Geography of Material Flows: Exploring the Spatial Dimension of Circular Economy

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


This was a contribution to the conference Regions in Recovery: Building Sustainable Futures - Global E-Festival of the Regional Studies Association in the form of an online presentation.
Transition towards Circular Economy (CE) has become an increasingly prominent item on the agenda of strategies and policies of European cities and regions in Europe and globally, reflecting the meteoric rise of this concept as the new sustainability paradigm. The concept ‘circular economy’ emphasizes on environmentally and economically sustainable ways of using natural capital and resources. According to the Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation (2017), a circular economy rests on three principles: (1) preserve and enhance natural capital, (2) optimise resource yields, by circulating products, components, and materials, and (3) foster system effectiveness, by revealing and designing out negative externalities or unintended effects While becoming a new policy buzzword and driving innovation in products, value chains and industrial strategies, CE is very seldom considered from a spatial perspective.Considering the transition towards CE as part of spatial development strategies creates potentials for generating positive externalities, not only for the environment (reducing emissions, waste generation and material consumption) and economic activity (new circular jobs and business models), but also for the quality of spatial development, for citizen engagement in efforts to make cities and regions more sustainable and improvement of quality of life. In order to seize those potentials, however, it is critical to reveal and understand the geography of flows of materials in regions and cities.This research, based on the outputs from two Horizon 2020 projects REPAiR and CINDERELA, bridges that research gap. It provides unique insights into the spatial distribution of circular activities and flows of materials (construction & demolition waste as well as organic waste) at the regional scale across 10 European urban regions of Amsterdam (Netherlands), Ghent (Belgium), Hamburg (Germany), Naples, Trento (Italy), Pecs (Hungary), Łódź and Katowice (Poland), Maribor (Slovenia), the Bask Country (Spain). For the first time, material flows in these regions are mapped, showing their geographical reach and clusters of circular activities in the regions, using activity-based material flow analysis methodology and the related online tool, the Geodesign Decision Support Environment, developed as part of the REPAiR project. The flow maps are then analysed in a comparative perspective in order to build a novel typology of regional geographies of metabolic flows.The paper thus proposes a novel spatial understanding of CE transitions, inviting to rethink the boundaries and economies of urban regions. On that basis recommendations are proposed for the case study regions and beyond, providing valuable evidence for policy-makers and spatial planners to develop territorial and place-specific CE strategies for regions and cities.
Period16 Jun 2021
Event titleRegions in Recovery: Building Sustainable Futures - Global E-Festival of the Regional Studies Association
Event typeConference


  • circular economy
  • urban metabolism
  • sustainability
  • spatial planning
  • material flow analysis