Institute For Eco-Municipality Education & Assistance

Sarah James and Torbjörn Lahti of IEMEA 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). Many eco-municipalities have emerged in the United States. The following describes what an eco-municipality is:


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. In 2000, The American Planning Association (APA) adopted the Planning for Sustainability Policy Guide of which Sarah James was a co-author. 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. View Policy Guide

The American Planning Association’s four sustainability objectives

Use planning approaches that…

  1. Reduce dependence upon fossil fuels, underground metals, and minerals.
  2. Reduce dependence upon synthetic chemicals and other unnatural substances.
  3. Reduce encroachment upon nature.
  4. 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.

On the East Coast, Lawrence Township, New Jersey, a suburb of Trenton and New York City, is following suit, as are the New England communities of Portsmouth,  New Hampshire, and Concord, MA. In 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 have formed the North American Eco-municipality Network and hold periodic conference calls to assist each other in their journeys. There are now more almost 30 eco-municipalities in the U.S. that have officially passed resolutions adopting either the Natural Step system conditions or the American Planning Association's guiding sustainability objectives as official municipal policy and are working to integrate these throughout their governments and larger communities.

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 pledged to support the emerging eco-municipality movement and other communities who adopt the APA sustainability objectives. The University of Wisconsin Superior is an academic partner to 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, Africa, and New Zealand.

For more information, visit these Web sites:

Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative

Wisconsin Eco-municipalities

Wisconsin Chapter of the American Planning Association - ecomunicipalities

Sustainable Lawrence, NJ

Sustainable Sweden

SeKom (National Association of Swedish Eco-municipalities)

Examples of projects and local eco-municipality initiatives in the US:

Town of Concord, MA

The Town of Concord's governing Board of Selectmen voted to adopt the four ecomunicipality principles as guiding Town policy for moving toward sustainability.  The Town commissioned ecomunicipality training sessions for Town staff and departments led by Sarah James.  Among its other accomplishments, Concord became the first municipality in the state of Massachusetts to ban plastic water bottles.  Go to Concord ecomunicipality.

City of Portsmouth, NH

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. Go to Portsmouth Ecomunicipality.

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. Go to Sustainable Lawrence.

Sustainable Chequamegon Bay

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 Bay’.  For a 15-minute video about how the initiative got started, click on Video.

The North American Eco-municipality Network 

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.


Examples of Municipal Resolutions Adopting APA's Sustainability Objectives:

Since 2005, over 25 U.S. municipalities and county governments have officially adopted the American Planning Association's four guiding sustainability objectives as their official municipal policy on sustainability and have been putting these into action.  Click on each of the links below to see some of their municipal resolutions.

City of Ashland, WI       
City of Bayfield, WI     
City of Cable, WI 
City of Beloit, WI       
City of Portsmouth, NH
Dunn County, WI
Douglas County, WI
City of Marshfield, WI
City of Neenah, WI
City of Reedsburg, WI
City of Stevens Point, WI
Town of Concord, MA
City of Duluth, MN
City of Eau Claire, WI
City of Sheboygan, WI
Town of Greenville, WI
Village of Johnson Creek, WI
Village of Shorewood, WI
City of Wausau, WI