Sarah James and Torbjörn Lahti are working to bring the
‘eco-municipality approach’ to sustainable community planning to the United
States and beyond. This approach, based upon the experience of several
generations of Swedish eco-municipalities since the 1980s, is the subject of
their book The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Change
to Sustainable Practices (New Society Publishers, 2004). Already, several
eco-municipalities have emerged in the United States. The following describes
what an eco municipality is:
Examples of projects and local
eco-municipality initiatives in the US
Sweden and the United States
A systems approach to creating sustainable communities
What is an “eco-municipality”?
An eco-municipality is one that has adopted a particular set of
sustainability principles as guiding municipal policy and has committed to a
bottom-up, participatory approach for implementing this. Over 70 cities and
towns in Sweden – 25 per cent of all municipalities in the country - have
adopted a common set of sustainability principles and have implemented these
widely and systematically throughout their municipal operations and larger
communities. In the United States, three municipalities have followed suit and
several more are traveling down this path to become a sustainable community. The
American Planning Association’s sustainability objectives are based upon the
same sustainability principles that are now official policy of 25 per cent of
all the municipalities in Sweden.
The American Planning Association’s four sustainability objectives
Use planning approaches that…
- Reduce dependence upon fossil fuels, underground metals, and minerals.
- Reduce dependence upon synthetic chemicals and other unnatural substances.
- Reduce encroachment upon nature.
- Meet human needs fairly & efficiently.
The concept originated in Sweden in 1983 with the founding of the first
eco-municipality, Övertorneå. That pilot project in a northern rural town of
5,000 was such a success that it sparked what today has become a national
movement in Sweden involving communities that vary from villages of 300 people
to the capital city of Stockholm, with a population of several hundred thousand.
What is different about this sustainable community model?
While many U.S. communities in the United States are carrying out sustainable
development projects such as green building programs, affordable housing, smart
growth, or climate change initiatives, these largely are occurring on a
project-by-project basis that might be called the “silo approach” to sustainable
development. In contrast, the eco-municipality model uses a systems approach
that involves widespread community awareness-raising and integrated municipal
involvement, and using a common language to identify what sustainability means,
such as the four APA sustainability objectives. These approaches have been
instrumental in creating an extensive track record of success.
Emerging U.S. eco-municipalities
In 2005, the Wisconsin communities of Ashland, Washburn, and Madison became
the first eco-municipalities in the United States when their city councils each
voted to adopt either the APA sustainability objectives or the original Swedish
sustainability framework on which these are based. Washburn, WI received an
award from Wisconsin’s governor for taking this path-breaking step. Ashland and
Washburn, together with Bayfield, WI and the neighboring Bad River and Red Cliff
tribal nations, are part of a grass-roots eco-region initiative that is
growing in the Chequamegon Bay region of northern Wisconsin. Widespread
community sustainability education and strategizing is occurring, with local
officials front and center in the process. The initiative recently completed a
regional strategic sustainability plan, available on the Web (see below). The
City Council and Mayor of Duluth, MN, passed a resolution adopting the APA
sustainability objectives as official city policy in June, 2006. Most recently,
Johnson Creek, WI and Douglas County, WI have passed official eco-municipality
On the East Coast, Lawrence Township, New Jersey, a suburb of Trenton and New
York City, is following suit, as is the New England city of Portsmouth, New
Hampshire. In both of these communities, local officials, department heads, and
citizens are increasingly learning about and enthusiastically using the four
sustainability objectives as a common language for how to move toward changing
to sustainable practices and for guiding local decisions. These emerging
eco-municipalities and others such as Vandergrift, PA have formed the North
American Eco-municipality Network and hold periodic conference calls to assist
each other in their journeys.
Who is involved
Sarah James, APA member and co-author of APA’s Planning for Sustainability
Policy Guide, and Torbjörn Lahti, founder of the Swedish eco-municipality
movement and Director of the international Sustainable Robertsfors demonstration
project, are the co-founders of the U.S. eco-municipality movement. Both are
authors of The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Change
to Sustainable Practices, recipient of the Planetizen 2005 Top Ten Book
Award in planning and design. They offer training and education in sustainable
community planning, process leadership, and how to become an eco-municipality.
The American Planning Association has pledged to support the emerging
eco-municipality movement and other communities who adopt the APA sustainability
objectives. Tufts University in Medford, MA is an emerging academic partner to
the movement, initiating an eco-municipality internship program both in Sweden
and the U.S., and developing an evaluation model for the movement. International
partners include Sustainable Sweden, Inc., a non-profit organization organizing
tours of the Swedish eco-municipalities, and SeKom, the National Association of
Swedish Eco-municipalities. Additional eco-municipalities are emerging in Japan,
Estonia, and New Zealand.
For more information, visit these Web sites:
Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative
SeKom (National Association of Swedish
Examples of projects and local
eco-municipality initiatives in the US
that have emerged from Sarah James’s work can be viewed at the
following Web sites:
City of Portsmouth,
The City commissioned a series of training workshops from June 2005- May 2006
to introduce the eco-municipality approach, led by Sarah James. Workshops were
conducted first, with the City Manager, Deputy City Manager, and all department
heads. Next, the City Council, Planning Board, Zoning Board, Conservation
Commission, School Board, and Historical Commission. Then, in May, 2006, a
Community Workshop. City sustainability initiatives and emerging actions are
summarized at this Web Site.
Lawrence Township, NJ
A suburban community of 30,000 one hour from New York City. A citizen
activist heard a presentation by Sarah James & Torbjörn Lahti on their 2004 book
tour, and told other citizens about this. Then, in early 2005, the Township
invited Sarah James to be a keynote speaker at a kick-off event, then to lead a
training eco-municipality workshop later that year. The Web site listed above
describes this eco-municipality initiative and the results.
This region of northern Wisconsin, including three municipalities and two
Native American tribes, with a total population of 20,000 people, are working
together to promote a regional eco-municipality initiative. This initiative,
too, got started when a local city councilor and a local citizen activist
attended an eco-municipality workshop led by James and Lahti in Minneapolis, MN.
See their strategic plan, including the history of how the initiative has
developed since, on the above Web site by clicking on ‘Sustainable Chequamegon’.
The North American Eco-municipality
In June, 2004, Sarah James, together with Torbjörn Lahti, organized a
gathering of people from various emerging eco-municipalities in the US, and
regional, state, national, and international organizations who could help
support them. Out of this gathering emerged the North American Eco-municipality
Network, which assists existing and emerging eco-municipalities in
knowledge-sharing and support. See ‘Eco-municipalities’ at the above Web site,
then North American Eco-municipality Network. Site also lists other emerging
eco-municipalities and supporting organizations.