Finding the Circular City: A qualitative study on how Finland’s six largest cities conceptualize and promote urban circular economy

No Thumbnail Available
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
School of Business | Master's thesis
Degree programme
Creative Sustainability
As home to a growing majority of the Earth’s population, urban areas have a crucial role to play in transitioning towards sustainability. Circular economy, which has been hailed as a new model for operationalizing sustainable development, is the focus of increasing scholarly and practitioner attention, and many cities around the globe have begun connecting their sustainable development work to this concept. Finland has set a goal of becoming a global leader in circular economy by 2025. As a result, many Finnish cities have also begun incorporating circular economy principles into their urban development work and communications. There are few articles investigating the development of the circular cities concept, and none so far that focus primarily on the Finnish context. This study seeks to address this gap by investigating how Finnish cities (i) understand and (ii) promote circular economy. To answer this question, I adopt an exploratory interview study approach, conducting seven interviews with sustainability representatives from Finland’s six largest cities by population: Helsinki, Espoo, Tampere, Vantaa, Oulu, and Turku. In addition to the interviews, I review relevant city documents for mention of circular economy, amassing a list of city initiatives and infrastructure projects that the cities themselves connect to circular economy. To answer the research question’s first part, I describe the interviewees’ understanding of the circular city using a framework adapted from Lankoski (2016). I find that the circular city category primarily emphasizes economic sustainability, with a secondary focus on environmental factors. Nevertheless, interviewees express hope that circular economy can inspire urban residents to change unsustainable consumption habits. I also contrast the circular city with other categories, such as eco-cities or smart cities, finding that the circular city most closely resembles the low-carbon city. To investigate how Finland’s largest cities are promoting circular economy, I map the gathered list of initiatives to a circular economy policy framework adapted from Petit-Boix and Leipold (2018) and a transition management framework adapted from Kivimaa and Kern (2016). Based on the initiatives identified, Finnish cities are targeting ‘easy wins,’ or large material flows where the city has jurisdiction to make an impact, such as with construction. Contrary to the interviewees’ hopes, relatively few initiatives to reduce personal consumption were identified. From a transition management perspective, I find many creative policy mixes meant to support circular innovations but almost no destructive measures meant to destabilize the incumbent production-consumption system. In response to the study’s findings, I propose a new prescriptive definition for the circular city concept that emphasizes environmental benefits, while calling to attention the need for more ambitious regulations and policies if Finland’s cities are to lead the way to a circular economy transition.
Thesis advisor
Patala, Samuli
Määttä, Marika
circular economy, sustainable cities, transition management, sustainability
Other note