© City of Umeå


Planning Pioneer In The Far North
Umeå is located out in the wild north of Sweden – but it seems to like being at the centre of attention. It has been one of the fast-growing cities in Europe over the last decade, having doubled its population in 40 years, making it home to around 125,000 inhabitants today. The city has two universities including one of the world's top design schools – and was Europe’s capital of culture in 2014. Not bad for a town closer to the Arctic Circle than its own capital city. Sustainable energy is one of its pioneering achievements, and another is its focus on sustainable housing and infrastructure.



City Challenge Winner 2014

Green Energy Capital In the far North

Umeå’s municipal government believes leadership begins at home, and has shown the way with a 17% reduction in energy consumption – 20% reduction in cost – in city-owned buildings over the last 5 years. None of this was achieved through special technology or great cost: only the energy basics of better insulation, property energy management, and updating of aged equipment. One thing that the project did rely on – which demonstrates the relevance of well deployed taxes – was the participation of management personnel in the 120 buildings that the project included. The project paid for itself using the ESCO/EPC – energy service company / energy performance contracting – approach, where savings achieved cover costs incurred. Umeå is already a net exporter of green energy, based not only on its rich water and wind energy resources, but on one of Sweden’s largest solar cell installations. 

The Ålidhem area was damaged by a major fire in 2008, but that inspired the city and local energy company, Umeå Energi, to take the initiative to convert 400 dwellings to energy efficient homes with a 40-50% energy saving – and to build 137 new ones, with 2650 m2 of rooftop solar, creating one of the largest, and certainly the most northerly, major solar installation in Sweden, producing 300 MWh of energy per year.

Umeå Energi has a world-class portfolio of other sustainable energy initiatives, even taking for granted its work in solar, wind and hydroelectric power. Specifically, with its plants in Ålidhem and Dava, Umeå Energi is pioneering all the next-generation versions of combustion-based energy generation: biomass, combined-heat-and-power (CHP, or district heating), various versions of waste-to-energy and even peat burning.

Long-term planning for sustainable city growth

From the international perspective, probably the most profound contribution is the planning process and documentation that so clearly and confidently states that a city intending to almost double – again – it’s population in the next 30 years to 200,000 inhabitants can do so while becoming much more sustainable, not less. The regional plan for Umeå is still in force from 1998, but a major additional framework was added in 2011, one of the most explicitly sustainable planning documents to be found anywhere.


Almost every empirical and theoretical argument for a systematically sustainable city is found in the updated plan, based fundamentally on a rejection of the zoning of the city into functional areas, the signal mistake in the modernisation of cities that took root after the war. Instead, dense, rich, and socially vibrant block-based neighbourhoods are the design elements of the plan. Around and through these neighbourhoods are woven infrastructural, transport, and landscaping concepts that maintain quality of life and inclusion, economic development, natural landscape integration, and promote resource efficiency and protection of the natural environment. Umeå tops off this powerful planning work with a public-focus ‘barometer’ of progress and performance in delivering the quality of life and sustainability envisioned in the plan.

No city is perfect, but of all cities in the world, Umeå has gathered some of the strongest ideas and commitments together into a shared – political, technical and social – vision. People are noticing: Umeå has regularly been a finalist in the EU Green Capital of the Year award.

© Johan Gunséus

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Text by: John Manoochehri
Last edited: 2017-03-15