4.1.1. Objectivist versus Constructivist
Reburg and Masdar City clearly exemplify an objectivist worldview that is focusing on performance. Both of the projects start from a practically clean slate. Both of the cities are detached from any existing urban fabric, virtual in the case of Reburg, and physical in the case of Masdar City.
Reburg’s goal is to accelerate circular economy through provocative scenarios for circular manufacturing and entrepreneurship. Within the boundaries of this question, Pantopicon’s scenario planners envisioned urban technology and business solutions, inspired by global trends in circular economy innovations. This method to provoke out-of-the-box thinking could be effective when trying to spatially imagine circular economy from the agency perspective, addressing municipalities, businesses, and all sorts of organizations. However, Reburg’s website seems to suggest that a circular city is simply the sum of circular economies in the city and appears as an attempt to build coherence into the ‘Circularity Fair’ of technological available and economical imaginable instruments. As a technocratic playing field for smart innovators and entrepreneurs, Reburg seemingly ignores any dimension outside professional urban life. This is surprising, since Reburg’s commissioner Plan C represents multiple societal voices, such as transition network midfield, envisioning social equity, profound democracy, society-embedded economy, and ecological equilibrium between nature and humans [58
]. These values hardly seem to be reflected in the Reburg imaginaries. Advancing Reburg images as the spatialization of a social and ecological ‘circular Flanders’ as in their Betergem 2038
] workshops therefore appears to be rather contradictory. This contradiction raises the question whether scenario planning’s imaginaries, as adopted in this case, are rather literal guiding images giving a certain sense to individual operations it tries to simulate.
The third case study, Masdar City, embodies sustainability mostly from a techno-infrastructural perspective, using the opportunity of a new ecological district to experiment with the newest technologies supporting industrial symbiosis and circular economy. The team that was led by architect Norman Foster developed a qualitative spatial scheme combining traditional climatic urban design and building techniques with high-end technology. Focusing on resource efficiency and closing resource loops, this circular city approach essentially draws from industrial ecology; the disciplinary field optimizing resource flows between buildings in a given area. However, adopting industrial ecology in urban contexts has been critiqued for ignoring the interdependencies between resource flows and their hinterlands and for ignoring the relevant scales and actors that are related to these resource flows. [60
], This critique indeed resonates with Masdar City’s current withdrawal of its circularity goals when considering the city in isolation [54
]. Even though the idea behind Masdar City as the world’s first circular city can be considered to be revolutionary in Abu Dhabi’s context of energy and materials engorging skyscrapers and developments, its conception in the middle of the desert and therefore the consumption of an entirely new piece of land at distance from existing amenities, can hardly be considered as ‘circular’. Masdar City’s high-end infrastructures and technologies might make its concept reproducible in any other country across the globe [61
], yet recent evaluations indicate that it is lacking essential urban dimensions to become a successful urban realm [54
]. Besides Masdar City’s physical isolation, its conception of a city as a stable or fixed model, implementable ex novo, prevents Masdar City from gradually gaining a critical mass that allows integration and synergies as an ever evolving organism.
To summarize, Masdar City and Reburg embody objectivist sustainability framings:
Adopting techno-centric views, emphasizing measures and flows in concepts such as ‘zero waste’, ‘carbon neutrality’, or ‘circular economy’.
Both cities are ‘new’, meaning they do not take into account any existing contextual parameters.
This makes them generic and reproducible models for circularity.
Viewing circular economy from the production and consumption system perspective, they privilege technological and economic dimensions and consider social and environmental dimensions as a result of those.
They represent circularity coherences in a certain moment, an optimal convergence of technology and economics in Reburg’s case, and the application of an ideal ‘model’ in Masdar City’s case. Proposing utopic visions of circularity at a fixed moment in time, they avoid the question of how existing urban fabrics can transition to circularity and become more resilient.
The images focus on circularity as a product or result that is ‘finished’ or closed. As synchronic imaginaries, they ignore cities’ temporal dimension, the city as process.
From systems ecologists, such as Odum in 1983 [62
], over the 1960s Japanese Metabolism movement, cities have indeed been recognized as organisms [63
] or ecologies [64
] that develop and continuously redevelop. They are in themselves while progressing and inherently going through cycles of investment and reinvestment, development and redevelopment. Cyclic processes are in city development’s nature, and it is exactly these processes supporting circularity drivers that Reburg and Masdar City lack.
The two remaining cases, R-urban and Living Breakwaters, exemplify a constructivist worldview. Both projects engage with social and cultural dimensions in existing urban fabrics and act from within these urban fabrics, taking an activist or emancipatory stance. The R-urban strategy captures existing community capacity and energy as well as locally available material resources. R-urban considers the process to reach circularity, while building resilient communities is more important than the final result. In R-urban circularity reframes resources in local scale short circuits as ‘commons’, as an alternative sociopolitical system that is inclusive, ecological and post-growth. R-urban inscribes itself in the disciplinary field of political ecology, denouncing reigning capitalist sociotechnical regimes by a bottom-up alternative proposal considering local materials resources as ‘commons’. Opposing to existing political contexts, R-urban is essentially an activist spatial practice, not compromising on the values of solidarity and resilience that are written down in its charter. Even though initially approved by the municipality, R-urban’s physical artefacts were eradicated from Colombes in favor of a new parking lot. This indicates that the vision might never have truly aligned with official policies. Nevertheless, seeds of an alternative, inclusive, and resource-conscious way to inhabit the world and to share its resources were planted within the involved community actors and might reappear as offshoots of this radical initiative.
Finally, Living Breakwaters approaches circularity in a holistic way, interweaving risk reduction with ecology and culture. The imaginary (Figure 5
) articulates a multi-scalar understanding of the region’s natural systems in relation to human activities. This understanding forms the basis for a strategy addressing risk reduction, habitat creation, and social resilience. Working with nature’s capacities to reduce storm surge and regenerate coastal ecosystems, the project reduces the material resources that are required to construct infrastructures. The imaginary functions as a guiding image for site-specific post-disaster process support. Scapestudio “reconceives urban landscape design as an activist practice that unites social and ecological systems to sustainably remake our cities” [64
]. Evaluating from the project continuity and ongoing side projects, Living Breakwaters indeed embeds a proposal for coastal resiliency in its specific spatial, cultural, social, and ecological context, interconnecting flows and spaces. As such, Living Breakwaters embodies a multi-scalar, place-specific, and context-based interpretation of circularity, working with available material and situational assets and resources connecting ecosystems across scales.
Living Breakwaters and R-urban both emphasize ‘circular’ resilience as a close relationship between citizens, the territories that they inhabit, and the resources that they consume and produce. In summary:
Both representations articulate emancipatory political positions, acting from within the site to achieve radical change. In a way acting from within the site means setting up a process that is starting from (the critique of) the existing, a dialectic between the existing and needed. R-urban hereby explicitly emphasizes the need to act against reigning capitalist sociotechnical regimes in any European city and community, drastically changing the way that resource flows are governed. Living Breakwaters, on the other hand, reimagines a concrete site and situation, Staten Island’s post-disaster coastal area.
Both of the projects envision dramatic societal change in the way resource flows, communities, and spaces are interacting. Even though both AAA and Scapestudio label themselves as ‘activist’ spatial practices, R-urban expresses a more radical societal critique than Living Breakwaters, and explicitly constructs alternatives for reigning regimes initiating a post-growth society from the margin. Living Breakwaters, on the other hand, works with transformative powers within existing institutions in a more consensus-driven and pragmatic practice. It tries to shift spatial practices and intergovernmental collaborations from within, explicitly engaging as many actors and stakeholders as possible to achieve resilience, making use of available situational and material resources that it can capture. The continuous reception and appropriation of Living Breakwaters on both community as well as local, state, and federal level since 2013, seem to indicate successful and supported long-term project engagements.
Both of the projects privilege social, ecological, and cultural dimensions, and consider technology and economy as secondary driving forces.
The images are dialectic, building new syntheses through images as a method of intellectual investigation supporting dialogue.
In conclusion, objectivism and constructivism represent two essentially opposing circularity sustainability framings, which are more or less materialized in the four studied imaginaries. On the objectivist end of the spectrum, Reburg and Masdar City spatialize a technology and entrepreneurial ‘applied’ circular economy. In Reburg’s case, this could be interpreted as a neoliberal economy underpinning growth, putting circularity in the hands of businesses. Masdar City, on the other hand, is a state-driven initiative, yet Cugurullo, who studied Masdar City’s development policy context, evaluated Masdar City as “urban environmentalism almost exclusively in economic terms” and “a high-tech urban development informed by market analysis rather than ecological studies” [65
]. Where Masdar City and Reburg seem to focus on maximally ‘recycling’ materials in a growing economy, r-urban and Living Breakwaters seem to approach circularity from the perspective of ‘reducing’ resource consumption. R-urban emphasizes resource sobriety by disconnecting material flows from capitalist market mechanisms and Living Breakwaters partially avoids land and materials consumption, making use of nature’s regenerative capacities and the available situational resources. As Vandenbroeck notes, with the shift from objectivism to constructivism comes a critique that is drawing attention to space’s political character. Rather than a neutral canvas, space becomes a scene exposing uneven power relations [34
]. From the constructivist side, R-urban and Living Breakwaters consider ‘closing resource cycles’ as an opportunity to shift to a city of sharing, empathy, and cooperation. As such, they position themselves against reigning neoliberal planning agendas, the most explicitly in R-urban’s case. The studied ‘constructivist’ imaginaries essentially support an emancipatory and open development process, recognizing becoming and developing as a part of this process. From the practical viewpoint of designing urban circularity, Masdar City and Reburg design circular material flows themselves, making abstraction of the existing context. On the other hand, R-Urban and Living Breakwaters design ‘with’ circular material flows, acknowledging the existing context and integrating political stances [36