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 106 cities and towns in Sweden – almost 40 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, over thirty municipalities  and county governments have followed suit. In 2000, The American Planning Association (APA) adopted a Planning for Sustainability Policy Guide of which Sarah James was a co-author. The Guide's general sustainability policies were based upon the same sustainability principles that are now official policy of the eco-municipalities of Sweden.  In January, 2016, the APA  chose a sustainability framework to supercede the 2000 Guide; however many U.S. communities have formally adopted the original 2000 Policy Guide sustainability objectives as official municipal policy.  These are now known as the ecomunicipality sustainability principles:

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 ecomunicipality 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.

Examples of Municipal Resolutions Adopting the Ecomunicipality Principles:

Since 2005, over 30  U.S. municipalities and county governments have officially adopted the four guiding ecomunicipality sustainability objectives, or the Natural Step system conditions upon which these are based, as their official municipal policy on sustainability and have been putting these into action.  Click on each of the links below to see their municipal resolutions.

City of Ashland, WI       
City of Baruboo, WI
City of Bayfield, WI
Town of Bayfield, WI
City of Cable, WI 
Village of Colfax, WI
Town of Cottage Grove, WI
City of Beloit, WI       
City of Portsmouth, NH
Dunn County, WI
Douglas County, WI
Village of Fox Crossing, WI (formerly Town of Menasha)
City of Green Lake, WI
City of La Crosse, WI
County of La Crosse, WI
City of Marshfield, WI
City of Madison, WI
City of Manitowoc, WI
City of Menasha, WI
City of Neenah, WI
City of Reedsburg, WI
Village of Spring Green, 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 Washburn, WI
City of Wausau, WI

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.

Sarah James and Torbjörn Lahti of IEMEA have brought the ‘eco-municipality approach’ to sustainable community planning to the United States and elsewhere in the world. 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:


Who is involved

Sarah James, APA member and co-author of APA’s 2000 Planning for Sustainability Policy Guide, and Torbjörn Lahti, founder of the Swedish eco-municipality movement and Director of Sustainable Sweden, Inc., 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 100 Friends of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin Extension, and University of Wisconsin Superior have been partners in 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, Chile, and New Zealand.

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 in the Chequamegon Bay region of northern Wisconsin. Another eco-region has developed in the Fox Valley of Wisconsin.  Widespread community sustainability education and strategizing is occurring, with local officials front and center in the process. Over thirty municipal and county governments in Wisconsin are now ecomunicipalities.

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. 

Sweden and the United States

A systems approach to creating sustainable communities

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 describes this eco-municipality initiative and the results. Go to Sustainable Lawrence.  The co-founders of Sustainable Lawrence also helped to found Sustainable Jersey - a state-wide organization that helps NJ communities in sustainable development and certifies their progress.  Inspired by Sustainable Jersey's success, the state of Maryland has founded a similar effort.  Go to Sustainable Jersey.  More recently, Sustainable Jersey has founded a similar sustainability education and certification process for schools. Go to Sustainable Jersey Schools.

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’. 

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.