How a Circular Economy approach to planning and design can transform our rural and regional settlement patterns

Published: July 5, 2023Categories: Urban Design Policy & IntegrationTags:


In making the case for a paradigm shift in regional settlement design, the author argues for the development of villages with a unified infrastructure ecosystem in rural and regional areas of Australia based on a circular economy philosophy. To this end, the author has been developing the necessary planning policy framework and experimenting with pilot village designs.

About the Author

Dr Steven Liaros is a polymath and futurist with expertise and qualifications in civil engineering, town planning, environmental law and political economy. He is an honorary associate at The University of Sydney and director of strategic town planning consultancy, PolisPlan. Steven is co-creating a new category of land development to enable a collaborative, affordable and sustainable mode of living in a connected Network of Circular Economy Villages. Visit for more information.

Editor’s Preface

There is, undoubtedly, the need for a re-think and new ideas in the way we plan, design and build human settlements.  It is in this spirit that I invited Dr Steven Liaros to summarise his bold ideas for Urban Design Review. In some ways, Liaros comes full circle in that he draws inspiration from the Garden Cities work of Ebenezer Howard at the beginning of the 20th Century. Liaros has pointed out in previous writing that the Planning Institute of Australia has for a long time been advocating for a broad National Settlement Strategy, something that could support the kind of settlement network he advocates.  The issue is not whether we agree with Dr Liaros, but whether this article might get us thinking differently from current trends.

Raeburn Chapman, Editor, Urban Design Review


The circular economy is said to offer the “world of opportunity to re-think and re-design the way we make stuff”. Could this concept be used to re-design the way we build our cities and neighbourhoods? How might we design places with circular infrastructure—pathways that enable the circulation of products and resources around a neighbourhood?

When seeking to address the current housing supply and affordability crisis, planners, developers, and Governments tend to focus primarily on the major cities. Yet this crisis is arguably more acute in the regions, especially in those areas affected by floods and fires or those that have experienced an influx of former city-dwellers reimagining their lives post COVID—tree-changers, sea-changers, and e-changers. A critical aspect of the Government’s response to the housing crisis should include provision of housing in the regions. In doing so, we must recognise that new greenfield subdivisions or high-density apartment blocks, as delivered in the major cities, will not be economically viable for developers or affordable for essential workers. A new model for housing is necessary.

Is it possible that the circular economy could provide solutions to the housing crisis? We will show that, indeed, the development of a network of circular economy villages has the potential to drive positive change in both housing affordability and supply.

While much of the public conversation about the circular economy is mired in issues of waste management and recycling, at its core, the circular economy is a design philosophy. It is an approach to design that considers the entire life-cycle of the thing being designed. When the thing being designed is a village or neighbourhood, we can also consider the spatial arrangements of the various buildings and activities to enable the circulation of resources or products around that place. Therefore, we can incorporate circulation over time, or life-cycle planning, with circulation in space, or spatial planning.

This circular design philosophy drives the implementation of the three generally agreed principles that characterise a circular economy:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution.
  2. Circulate products and resources.
  3. Regenerate nature.

Developed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, these principles are “Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy… [such that] the circular economy is a resilient system that is good for business, people, and the environment.”

This all sounds good in theory, but how do we go about the design process in practice? Well, the usual approach when we have a parcel of land is to ask how many houses can fit on it. Instead, we propose to start by saying we want to house a certain population, say 200 people. Then we can ask questions like: How much land is needed to sustain 200 people? How can we enhance the capacity of this land, so that it provides other natural needs such as food and water? How can we keep resources circulating so that the community can minimise the need to buy in new resources? Where do we locate the housing so that it can be passively designed to minimise energy demand? What other indoor and outdoor spaces and facilities would improve the quality of life of the residents? How do we arrange the various buildings and supporting infrastructure to maximise the efficiency of the village as a whole?

The answers to some of these questions will depend on the climate, geography, and existing ecosystems of the land, and so each village must be designed for its location. To simplify, let’s imagine a generic parcel of rural land, say 40 hectares, or 100 acres, in a regional area adjoining an existing town or village. As the circular economy is underpinned by renewable energy, a good place to start is to design the village as a resilient system powered by a renewable energy micro-grid. As we can estimate the energy needs of a population of 200, it’s possible to estimate the scale of generation and storage systems, not just for housing, but also to power a fleet of shared electric vehicles, including golf carts and bikes for movement within the village.

What other resources do we want to circulate in the village system? What about water? Again, we can estimate how much water is needed for 200 people. A chain of ponds along a gully could store rainwater or bore-water for use by residents. This could also be used for irrigation of food production. The lowest reservoir can be designed as a constructed wetland to clean greywater before the water is pumped, using renewable energy, back up to the topmost reservoir, reusing water again and again, and thus creating a managed water cycle. Reservoirs can have multiple functions in addition to storing water, they also offer opportunities for swimming, recreation, and aquaculture.

With an abundance of water, it is possible to produce more food, taking urban agriculture to a new level. Indeed, enabling the development of a comprehensive regenerative agricultural system will not only produce food for residents but will help regenerate nature, one of the three principles we are striving to implement in the design. There are numerous approaches to regenerative agriculture, also called agro-ecology, but, according to Charles Massy, all seek to maximise biodiversity and then harvest, store, and circulate energy, water, and nutrients—aligning precisely with the design approach for circular economy villages.

Rather than managing each one separately, food, water, energy, housing, and transport are now parts of a unified infrastructure ecosystem. The integration of these infrastructure systems makes all of them more efficient. Food waste can be composted or used to make heat and biofuels for energy, water reservoirs can also store energy, passively designed housing can minimise energy demand. A walkable environment with multiple work, education, and entertainment activities, close to housing, reduces transport needs, while improving the health of residents.

Each such village should be perceived as a node in a network of villages. As Figure 1 shows, Ebenezer Howard argued over a century ago that the “correct principle for a city’s growth” is to build a network of garden cities rather than sprawling the central city. Howard proposed self-contained, satellite cities with a population of 32,000 on 9,000acres, linked by road and rail to a major centre reflecting the mechanistic thinking of his time. What might a garden city of the 21st century look like? The technologies and business models available today allow new settlements to be both more connected virtually, while being more self-contained in the physical world, affecting both the design of individual settlements and the organisation of a network of settlements.

Diagram from Garden Cities of Tomorrow by Ebenezer Howard:  According to Howard, the “correct principle of a city’s growth” is to create a decentralised network of settlements.

Population centres of the scale proposed by Howard represent major initiatives that would necessarily need to be managed by a government-owned development corporation. Instead, the much smaller development scale that is proposed—a village for a small community, perhaps just 200 people—could be delivered by a larger cohort of developers and development professionals. Also, rather than a large population in one place, scale and complexity would be achieved through the organic networking of settlements across a broader area. A network of villages in a bioregion would still deliver significant population growth, while also retaining the rural landscape character treasured by these communities. Such development units would also allow for a more incremental development of rural landscapes, allowing communities to determine and manage the scale and timing of growth. The location of settlements could be identifed through current growth management and community strategic planning processes.

The planning, design, and construction a network of circular economy villages in regional areas—preferably adjoining or near existing small towns and villages—would offer multiple benefits to people and the environment, while also assisting in various Government agendas including:

  1. Providing affordable housing,
  2. Reducing the cost of living for residents,
  3. Expediting the transition to renewable energy,
  4. Creating a network of electric vehicle charging stations,
  5. Creating a network of circular economy, waste-to-resource micro-factories,
  6. Enabling the development of a network of biodiverse, regenerative farms,
  7. Caring for Country and regenerating natural ecosystems within and adjoining the circular economy villages.

As Albert Einstein said: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” The numerous intersecting crises that we are collectively facing suggest that it is imperative that we pursue new ways of living in relation with each other, the land, and other species.

Lochiel Park Master Plan in Adelaide, South Australia, by Renewal SA: Compact built environment surrounded by substantial open space, including reservoirs for storing water and constructed wetlands to clean grey-water.

With projects such as The Cape (Cape Paterson, Victoria, and Lochiel Park in Adelaide, South Australia demonstrating many of the principles described here, it is likely that the first CEV is not far away. Indeed, at the time of writing, the author is developing the planning policy framework for a pilot project with Bellingen Shire Council (on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales which has a total population of 13,200) and experimenting with possible designs.

Concept design of Circular Economy Village by Valentino Gareri Atelier: Concept diagram (above) and visualisation (below) showing constructed chain of ponds, significant open space, food production, buildings, with a variety of land uses, embedded in the landscape


Notes & References

Massy, C (2017), Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Brisbane.

Liaros, S., & De Silva, N. (2022). Human settlements arranged as networks of regenerative villages with nature-based infrastructure ecosystems. Civil Engineering and Environmental Systems, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 328–346.

Howard, E. (1902), Garden Cities of Tomorrow, London: Swan Sonneschen & C., Ltd. available at:

Ellen Macarthur Foundation. What is a Circular Economy?