Growing the Circular Cities Movement Through Cultivating Creative Climate Communication

“Circular City” poem by Jeevan Bhagwat, ECJF Poet in Residence

For Canada’s inaugural Circular Economy Month this October 2022, I’m repurposing and updating my blog post about circular cities and creative climate communication, originally published in August 2021. Speaking of creative climate communication, I invite you to check out last week’s blog post celebrating Canada’s 21st Waste Reduction Week (October 17th-October 23rd) where I introduced a new 3Rs Workout!

What’s in a Title?: Reflecting on Literal and Figurative Uses of Language

“Could cities save our planet?” This question was the original working title of this blog post, inspired by architect William McDonough’s article entitled “How Cities Could Save Us” in the Scientific American Special Edition on Climate Change, Summer 2020. Initially, I liked the anthropomorphism in both titles, the idea that cities, like Toronto where I live, could be climate action champions; however, I wasn’t satisfied with the reductionism implied in separating cities out from the complex ecological systems within which they are integrated.

My working title then became “Growing the circular cities movement through cultivating creative climate communication”. The natural systems metaphor in this title was also inspired by McDonough’s article since he writes about how in circular cities “buildings operate like trees…” (2020). This new title also felt more satisfying because it suggests that cities are interconnected regionally and globally, and they can influence one another by positive example.

But why discuss the working titles for this blog post? Because I have an interest in creative climate communication. Being explicit about considering the merits of alternative titles provides an example of reflecting on the literal and figurative uses of language and how we might better communicate with the intention of educating and engaging our readers. Hence the title I settled on, which also reflects my intention to highlight how the City of Toronto is incorporating creativity, and could do so even more, to (better) communicate about how it is “working towards a circular economy”. But before this discussion, I want to acknowledge the influence of McDonough’s writing on my own interest in learning about circular cities.   

William McDonough on Circular Cities

When it comes to the climate crisis, cities tend to conjure up images of places where unsustainable activities produce inordinate quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, use and degrade vast quantities of water, and generate mountains of waste including food waste.

Cities have historically been designed for linear flow of resources, and this is largely the current situation even as cities focus on efficiency to reduce air pollution, water pollution and waste. But change is taking root with the growth of the circular cities movement that recognizes the urgent need to redesign the basic elements of fast-growing cities to do “more good, not just less bad.” (McDonough, 2020). Canada’s inaugural Circular Economy Month this October 2022 is an example of the growth of circularity across the country.

In his article “How Cities Could Save Us”, architect William McDonough argues that by reimagining and redesigning our cities and their relationships to surrounding rural areas to model natural systems “we will be forging a new geography of hope.” (2020).

McDonough describes how “biological nutrients” (such as food and wood) and “technical nutrients” (such as metals and plastics), and the products we make from them, should “flow perpetually in regenerative, cradle-to-cradle cycles of birth, decay and rebirth”. In circular cities, wastes become “food” / resources. Using a living systems analogy, McDonough also describes how circular or “positive” cities maximize the use of energy from the sun and reflect the diversity of healthy ecosystems by attending carefully to local ecologies and natural and cultural histories. For inspirational models, he refers to the examples of the award-winning Park 20/20 development in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands, where building are “acting as a single living organism”, as well as Curitiba, Brazil, which has been transformed to a live-work design (2020).

When I was introduced to the circular city concept through this article by McDonough, I was inspired to research what the City of Toronto is doing regarding this model for addressing the climate crisis and a Just Transition. McDonough’s article was inspiring, even moving, because of his writing style. He uses both technical and boldly figurative language. Take the example of the concluding paragraph from his article, which I was inspired to excerpt and post as a graphic on my Embodied Climate Justice Fitness (ECJF) website to give some context for why I have chosen to amplify the necessity for climate action in cities. His references to the “character” and even “spirit” of cities and his optimism in “forging a new geography of hope” are poetic expressions of a positive and creative vision for climate action in urban areas. My graphic is included below. McDonough’s article was also the inspiration for ECJF Poet in Residence Jeevan Bhagwat’s poem “Circular City” at the top of this blog post.

Inspiring quote about circular cities by architect William McDonough

The City of Toronto on “Working Towards a Circular Economy”

This section of my blog provides a constructive critique of the City of Toronto’s efforts to communicate about its involvement in supporting circularity. I mainly limit my critique to a focus on its communication about local initiatives and programs for engaging Toronto’s residents in the City’s circular economy.

Here’s some of what I have learned from the City of Toronto’s website on Working Towards a Circular Economy:

  • The City of Toronto is working towards an aspirational goal of zero waste and aims to be the first Circular City in Ontario as part of its Long Term Waste Management Strategy.
  • The City explains that the circular economy “…aims to reduce waste and maximize resources by moving away from the linear take-make-and-dispose approach to a more circular system that focuses on product longevity, renewability, reuse and repair as well as resource recovery. Transitioning to a circular economy will play a key role in building a resilient, inclusive, green, and prosperous future for Toronto residents and businesses.”
  • The City is now using less technical language to describe the circular economy approach and a new easy to understand graphic to illustrate Circular Economy Principles on the main page of its Working Towards a Circular Economy website.

The previous Circular Economy Approach graphic featured on the main page of the City’s Working Towards a Circular Economy website included images to illustrate subheadings like “Sustainable Sourcing & Circular Procurement”, “Circular Design” and “Resource Recovery”. The updated page now states in simple, appealing language:

Instead of taking from the planet, a circular economy approach challenges us to be a part of it by:

  • taking less
  • using better
  • making sure our economies and our choices support the natural environment we rely on.

Everyone has a role to play in the circular economy!

It appears that the City is applying the advice of the Toronto Circular Economy Working Group (CEWG) to make its circular economy communications easier to understand. The CEWG was an external group “made up of local businesses, academics, media, non-profits, environmental groups, and other community stakeholders” that was convened to inform the City’s early work on circularity between 2019-2021.

Participant members in the City’s first meeting of the CEWG expressed concern for making concepts understandable to residents. The following quotes, which were reported back from breakout groups at the first meeting, reflect this concern:

  • “Discussed entrepreneurship versus mainstream bureaucracy; how can we message circular economy so that it makes sense to the regular citizen and how they can engage in it.”
  • “Increasing public awareness around the concept of the circular economy.”

At the same first meeting of the CEWG, the City communicated that it “does have a definition being used in its work” but it solicited responses from individual participants “defining the circular economy for one’s own audience, work or organization”. The following definitions from individual participants appeal to me for their less technical use of language:

  • A system/process where items that reach the end of life becomes the supply for someone else’s/own needs
  • Materials or products are returned to use in some fashion either the same way or repurposed resulting in zero waste
  • A system that prioritizes reduction of resource extraction, re-use of materials, sharing things and preventing stuff from going to landfill
  • An opportunity to turn scrap into gold
  • Creating zero waste during the manufacturing of goods and following nature where everything has a use

The following quotes, which were reported back from breakout groups, also appeal to me for their less technical use of language:

  • spoke a lot about the re-use and repair and upcycling of things
  • maintaining the value of resources and a cradle to cradle approach to everything

I offer this graphic incorporating the above selection of quotes from CEWG members to demonstrate its concern for communicating about the circular economy “so that it makes sense to the regular citizen and how they can engage in it”:

Circular economy definitions from the Toronto Circular Economy Working Group

Community Reduce & Reuse Programs

From the perspective of the average resident of Toronto seeking ways to engage with the City’s circular economy, the five Community Reduce & Reuse Programs and the local case studies of ten small businesses and organizations represent the most practical avenues.

The City of Toronto’s five Community Reduce & Reuse Programs are Urban Harvest, Sewing Repair Hubs, Bicycle Repair Hubs, Community Composting, and Sharing and Reuse Spaces. Visitors to the City’s website can expand each or all of the program subheadings on the main Community Reduce & Reuse Programs page to read a description of each program and view links to community organization partners that are delivering these services in different neighbourhoods in the City.

The City of Toronto provides an inspiring video on the Community Reduce & Reuse Programs page. It begins with an aerial view of the City’s waterfront buildings and condos, with the Toronto Islands in the foreground, and transitions to a ground level composite of garbage and recycling collection, as well as a montage of images of public transit, and walking and cycling on City streets and in City parks. The video then transitions to images of City of Toronto public engagement events. It then highlights each of the five programs with images of residents engaged in various activities. It includes a graphic that illustrates the synergistic nature of reduce, reuse, repair, redistribute and repurpose activities. The video ends with another more distant aerial view of the city as the narrator refers to the City’s support for a move to a zero waste future. Overall the video, including the narration, inspires a sense of optimism, momentum and opportunities for engagement. Likewise, the Circular Economy Month website includes an inspiring video to raise awareness about Canada’s first circular economy public awareness campaign.

Besides creatively communicating the Community Reduce & Reuse Programs through its video, the City of Toronto could repurpose some of the existing graphics in its Circular Economy Working Group meeting reports and make them more accessible on its website. Some candidates for illustrating the five programs include:

  • The “Community Reduce & Reuse Programs” graphic on page 66 and the “Synergies Between Programs” graphic on page 67 in Report 2
  • The “Community Reduce & Reuse Programs” graphic on page 23 and the statistics graphic on page 24 in Report 5

The City of Toronto’s Circular Economy in Action at the Local Level page provides profiles of bare market, Bunz, Feed It Forward, Free Geek Toronto, Furniture Bank, Material Exchange, Repair Café Toronto, Secondhand Sunday, The Spent Goods Company and Tiny Toy Co. The profiles are made accessible as expandable subheadings on the City’s website as well as through a downloadable/printable PDF.

The downloadable/printable PDF is the more creative resource for communicating the local case studies since it incorporates images of local entrepreneurs, founders, collaborators, customers, clients and users as well as the items, materials, products and services and the spaces and events these local small businesses and organizations engage in/with. Like the video discussed above, this PDF with images inspires a sense of optimism, momentum and opportunities for the average resident’s engagement with Toronto’s circular economy. Again, the City could repurpose some of the existing graphics in the PDF and make them more accessible on its website.

Besides communicating through less technical language and making more graphics accessible on its website, the City of Toronto could engage artists from various disciplines such as photography, poetry, dance, etc. to educate and inspire residents through arts installations, events and workshops. In December 2020, the City reported that Circular Economy Working Group member input into the Baselining for a Circular Toronto Study included a recommendation to “engage artists” and that the City would use this member feedback: “Solid Waste Management Services recognizes the transformative nature of art and its unique ability to inform behavior.”

In March 2019, at the first meeting of the CEWG, the City reported that its Unit for Research, Innovation & a Circular Economy (UFRICE) had an Artist-In-Residence Program as part of its public engagement “work to date”.

It took some Google searching for me to be able to locate a reference and archival link to this pilot project. The City reported that, “As part of the pilot program, the artists, Sean Martindale and JP King, created a public photo exhibit titled “Our Desires Fail Us,” which was on display outdoors at the Harbourfront Centre until April 2019. The exhibit featured photographs shot within the City’s waste management facilities, and confronted society’s disconnected relationship with the vast amount of waste generated by consumer culture.”

Besides an Artist-In-Residence Program that would engage professional artists to educate and inspire residents about Toronto’s circular economy, the City could encourage more widespread artistic engagement by doing outreach to resident artists and artist collectives.

Since the original version of my blog post was published in August 2021, the City of Toronto published its Baselining for a Circular Toronto: Exploring directions for Toronto’s transition to a circular economy Highlights Summary document in February 2022. The Baselining for a Circular Toronto research project was conducted for the City of Toronto by Circle Economy and David Suzuki Foundation. I look forward to reading the Highlights Summary report as part of my self-assigned homework for Circular Economy Month, as well as exploring resources on the Circular Economy Month website itself. Scrolling through the City’s Highlights Summary document, I’m already appreciating the colourful photos, graphics and easy to read tables.

I thank you, the reader, for taking the time to read this updated post on circular cities and creative climate communication. As always, I welcome your questions and feedback. You can email me at Follow me on Instagram @annanieminenecjf

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