Amsterdam: deploying the doughnut

8 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

The Netherlands’ capital is using a revolutionary economic strategy to reach zero waste. Abi Malins investigates what this means. 

Earlier this year, Amsterdam announced its Circular Strategy 2020-2025, the first step towards generating an entirely circular urban economy by 2050. Reducing pollution and over-consumption of increasingly scarce raw materials, the city is aiming to shape a sustainable, environmentally conscious, and socially responsible future. These are broad, somewhat utopic terms, confronting a modern capitalist system that prizes material wealth above all else. “A circular economy has been one of the city’s priorities for several years now. In 2015, Amsterdam was the first city in the world to commission a study into the possibilities for a circular economy,” says city spokesperson, Lisa den Oudendammer.

The 2020-2025 strategy combines three main focuses: implementing sustainable building methods to increase available, affordable housing; reducing general refuse; and minimising commercial and residential food waste. Based on British economist Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model, it aims to transform Amsterdam into a city that respects and protects the planet as a whole, as well as each of its local residents.

Explained in brief, the inner ring of Raworth’s Doughnut represents the fundamental necessities of modern life, ranging from food and clean water to gender equality and education. The outer ring represents the limits humans may reach without damaging the natural planet around us, from the oceans to the atmosphere. Amsterdam’s Circular Strategy situates the city squarely within the “dough”, providing citizens with all they need, while protecting the planet.

“Working with a City Doughnut basically provides us with a mirror,” comments den Oudendammer. This allows conscious self-evaluation of how Amsterdam’s municipal policy contributes to reducing its carbon footprint, while strengthening the social foundations of the city. Fundamentally, Amsterdam is re-imagining how the city will consume and produce, aiming to halve its use of raw materials by 2030.

The Circular Strategy’s emphasis on increasing housing in the city is also vital. Around one in five Amsterdam tenants are unable to cover basic costs after paying their rent, and only 12 percent of some 60,000 online social housing applications are successful. Job creation in sustainable sectors will be of paramount importance in the wake of the pandemic, too. While conventional industry jobs may disappear within a circular economy, the strategy promises net job creation across sectors such as repairs, processing, and sustainable construction.

The city authorities’ decision to announce plans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was not taken lightly. “We had some doubts at first regarding the timing,” den Oudendammer shares, “but it turned out that people were also longing for ideas to rebuild our economy after the crisis.” Speaking at a live streaming event hosted by Amsterdam arts and culture centre Pakhuis de Zwijger, Raworth said that Amsterdam’s strategy “could not have come at a more powerful time”. There is a “huge thirst amongst people for a positive vision”, she said, as individuals are awakened to the tangible possibility of renewing global societies and economies in the wake of the pandemic.

While some Amsterdam residents keenly anticipate sustainable change, the Circular Strategy is likely to cause friction. Amsterdam residents and businesses will encounter disruption to established norms and practices, as real change requires fundamental re-evaluation of our consumption habits and desire for material possessions. The strategy admits its roadmap is “fraught with uncertainty” requiring experimentation and risk-taking as the city moves through previously uncharted territory.

Raworth herself has reinforced the idea that there is no certain route to a modern, green, and conscious economy. But speaking at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Raworth echoed this sentiment: “Quite honestly, the thing that keeps me awake at night is the endless drive for growth in the profit-based financial system that we currently have. That is where I think the much more profound transformation needs to take place. It’s not enough just to transform your purpose,” Raworth continued. “You need to also change how you govern yourselves, how the city is owned and how the city is financed. These aren’t easy questions, but they’re questions that every single city in the world should be asking itself.”

From this moment of crisis and flux comes the opportunity to craft a more sustainable future. These realisations have resonated far beyond Amsterdam, but the city is blazing the trail toward making them a reality, setting a benchmark for Europe and the wider world.

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