It’s no secret that increasing sustainability is of utmost importance for every sector involved in operating and maintaining life in cities. While cities occupy only three percent of the world’s total land mass, they consume as much as seventy-five percent of the world’s natural resources. If life in urban areas is to continue and grow as it’s expected to, the global economy needs to seriously transform systems of production and consumption; what better day to talk about this than Earth Day!
One solution many cities are turning to is transitioning to a circular economy. The circular economy is a model that relies on increasing resource efficiency by ‘closing the loop’ of production and consumption chains to view all waste as a potential resource to be further utilized. Circular development aims to design products purposefully in order to extend their life and afterlife, to gradually dissociate economic activity from the overconsumption of precious resources, and to go beyond sustaining the environment toward the restoration of natural systems. This model provides an alternative to traditionally linear processes which involve production, purchase, and disposal by consumers; often referred to as ‘make-take-dispose’ practices.
In Amsterdam, the transformation to a circular chain of production and consumption is occurring in many streams. The municipality has shown support and provided the opportunity to upscale small initiatives such as the “Wasted” program, which promotes source-separating dry recyclables at home in return for discounts at local retailers. The city has also stepped away from landfilling practices and traditional waste management in order to surpass goals set at the national and European levels. In looking at circularity within the Netherlands, the progress that has been made is impressive, especially in comparison to neighboring countries like Germany and the UK, along with more distant neighbors as far as Northern Italy, for whom the Netherlands incinerates around a million tons of waste for each year.
The most interesting and creative circular experiments in Amsterdam, however, are happening in a district of Amsterdam-Noord, ‘Buiksloterham.’ This post-industrial area lies just north of Amsterdam Central Station. With limited space for development within the city center, Amsterdam-Noord has become the latest frontier for creative development, innovative solutions, and sustainable experimentation. This district alone is expected to realize 82,000 m2 of new construction in the next three years, an increase of thirty percent compared to what is currently under construction in the area. The future of the district has been guided by a transformational mission to create a sustainable neighborhood that combines living and working. Within this mission, the municipality has been able to allow versatility. Flexible regulations in the area have permitted residents to design and build their own homes and allowed developer collectives to form and respond to the desire for distinctive living, grounded in sustainable development practices.
One project you simply must mention when speaking about sustainability in Amsterdam is De Ceuvel. De Ceuvel is a ‘regenerative urban oasis’ and unique experiment on a former industrial shipyard in Amsterdam-Noord. This project began in 2012 with a group of creative architects and planners who bid (and won) a ten-year lease to bring this development idea to life. The plot hosts seventeen remodeled houseboats that would have otherwise been destroyed and are now home to a variety of creative and working spaces as well as a sustainable café. De Ceuvel is a wonderful example of circular development that goes beyond sustainability toward sincere regeneration. Rather than being submerged in water, the houseboats have been placed on the heavily polluted industrial soil and surrounded by a special mix of plants that actively clean the soil from its pollutants. They have also been outfitted by Space&Matter and Metabolic with clean technology to manage the sanitation, energy, water, and some food production on site.
The café, ‘Café De Cuevel,’ makes every effort to use regenerative practices in their operations as well; like the other houseboats, the café uses compost toilets (they look just like regular toilets), solar power, heat exchangers, and is built almost entirely out of reused material. They also source their vegetables from local urban farms such as the 50/50-Food Amsterdam, MijnStadstuin in Amsterdam-West, and the greenhouse on the roof of the building. Because serving meat sustainably is almost impossible, Café de Cuevel uses veggie substitutes when possible and looks for innovative ways to source the fish and meat they would like to include in their meals. One example of this is the wild goose currently on the menu. Every year thousands of geese are being killed at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport in order to keep them from ending up in a plane engine, together with the Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal, Café de Cuevel is trying to use this local problem to their advantage and make use of the animals who would be killed regardless.
Ultimately, when the ten-year lease for De Cuevel is up, the boats will be able to leave the land in better condition than they found it in, with more biodiversity and increased value. These types of experiments, even on limited time horizons, put a value on social innovation and provide illustrative examples of what is possible in cities. The success of De Cuevel opens the door for other projects based on regeneration to get off the ground and to say to municipalities around the world, “hey, it worked there, it can work here too.”
These types of projects can also inspire cities to invest in similar, longer-term projects. The next big venture in Buiksloterham called ‘Schoonschip’, also utilizes houseboats as the vessel for innovation and experimentation. Schoonschip, which translates to ‘clean ship’ is a floating neighborhood project situated along the Johan van Hasselt canal. This project is expected to be fully realized as the most sustainable floating neighborhood in all of Europe by 2020; hosting 46 floating households, more than 100 residents, and circularity factored into every step. The homes will all produce their own electricity with solar panels, have green roofs, floating gardens, and will not be connected to the natural gas network. The homes will also utilize ‘gray water,’ and ‘black water’ in a variety of ways to handle the energy, electricity, heating, and sanitation needs of the community self-sufficiently, without the use of gas or fossil fuels.
Both of these innovative ideas go against the accepted status quo of new development and offer examples of how sustainability can define an entire project, rather than being an afterthought. In order to sustain life in cities, we do not have to give up enjoyment, beauty, or functionality, we simply have to adopt more creative solutions that bring production and consumption closer together. This possibility requires strong and meaningful action on the part of city governments to learn from the examples that exist around the world, to lead by example, and to go beyond sustainability all together, toward genuine regeneration of the natural systems that keep us alive. It also requires action on the part of the citizen to promote and make projects like these possible; to reach out to organizations in your community who are doing the work already, to support their businesses, or maybe even become inspired to start your own circular project!
What examples of regenerative development have you seen in your community and how are you celebrating Earth Day in your community? Share your thoughts and your stories in the comments area below.
Happy Earth Day!
Credits: Images by Holly Hixson. Data linked to sources.