Critical Approaches

Urban Metabolism

You often heard us say in this module that circularity borrows many of its principles from natural organisms. Now Alex, accounting all the processes that Olga briefly described here uses yet another metaphor: he claims that cities have a definable metabolism just like humans do.

In this video, Alex provides us with an overview of how the metabolism metaphor has been used in urban planning over the last centuries. He monitors the different schools of thought and how the concept evolved over time. Design of cities in the future, he argues, will be situated at the intersection of the biophysical quantification of materials and energy that flow through a city, with the impact these processes have on urbanization.

Main Takeaways

  • Urban Metabolism borrows its relevance from Human Metabolism to describe the processes inherent in cities’ function.
  • Different interpretations of the concept of Urban Metabolism have been formulated over the years; Circular Urban Metabolism in particular, represents the idea that closing material and energy loops within cities reduces urbanization’s negative environmental impact and contributes to a more balanced relationship with the surrounding ecosystems.
  • Contemporary research considers both the quantification of materials and energy flows as well as the ways these flows shape cities.


  • Girardet, H (2008). Cities, People, Planet. 2nd ed. Chichester, England: Wiley.
  • Wolman, A (1965). The Metabolism of Cities. In Scientific American 213 (3):178–93.

Further Reading

  • Brunner, P.H. (2008). Reshaping Urban Metabolism. In Journal of Industrial Ecology, 11 (2): 11-13.
  • City of Stockholm, 2007. Hammarby Sjöstad – a unique environmental project in Stockholm.
  • Dijst et al., (2018). Exploring urban metabolism—Towards an interdisciplinary perspective. In Resources, Conservation and Recycling 132: 190-203
  • Kennedy, C., Pinceti, S. & Bunje, P. (2011). The study of urban metabolism and its applications to urban planning and design. In Environmental Pollution 159 (8–9): 1965–1973.


Alex Wandl
Alex Wandl
Associate Professor

Dr. Alex Wandl is Associate Professor and head of the Section of Environmental Technology and Design of the Department of Urbanism at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft. He is a steering committee member of Circular Built Environment Hub, and an editorial board member of the journal Planning Practice and Research. He integrates methods from urban planning and design, landscape architecture, and spatial data science in a multiscale approach to sustainable urbanism. His research and teaching focus on the spatial dimension of circularity transitions in cities and regions, particularly on sustainable development challenges in dispersed urban areas and peri-urbanisation processes in Europe. 

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Circularity for Educators

The platform is intended to provide with content on either circularity or pedagogy for and about circularity. It is one of the outcomes of the Circular Impulse Initiative (CII), a project intending to enhance the integration of circularity in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment education. The platform mainly aims to help tutors get better acquainted with circularity in the built environment by providing a series of resources on this subject that they can either view to get better informed or directly share with their students in class or online. A large number of the Faculty's professors and researchers have contributed substantially both in creating a coherent narrative for circularity in the built environment as well as further elaborating on different aspects of it. Besides this one, a new platform for interaction and direct exchange was also established in parallel that we call ‘Educators for Circularity‘. This one offers the opportunity for all of us to meet and share our experiences and learn from one another.

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