The Eco-municipalities in North America

The Eco-municipality concept spread successfully in the USA and Canada in the 2000’s, with Whistler (Canada) becoming the first North-American eco-municipality in 2000. Here is some more information about the eco-municipalities of those countries.

USA

The relationship between Torbjörn Lahti and the USA begins in 1997, when Torbjörn Lahti and Gunnar Brundin are invited by Terry Gips to give and assist to lectures in the U.S. for three weeks. Following this trip, the first Sustainable Sweden Tour was organized later this year, with only American participants. The first of many…

In 2000, the American Planning Association (APA) adopted the Planning for Sustainability Policy Guide of which Sarah James was a co-author. It adopted then the same sustainability principles on which are based the Swedish Eco-municipalities.

In 2001, a Second Tour is organized with American and Japanese participants. Learning from the first Tour, the schedule was much lighter this time, but the trip was still very intense for a lot of participants. Since then, Sustainable Sweden Tours with American participants are organised very regularly, often with the help of Cindi Contie, who quit her job and dedicated herself to sustainable development after a Tour in 2002.

In 2004, Torbjörn Lahti and Sarah James, an American city planner who participated to the 2001 Tour, publish the book “The Natural Step for Communities. How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices”. A lot of the examples presented in the book are from the 2001 Tour. This publication led to a Book Tour in a few states of the USA. Thus, Torbjörn Lahti and Sarah James met several “fire souls”, mostly from Wisconsin, that got inspired by the Eco-municipality concept. In the next years, a lot of study circles based on the book bloomed in American cities.

The following year, in 2005, the city of Washburn, along the Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin, becomes the first eco-municipality in the USA. The Chequamegon Bay Region has been influenced by the culture from the Nordic European Countries, as a lot of people from Nordic countries have settled there throughout history; and even its landscapes are very reminiscent of Northern Sweden. This proximity made the establishment of a relationship with Swedish actors easier. The same year, Ashland and Madison (Wisconsin) also adopted the Natural Step Principles. Ashland and Washburn, together with Bayfield, WI and the neighboring Bad River and Red Cliff tribal nations, took part of an eco-region initiative in the Chequamegon Bay region, leading to a regional strategic sustainability plan for 2006-2011.

In June 2006, a workshop is organized in Madison, Wisconsin, where aspiring American ecomunicipalities gathers to form a network (along with some Canadian ones) : the North American Eco-municipality Network. The Network included a long list of academic institutions and non-profit organizations at the local, state, national and international level with a broad range of expertise to share with one another, with the goal of creating more sustainable communities.

Here is the first  generation of American Eco-municipalities (founded in 2005/2006) :

  • Chequamegon Bay Region: Ashland and Washburn, Wisconsin
  • Vandergrift, Pennsylvania
  • Lawrence Township, New Jersey (the process was and is still driven by the NGO Sustainable Lawrence)
  • Madison, Wisconsin (the process was and is still driven by the NGO Sustain Dane)
  • Portsmouth, New Hampshire
  • Duluth, Minnesota

In a few years, the number of cities adopting an eco-municipality resolution grew to 30, mostly in Wisconsin, and a few on the East Coast.

A lot of those eco-municipalities were impulsed by citizen activists trying to make their community more sustainable. Indeed, the municipalities in the US have much less power than the ones in Sweden, which explains the importance of grass-roots movements in the country. Therefore, an eco-municipality in the USA can’t be based in the same way than in Sweden; the participation of actors outside of the local government is even more important : local businesses, associations, schools, citizens…

The work made to spread the eco-municipality concept and the Natural Step principles in the USA was mostly made through IEMEA, directed both by Torbjorn Lahti and Sara James, in collaboration with the Natural Step Canada. Today SSA is collaborating with Full Circle Discovery (an organization is based in Vandergrift, one of the first American eco-municipalities) via Cindi Contie to plan the Tours in Sweden.

In 2017, as SEKOM was holding its annual conference in Luleå, Cindi Contie gave a presentation on the current situation of the American Eco-municipalities, that can be watched here.

A project of twinning between American Eco-municipalities and Swedish ones is currently under way. This would be a great opportunity to strenghten and develop the communities concerned and their work for sustainability, as well as the eco-municipality concept.

Here are some interesting links to know more about eco-municipalities in USA :

Canada

In the Canadian society, the recognition of the need of public sector is much more spread than in the USA. This, and the huge work done by The Natural Step Canada with the municipalities, can explain partly why Canada is now the country where the Natural Step concepts are the most spread.

In 2000, Whistler (BC) was becoming the first Eco-municipality in North-America. It since received several awards for the “world best environmental community”. The collaboration between TNS Canada and the Canadian Association of Municipalities allowed to spread the experiences from Whistler to dozens of others municipalities in Canada who adopted in turn the Natural Step principles.