Within the limits of scarcity: rethinking city space and practices

Circularity in the spotlight of Energy Cities’ Annual Forum


Publication date

May 30, 2022

Circularity is a way to save resources and it can be applied to so many different fields. That is why Energy Cities’ recent conference did put the spotlight on circular practices at local level. Three urban places stuck out during the transition leaders’ programme session with their circular use of space and goods. Let’s have a look at who they are.

Buildings, books and balconies: Porto goes circular in many ways

The process started in 2016: the local government, supported by the local energy agency, brought a large set of local stakeholders around the table. Throughout several workshops, they defined together the 2030 strategy. As Rui Pimenta, from the Energy Agency of Porto explained, several actions emerged from that process. Porto’s tries to reuse whenever and wherever possible:

Buildings take up a big chunk as the local government tries to optimise the use of public buildings before building new ones. To do so, it offers free space for cultural activities such as concerts, or for social organisations in times when the buildings are not fully occupied.

Porto also owns what they call a “material bank”. This is a space to safeguard the city’s amazing architectural and industrial heritage. Constructive elements like ceramics, iron balconies and plaster decoration that make Porto’s architecture so special are collected by municipal employees in buildings subject to renovation, degradation, or destruction. They are then provided free of charge to citizens who use them to restore traditional buildings in the city. Thanks to that bank, 14,700 materials have been reintroduced in 270 restored buildings since 1987.

Other inspiring initiatives are:

  • a recycling material bank for electronic and electric equipment and a Repair Café
  • a schoolbook bank
  • the collection of children’s toys with distribution to the most vulnerable families (in the framework of the Replay project).

Revitalising empty spaces in Brussels Region: two visions

As a large landowner in the region, the public real-estate project developer Citydev.brussels is facing the dilemma of vacancy vs. lack of space. Martine Gossuin, Head of Support and Strategy Department at Citydev.brussels, which is in charge of urban development in the Brussels-Capital Region, explained how to bring these two together: Vacancy over longer periods of time, especially when it comes to old industrial buildings, often results in degradation and insecurity. To overcome this problem, Citydev.brussels invests in the temporary use experimentation for start-ups. The aim is to revitalize empty spaces by allowing local SMEs and companies to reuse old buildings at a comparably lower price than normal.

The interest is huge. Each year, this public player receives around 110 requests for temporary use. Recently, a one-stop-shop has been put in place to simplify access to information for any project initiator, whether they own a property or are looking for a place to set up a temporary activity. The shop targets the public sector as much as private owners and promoters of private projects. A website is also available to bring demand and offer together (https://occupationtemporaire.brussels/).

Empty spaces are also in the spotlight of Comuna, a Brussels-based NGO. His co-founder Sâm Rosenzweig gave his insights from a local actor perspective. According to him, Brussels Region is full of vacant spaces counting up to 30 000 empty houses, corresponding to 10% of the social housing stock (for a total of 6.5 million m²). A local campaign has even been started by local stakeholders to make sure all these empty spots are being put at the service of social and sustainable purposes (https://www.leegbeek.brussels/about). It seems to work as some spaces are currently occupied for social economy purposes or artistic workshops.

Comuna’s ambition is to use make use of these spaces for people that need it the most. Moreover, other than Citydev.brussels, Comuna tries to move from temporary to transitory use. The aim of these occupations is to anticipate the future use of a space and to permanently establish the activities. By doing so, transitory use becomes a tool for the democratic transition engaging all local stakeholders. One example is the “La Serre” building that is owned by the municipality of Ixelles, part of the Brussels region and that has found new life since 5 years now. At the start, the municipality offered a small budget to Comuna to renovate the empty space. The NGO transformed it into a multi-purpose area that comprises housing, offices, artists workshops, a bike workshop, and even a community kitchen where meals are cooked from leftovers and offered to those in need.

Comuna has also been one of the founders of the (informal) European network ‘Social Temporary Use Network’ which brings various actors in this field together to share experiences and to advocate for a greater role at local level.

These and many other examples will be shared, discussed and further developed in Energy Cities’ newly created Hub ‘Resource-wise and socially-just local economies’ . Subscribe now to get access to the dedicated community space (free for members) and get the regular information bulletin (for all).