From pandemic to a new economy: towards a circular economy and circular city

Article by Luigi Fusco Girard

The next issue of CLIC Newsletter comes at the height of the crisis due to the Coronavirus pandemic, which is severely affecting our economies, with very high human and social costs. On the one hand, the CLIC research needs to be re-framed in this new context. On the other hand, it must be stressed that this new context only confirms the CLIC project’s thesis about the need for an adaptive reuse of cultural heritage as the entry point for a “human-centred” circular economy strategy.

Our habits and behaviours, our relationships, our attitudes towards others and physical spaces have suddenly stopped. The isolation, with the various quarantines, has interrupted productive activities and changed the way of being/living in the cities. Cities have been the place in the geographical space where epidemics have exploded. Cities have had and are playing an important role in multiplying the negative impacts of contagion. But they also have a central role in reducing them through specific containment practices. Their squares, streets and public spaces have taken on a very unusual image. Everyone walks maximizing the distance between others. These “empty” cities clamorously contradict the very essence of the city, which expresses man’s project to live/work together with others. That is, they conflict with humanity’s project in the relational dimension, that is the city.

What to do? How do we get out of this?

The strategies proposed depend on the priority assigned between the two major (interdependent) nodes of our time: the environmental and social ones. And between the short and the long-time perspective.

The pandemic has highlighted the lack of resilience that characterizes our overall organizational structure (and perhaps the economically wealthiest areas). More generally, it showed the poor resilience of a globalized economic model based on the de-localization of activities, compared to a more re-territorialized model in the geographical space. Resilience represents the pre-condition of any development, but it has been the subject of academic and societal reflection, more than of public policy. And yet one gets out of the crisis if one is, or becomes, resilient. The current Covid19 crisis is only an anticipation of what will happen if we do not become more resilient, in the sense that the current pandemic is in some ways anticipating by a few years a crisis that risks to be even more shocking, which is that resulting from climate change. This must be seen as the greatest threat of our century.

Both crises are systemic, being characterized by a systemic structure of multidimensional interactions. Moreover, just as the Covid19 crisis particularly affects the most fragile social thresholds, so too is the effects of climate change that will affect the poorest and most marginal areas. But beyond assonances, it must be recognised that the interdependencies between climate change, health and pandemic are numerous. The effects of the pandemic itself are accentuated by the effects of climate change. Air pollution, for example, caused by various particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, etc., is strongly accentuated by the consequences of climate change, with damage to all vital organs, especially for the elderly population. The areas most affected by the virus appear at present to be also those with the greatest pollution, even if all the correlations have not yet been clarified.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly highlighted the negative impacts on human health resulting from the linear development model, finding that their distribution is not homogeneous, but penalizes in particular the lower income groups. Since 2018, the reduction of these negative effects has begun to be highlighted with the assumption of the circular economy model (WHO, 2019). The Lancet Countdown Report has also long since focused on the relationship between climate change (in the light of the latest IPCC Report) and health/wellbeing, based on specific indicators.

Figure 1 Pathways Between Climate Change and Human Health, Vol. 392 December 8, 2018

But the Report itself does not neglect social impacts at all, as can be seen in the last column in the Figure 1.

Well, here we want to stress that the perspective in which to frame any possible plan of action to get out of the current crisis of Covid19 is that of climate change, interpreted as the greatest threat of the century. We need to move in the direction of the transition towards decarbonisation, with fewer climate-changing emissions. The speed of climate change appears ever greater, while the speed of our response appears ever slower and more ineffective. Climate change has impacts on the environment and natural ecosystems, the economy, finance and society. But it has very strong impacts primarily on people’s health and perception of well-being.

Unfortunately, this health/wellbeing-centred dimension has been very little “cultivated” (especially by the mass media), with the result of not having determined a conscious public opinion and a consequent “reaction” in public opinion itself and therefore in politics. Yet, health is the only value around which there is always a unanimous consensus, regardless of culture and geography. Health protection is the first human/social instance to refer to.

The measures being taken for Covid19 are good for those (many) who are today in trouble and risk losing their jobs. But also in the long period? Also for the natural environment and in the fight against climate change? The problem is that if they are not strictly framed within a coherent perspective, that is to say within the perspective of the circular economic model for tackling climate change, they can harm the economy.

It must be stressed that it will not be possible (nor desirable) to “go back”, but the need is to “do better” than what has been done so far. This is the time when the economy needs to be relaunched in a different way from the traditional way. The circular economy is the general perspective.

It should be remembered that the new model for generating and redistributing wealth in the current century is the circular economy model. It imitates the metabolic processes of the Earth/nature, which have become perfect over 3.8 billion years and which leave no room for waste, being the source of continuous new life. The circular economy minimizes waste and reduces entropy. It is a co-evolutionary model between the economy of nature and the economy of man, which extends the useful life of goods and urges the fruition rather than the possession… More specifically, it is the economy of relationships, of cooperation/synergies/complementarity, which shows that cooperation is economically, ecologically and socially convenient. It also simplifies the trade-off between economic, environmental and social needs.

Well, the circular economy model represents the strong accelerator of the transition towards a reduction/cancellation of climate-changing and polluting emissions, and therefore towards a healthier environment for the health of people and natural ecosystems. The above will also reduce the risk of further pandemics.

This model finds its implementation, its territorialisation in the city: in the circular city. Most of the regional/national GDP is produced here. In cities, most of the available energy and most of the natural resources are consumed (about 75 %). But cities are also the place of maximum production of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. They are the fundamental subjects on which the crisis depends, but also to face the crisis itself, due to the lack of resilience.

It is time for national/central public institutions to take a firm decision on the climate change perspective as the general scenario in which to propose the various action plans covering the different sectors with which to deal with the impacts of Covid19. This perspective moves in the direction of increasing environmental, economic/financial and social resilience while at the same time generating employment in the short term.

Not many cities have already approved effective mitigation and adaptation plans. For example, in Italy, out of almost 8000 Italian municipalities, only about 200 have started, in 2019, to introduce adaptation and mitigation plans and measures.

And yet, with current interest rates more or less close to zero, this is precisely the most favourable moment to propose a strategy of “targeted” investments, avoiding micro distributions that only serve to restore the pre-Covid19 status quo. It is necessary to concentrate investments in a system of tangible and intangible infrastructures in the fields of renewable energy, recovery/renewal/reuse of the existing building stock, green and blue infrastructures, digitization, equipment to improve the health/wellbeing of the population, etc., and aimed at closing the loops, narrowing the territorial dimension (now globalized). In particular, digital infrastructures represent not only a formidable accelerator for the implementation of the circular city model but are also fundamental to improve governance, to improve (and monitor) the coordination of actions between multiple actors, each of which is characterized by specific objectives: between public institutions at different scales, between public and private actors, between businesses and enterprises.

There is therefore no more propitious moment than this to increase resilience in different dimensions. Restoring the previous status quo represents a missed opportunity, and indeed a waste because ex-post the economic and financial costs (apart from the social and ecological ones) will be enormously higher. In this way we avoid the risk of a pulverisation of scarce resources. They guarantee a “return” in the short term to the voters but do not give any answer to the general need to create positive conditions in the medium-long term and to those who will not be voters, because they have yet to be born. In order to emerge from the current crisis, we need a strategic plan that takes the fight against climate change as its general perspective. In this context all sectorial policies should be re-shaped and implemented.

The circular economy model represents a tool to accelerate the transition to a less climate-altering organization of our way of life and production. It is therefore necessary to move decisively in this direction: towards the implementation of the circular city.

The CLIC project proposed the adaptive reuse of the existing cultural heritage as a real entry point towards the creation of the circular city. This moment only confirms the relevance of the proposal itself, in coherence with the European Green Deal and the new Action Plan for the Circular Economy.

On the other hand, the circular economy model in general (and therefore also the one applied to adaptive reuse) also satisfies social aspects. Indeed, the circular economy is a source of new employment, on the one hand. On the other hand, since it is founded and promotes cooperation, collaboration and coordination between different actors, it promotes synergies by stimulating new and coherent entrepreneurial and self-entrepreneurial activities.

The social aspect of the re-use is also the capacity to generate a community, a heritage community, which on its turn, takes care of the heritage, in a virtuous circular process. People perceives a sense of belonging/ attachment to a specific area and also a “meaning relationship”.

Thus the reuse of the cultural heritage can be interpreted and managed as a way to improve the immaterial social infrastructure of the city, generating micro-communities through the management itself of the heritage as a common, characterized by “intrinsic value” (that reflects the value that has been connoting over centuries and millennia). In this way, the re-use becomes able to stimulate inclusion/co-fruition. The cultural heritage contributes to the more fragile and immaterial infrastructure of our time, because it multiplies community relationships.

In truth, Covid19 and Climate Change are both testifying to the lack of effectiveness of (current) governance systems focused on continuous and daily emergencies, without a medium-long term strategic/systemic vision. It must be acknowledged that the current pandemic calls for a well-informed, and therefore truly aware, public opinion capable of critical discernment. It can thus demand attention from politics to overcome the current “short-termism”, opening the time horizon to the long term. This conscious public opinion contributes to supporting “bottom-up” the technical, operational and normative initiatives of public institutions, multiplying their positive effects. It is necessary to regenerate trust, which is the foundation of the good functioning not only of the market, but also of public institutions and of society. It is the foundation of every co-operative, synergistic, symbiotic capacity, which especially today is absolutely essential.

It is therefore necessary for each city to draw up a Cultural Strategic Plan as well: a change of mindset that goes beyond the regulatory, economic, financial, fiscal, etc. instruments is necessary in order to become effectively resilient. Schools, Universities, Mass media, Foundations, Research Centres, Third Sector Institutions, etc. should be involved through a strong network for sharing the culture of rights in a relational (and not self-centred) perspective: the culture of responsibility towards the others, the next generation and the nature. It is necessary to promote a widespread awareness that we are children of the Earth. As the Earth Charter already underlined a few years ago, we must live in symbiosis with the Earth: it supports us in all our activities while we must take care of it seriously (and not remain indifferent to its many signs, including the pandemic).

It is certainly necessary to refer to all the digital technological innovations, from the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence. But it is also necessary to refer to the widespread intelligence of the city and its inhabitants, entrepreneurs, political representatives and all sectors of society to build a new Pact, to face the new challenges that await us, identifying together a different ranking of priorities in public and private choices. The above challenges are first and foremost cultural and ethical challenges, before economic/ecological/social ones.


Luigi Fusco Girard

CLIC Scientific Coordinator



  • Watts et al. (2018), The 2018 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: shaping the health of nations for centuries to come, The Lancet, Vol. 392 December 8, 2018.
  • World Health Organisation (2018), Circular economy and health: opportunities and risks.
  • Luigi Fusco Girard, Maurizio Bifulco, “Virus e Clima, si va verso una economia e una città circolare? (21 April 2020, Il Mattino).