the course page or register your interest by emailing