Metabolic pioneers urban and regional approaches for Circular Economy

Published on the 12th of December 2016

Metabolic has been pioneering an approach to urban and regional metabolism analysis that has resulted in our own Circular City and Circular Region models.

These translate how circular economy objectives should be applied in urban and regional economic development, and allow us to identify where the biggest opportunities are for a shift to circularity. Here, we outline a number of our recent projects that are pushing the understanding of urban and regional metabolism in exciting, new directions.

A Circular Economy is one that is “regenerative and waste-free by design.” In a Circular Economy, materials are cycled at high quality, all energy is derived from renewable or otherwise sustainable sources, and natural and human capital are structurally supported rather than degraded through economic activities.

Though it may appear that the primary focus of this philosophy is on material recycling and an energy transition, achieving a Circular Economy requires systemic redesign of our modern industrial system with a great deal of focus on how it relates to both ecological and human capital.

As human impact on the environment accelerates, cities and urban areas have come into sharp focus as a key intervention point for change, to speed the transition to this circular economy. Cities specifically occupy only 3% of global land surface, but consume 75% of global resources and produce 60 – 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions (United Nations Development Programme statistics). Large urban areas must transition from their status as “global resource drains” to circular, biobased, smart, productive, ecologically-and socially-integrated hubs.

Our approach

Metabolism analysis is an academic process for understanding resource flows. This involves looking at all in-flows by type, then seeing how they are transformed (i.e. in an urban area or region) and turned into outputs. At Metabolic, we don’t just look at physical flows but intangibles like data, people, and money. This provides us with deeper dimensions. It allows us to identify the biggest losses of values – where the biggest up and downstream impacts are – and gives us an overview of where the urban system is malfunctioning. By doing this, we can clearly see the biggest areas for innovating, such as creating new local business models.

Identifying points and levers for change from this analysis is why we do the work, as is using this demonstration of the urban flow as a way to engage local stakeholders to co-produce solutions. One very important outcome is therefore to identify where local entrepreneurs can develop new projects or where they are already working on relevant projects, and then create regional networks to connect them, to take forward the baton and to realise this vision for the circular economy.


Our work on urban metabolism started at Buiksloterham, a neighbourhood near our offices in the north of Amsterdam. It is in a unique position to serve as both a living test bed and catalyst for Amsterdam’s broader transition to becoming a circular city due to having many empty plots. Metabolic developed a vision and ambition report ‘Circular Buiksloterham’ (you can view here), which identified a number of opportunities and provided frameworks that will act as a template for the area for years to come.

Within the neighbourhood, Metabolic helped to establish De Ceuvel three years ago. This sustainable business park and community space is an important showcase and research center for applied sustainability and scalable solutions. It brings alternative methods of urban resource provision to life and inspires thousands of visitors every year. At de Ceuvel we were able to put a lot of the theory about closing urban resource flows into practice and test a lot of our assumptions about the feasibility of these efforts. This included using mostly recycled materials in the construction of the site, treating all wastewater and organic waste locally, and designing smart energy systems that are powered by renewable energy to the greatest extent possible.

Some 500 meters west of De Ceuvel will lie Schoonschip, a sustainable, floating residential development of 46 households. Building starts in early 2017. It represents a groundbreaking concept for urban living that pushes the boundaries of community governance, technology, architecture and construction. The site will harvest ambient water and energy for its use, cycle nutrients, and create an environment that is supportive of biodiversity, human health and wellbeing. To achieve this, Schoonschip is governed by a comprehensive Sustainability Masterplan – that has been developed by Metabolic – and through innovations in technology, with our spin-off company Spectral managing the smart energy provisions. Thanks to a European grant through the ERA-Net Subsidy, Schoonschip will have one of the world’s most advanced smart grids that will be used as a testing facility for optimizing energy flows between appliances, batteries, and the grid.

One of the successes of Buiksloterham is that in the couple of years since the study, the community has created a whole drive behind this. In addition to the two projects we have helped to create, others are starting up within the framework we provided, from large scale construction projects to changes in waste management processes. Waternet – a water company that looks at the whole water cycle – started work with us as a partner for De Ceuvel and, partly as a result of our joint work in Buiksloterham, is now building a new wastewater treatment centre for Amsterdam Noord. This innovative facility will treat waste water and extract nutrients for reuse.

The best news is that the high-level performance ambitions for Buiksloterham could apply to most urban developments worldwide. You can find out more about what the neighbourhood is doing here.


Our work on Buiksloterham led to work in partnership with Urgenda in Friesland, a province in the northwest of the Netherlands. Our study there revealed key themes within which to focus efforts around the circular economy and empowered a whole community – led by the Circular Friesland Association – to take forward the ideas. Friesland is now demonstrating that the circular economy is not just a concept but a tangible economy in action, which allows companies to make a profit and create jobs. Energy neutral houses are being built, products are being grown on saline soil, and household appliances are being made from recycled plastic, as well as a range of other major projects. Friesland is now regarded as a leading example of circular economy innovation in the Netherlands.

You can read our Friesland report here.

To find out more about Circular Friesland go here.

As well as Buiksloterham and Friesland, we have recently been working on a range of new projects that are also designed to produce long-standing and impactful results in time.

Groene Hart

In February of this year, we started work on the ‘Groene Hart’ (the Green Heart), a rural region in the centre of the Netherlands, close to the Randstad. The study was commissioned by Rabobank, the Province of South Holland and Heineken Netherlands. Our analysis found great opportunities for improving agriculture, transport, construction and manufacturing, as well as discovering how the region can transition to fully renewable energy. Our work not only included immediate recommendations for actions that governments, businesses and individuals can take, we also developed a cluster of entrepreneurs who can help lead the move towards circularity. Rabobank selected 15 companies and over the past six months we have helped them to develop their circular business cases, helping them to bring their ideas forward. The final workshop took place on 28th November but the impact of our work is only just starting.

You can read the full report here (in Dutch).


Nijmegen is a city in the Dutch province of Gelderland. We were tasked with developing a strategy for the city of Nijmegen and 6 other municipalities in the region to become more circular, and present an implementation plan for speeding up the transition to a circular regional economy. In our analysis, we looked at material flows through four economically-significant sectors – healthcare, manufacturing, waste processing, and construction. This enabled us to recommend 9 iconic projects that could help implement a circular approach. Rather than create a new central organisation, our analysis of the region led to an implementation programme including a focus on using the resources and connections of existing networks to create knowledge centres, and including providing ideas for initial projects these centres could take forward. Several local networks are now being mobilised and we will be publishing our report on this work soon.


The wider provincial government then asked us to explore how policy on circularity can help stimulate the economy. As they had already conducted a study of bio-based materials, our work was to complement this with analysis of the building and manufacturing industries to explore circular economy opportunities within tech cycles. The province has taken our findings and recommendations as the basis for their own circular vision and strategy.


The Delfland water board, responsible for water management across the municipalities of Delft, Midden-Delfland and The Hague, in South Holland, has a goal of self-sufficiency and circularity but called in Metabolic as they didn’t know where within this ambition to start their focus. Partnering with the long-established engineering firm Witteveen+Bos, we conducted material flow analysis of the current state of water, energy and materials, which allowed us to identify key hotspots for circularity and produce an indicator framework for initial improvements. This was produced visually, easily allowing them to share these plans with their wide network of partners. We will soon start work on mapping how we can apply systems thinking to create a full strategy for circularity for Delfland. This work is now leading us to discuss how we can replicate this approach with other waterboards across the Netherlands.


Ijmond, a region in North Holland, invited us to develop a vision and strategy for three municipalities – Velzen, Beverwijk and Heemskerk – on how they can contribute to the circular economy and especially how they can encourage and support entrepreneurs in the region to become more sustainable. We analysed the waste flows from seven industrial parks in the region and conducted material flow analysis of three important economic sectors – fisheries, metals, (production and recycling), and transport and logistics. Preliminary results have been presented at a conference in Ijmond on the 8th of December, and will be further developed in December and January.

Future success

Urban metabolic patterns are determined by a combination of (1) the physical needs of a region and its infrastructure, (2) the opportunities and limitations that the natural and geo-physical environment poses to the provision of these needs, and (3) the socio-economic and political processes and power structures. These factors are interrelated, influence each other, and cannot be separated. To realize a circular urban metabolism, it is imperative that urban planners address each of these factors. Successful urban metabolism requires support from all stakeholders though: from residents to research institutes, utilities to developers. Political support and commitment for the ambitions will create a guiding framework for this.

At Metabolic, we are not only working with regions across the Netherlands but also gearing up to implement this knowledge in countries from Taiwan to Argentina that understand the benefits of transitioning towards zero-waste economies. If you’d like to work with us, or want to know more about urban metabolism, we’d love to hear from you.

You can also email Gerard Roemers if you’d like to speak about any aspect of our Urban and Regional Metabolism work.

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