THE NORDIC COUNTRIES KNOW HOW TO CREATE SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES
The Natural Step for Communities
By Tim Montague
Sweden has a penchant for safety and cleanliness. Swedes invented the
Volvo, one of the safest automobiles. Volvos are built to minimize
harm to passengers during accidents, and they are built without toxic
flame retardants. Swedes invented the safety- match and dynamite too
— much safer than the alternative it replaced, black powder.
Recently, Sweden has become known for its innovations in sustainable
development — safer development.
Sweden recently declared that it will create an energy and
transportation economy that runs free of oil by the year 2020. But the
groundwork for this radical declaration was laid in the 1980s by
Sweden’s eco-municipality movement, which successfully incorporated
sustainability into municipal planning and development.
Before former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland became a
household name in international environmental circles, Sweden and
Finland were stimulating local economic growth in ways that were good
for people and the planet. The town of Overtornea — Sweden’s first
eco-municipality — was an early adopter of what we now call
sustainable development, which “meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own
needs.”[The Brundtland Report, 1987].
Simultaneously, The Natural Step (TNS) was being developed by
Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robert. The Natural Step began as a
way for individual companies to create more environmentally and
socially responsible practices; see Rachel’s News #667, #668, and
#676. And TNS was quickly embraced by Swedish planners, government
officials and residents who wanted to achieve their goals AND minimize
harm to the environment and human health.
The Swedish economist and planner Torbjorn Lahti was one of the
visionaries in Overtornea — a town of 5,000 that had 25%
unemployment and had lost 20% of its population during the previous 20
years. Lahti and his colleagues engaged the community — getting
participation from 10% of residents — to create a shared vision of a
local economy based on renewable energy, public transportation,
organic agriculture, and rural land preservation. In 2001 the town
became 100% free of fossil fuels. Public transportation is free. The
region is now the largest organic farming area in Sweden and more than
200 new businesses have sprung up.
The story of the eco-municipality movement is documented in the new
book, The Natural Step for Communities; How Cities and Towns can
Change to Sustainable Practices (2004; ISBN 0865714916) written by
American planner Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti. Today there are
more than 60 eco-municipalities in Sweden — representing 20 percent
of the population — and this movement for social and ecological
sanity has spread throughout Norway, Finland and Denmark as well.
Here in North America, cities like Whistler, British Columbia,
Portland, Oregon, and Santa Monica, California are on the
bleeding-green edge with city-wide master plans in which
sustainability is more than just a buzzword. These cities are making
the transition to renewable energy, mass-transit, green building, zero
waste and open-space preservation. As a report card on Santa
Monica’s progress shows, they have a long way to go, especially on the
social-justice front, to meet the Brundtland Report definition of
sustainability. But they are trending in the right direction. They are
What is the Natural Step for Communities and how does it work?
Like the Precautionary Principle — which is another lens forak;dr;job;
sustainability — the Natural Step (TNS) says that the decision-making
process must be inclusive and participatory. TNS recognizes that the
communities we live in will be self-sustaining only when resources are
justly distributed. You can have the greenest buildings, the cleanest
energy in the world, and the best public transportation. But without a
just social system, the community will not achieve sustainability.
The Natural Step has four ‘system conditions’ which, when achieved,
will create sustainable conditions. In a sustainable society, nature
is not subject to systematically increasing
1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
2. concentrations of substances produced by society;
3. degradation by physical means
4. and, in that society human needs are met.
In other words, we should minimize harm to the earth and human health;
we should use alternatives to fossil fuels, toxic metals, and other
persistent toxic substances. We should achieve zero waste (or darn
near). And we should protect and restore nature and the ecosystem
services it provides. But most importantly, we should meet basic human
needs for food, shelter, education and healthcare. I would add that
basic human needs include a social environment free of social
isolation bred of racism and classism, an environment that nurtures
and respects everyone.
According to The Natural Step for Communities, social justice is a
prerequisite that will either allow or prevent the other system
conditions from being achieved. And while TNS for Communities is rich
with examples of towns and cities that have improved their physical
and natural environments, the examples of improved social environments
are fewer and less concrete.
The indigenous Sami people — a trans-arctic people living in
Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia — are struggling to hold on to
their traditional reindeer herding culture which is being crowded out
by logging, development and environmental degradation. While some
groups of Sami — as suggested by TNS for Communities — are
transitioning to an economy based on eco-tourism, the growth of that
phenomenon isn’t necessarily socially, economically and
environmentally sustainable. If the traditional Sami culture dies,
then this movement has failed.
While there are obvious technological fixes to some of our
environmental woes — like wind energy and electric vehicles —
solving the issues of institutional racism are not specifically
addressed by the Natural Step. Still, I believe TNS for Communities
does hold several important pearls of wisdom for all cultures.
** Begin and guide a planning process with a community-defined vision
of a desired future (set goals; involve residents in the process).
** Combine vision, planning, and action from the start and throughout
the planning process (assess alternatives and choose the best one;
pick the low-hanging fruit and dive into real projects that improve
** Include the full range of community interests, values, and
perspectives in a meaningful way (involve those most affected; use
open, democratic decision-making).
** Plan in cycles, not just one linear pass (learn from your mistakes
and oversights; correct course accordingly).
** Focus on finding agreement, not on resolving disagreement (consider
** Lead from the side (involve those most affected: let residents be
There is mounting evidence that the Nordic model — including Sweden
and Finland — of free education, affordable healthcare, and cradle-
to-grave social services COMBINED with high rates of investment in
industrial research and development produces a high standard of living
and a vibrant economy.
As we begin to acknowledge that the social determinants of health are
MORE important than purely environmental factors, those of us who are
building a movement for a sustainable urban environment have much to
learn from the Natural Step and the eco-village movement.