The “circular economy” is a popular concept. But what does that look like in an area like The Binckhorst in The Hague, which used to be an urban industrial area and is now developing to become an area for living and working with a building task of at least 5,000 new homes?
Attention is often focused on the technical questions surrounding circularity: material flows, sustainable energy and reuse of waste. But at least as important is the question of what circularity means for the people who work and live there now and in the future, says Marleen Buizer, researcher at the Strategic Communication Group (COM). ‘Eighty percent of the world's population will soon be living in the city. How to shape cities sustainably and circularly - technically, spatially and socially - is therefore a hugely important question.’
The socio-spatial and communication aspects of circular area development form the research area of Marleen Buizer, within ACCEZ, an ambitious knowledge and innovation programme to make Zuid-Holland more sustainable and climate-proof. Wageningen University & Research is one of the programme's partners, together with Leiden University, Delft University of Technology, Erasmus University Rotterdam and regional companies and organisations.
Not an empty sheet
‘In an area like The Binckhorst, you don't start from 0. It's not an empty sheet,' says Buizer. ‘There's already a lot going on in the area: start-ups, social enterprises, artists, a beer brewery, but also a large waste company and an asphalt plant. We are using an action-research approach to visualise the stories of all these actors. With workshops, dialogues, knowledge cafes and storymapping, among other things, we try to create an image of circularity that is grounded in the practical, everyday situation of a place, one that is richer, more diverse and more inclusive than the technical story of materials and substance flows. And it definitely encompasses the social’.
Action research means that the researchers literally dive into the neighbourhood. 'Literally, because there really is a door with an office behind it: the KIP, Kenniswerkplaats In Productie. This can be seen as a field station from which we 'fly out' into the neighbourhood. In the future the KIP will hopefully also become more and more a discussion and creative space, where we can talk about and experiment with new ideas about what circularity can mean in neighbourhoods in transition such as The Binckhorst.’
From the stories the researchers formulate key themes that they bring into the dialogue. ‘In this way we gain insight into the dynamics in the area and the developments taking place. We then try to bring those insights back into policy circuits.' That is not always easy, Buizer points out. ‘At the moment we are observing that there is considerable relocation stress, for example. The prices of land and property are rising. As a result, social initiatives are being pushed out. Think, for example, of the Rescued Tools initiative. That is clearly sustainable and circular in a specific way - an example of initiatives you would say you want to develop in the area. But can they stay? These are typically difficult questions that come up in our research.'
In the circular living lab The Binckhorst many issues come together at different levels, Marleen Buizer observes. ‘Of course these are the big, typical WUR questions, such as: how do we create sustainable cities? But also questions related to the relationship between spatial development and democracy: who has something to say about what? Will the parties that have been present in the area for a long time have sufficient opportunity to participate in the debate and put forward what circularity means to them?’
Activate all our feelers
Buizer also finds questions about the relationship between science and society important. 'How do you act as a scientist? Our action-research approach means that we don't want to send out knowledge in a linear fashion. Science communication is still often associated with conveying messages in a linear way. But for us it means recognising that there are different forms of knowledge and languages in society, all of which are important to imagine alternative, sustainable futures for the city. At the level of a neighborhood, the conversations includes topics such as water management, waste, our climate footprint, urban biodiversity, inequalities, justice issues and the social living and working environment. We need to activate all our senses to tune into the different concerns at play. The forms of communication that play a role in this are a mix of text, physical objects, communication channels, science, nature and people. This is really about systemic change and raising all the communication questions that go with it.'