Circular Social Housing for a Just Energy Transition

The European Union has recently introduced concrete strategies and funding mechanisms to reach ambitious carbon neutral targets for 2050. The EU Green Deal and the Just Transition Mechanism have been set to carve a new path across regions and sectors where growth is decoupled from resource use and leaves no citizen behind.

We have learned, the hard way, that systemic transitions can only happen in a fair manner. While today a big part of Europe is still dragging from the severe social and economic impact of the 20th century deindustrialisation, the present the energy transition has the ambition to tackle social and climate objectives right from the start. Yet, there will be certain regions and sectors that will play a key role in this transition.

Today we zoom into former coal mining regions and the construction sector in facing the challenge of demographic shrinkage through circularity.

The construction industry is one of the key sectors since it is responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions in the EU. This is related to the destructive demolition of buildings which results in waste streams (40% of waste in EU is building related) and energy used to demolition of buildings, extract new materials and produce new building elements/products. Demolition of the built environment, and the housing sector in particular, especially affects shrinking regions severely hit by deindustrialisation.

In Kerkrade, a city in the Parkstad Limburg region (south of the Netherlands), demographic shrinkage is expected to reach 27% in the next 30 years due to population ageing and young people moving to urban agglomeration cities such as Amsterdam or the close by Aachen. This implies that less housing accommodation will inevitably be demanded in the upcoming decades and the demolition of vacant high-rise apartment buildings is inevitable.

The demolition of buildings not only provokes high environmental costs manifested through the demolition waste but also loss of social cohesion and loss of its residents. In this reality, both resource and social circularity become essential where social housing is a key driver for getting residents back to no-go areas.

Kerkrade now hosts Europe’s first circular social housing estate through the Super Circular State, a project co-financed by the ERDF through the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative. For Kerkrade, the 60s was a period when many new homes were built nationwide in a short time. Soon after many high-rise apartment buildings became vacant brining neglection into the neighbourhood. However, many of these building contained valuable materials, qualities and former social structures that demolition would irreversibly dismiss.

Super Circular Estate circularly reuses these values from the deconstruction of two vacant social housing blocks and using 75% -100% of its material to build new social homes in the area and the layout of the public space.

The housing corporation HeemWonen, part of Housing Europe’s Dutch social housing community, and the City of Kerkrade ensured former residents were actively involved into the process of urban transformation with the aim of bringing the social life back to the area after the completion of the development. Through regular events, discussion sessions and talks about the project progress residents soon developed a sense of ownership with Super Circular Estate creating a new identity for the community and the city that everyone can build on. They have managed to build strong bond with representatives of the residents that have started acting as ambassadors of the project through a Neighbourhood Steering Platform.

While the project will generate nearly one thousand tonnes of CO₂ emissions less, compared to the construction of a new buildings, former social structures will also be recovered by actively stimulating former inhabitants to take residence in the area again and by providing affordable, resource-efficient homes as well as high quality and liveable public spaces.

In the process of engaging the residents, communication and making energy and climate accessible to people was key in establishing a shared meaning and vision of the future. Often times, making the connection between local history and the future helps in turning projects into a people’s stories.

In Kerkrade circularity has been taken as an opportunity to turn weaknesses into strengths while meeting climate and social objectives. Super Circular State in Kerkrade serves as a reference model to similar housing estates not only in the Parkstad Limburg region, but across other EU regions at the doors of the energy transition or facing similar shrinking challenges.