Challenges in Sustainability | 2016 | Volume 4 | Issue 2 | Pages 1–14
ISSN: 2297–6477
Challenges in
Research Article
Identifying the “Usual Suspects”—Assessing Patterns of
Representation in Local Environmental Initiatives
Paul Fenton
* and Henner Busch
Division of Environmental Technology & Management, Link
oping University, Sweden
Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Sweden
Lund University Centre of Excellence for Integration of Social and Natural Dimension of Sustainability, Sweden
* Corresponding author: E-Mail:; Tel.: +46 13285620; Fax: +46 13281101
Submitted: 28 January 2016 | In revised form: 4 May 2016 | Accepted: 6 June 2016 |
Published: 21 June 2016
An increasing body of literature explores the role of transnational municipal networks (TMNs) in
governing sustainable development. As associations, one key task of TMNs is to represent their members
through production and dissemination of information and knowledge concerning municipal action for
sustainable development. Case studies, often emphasising best practice, are used by many TMNs to fulfil
this task. Nevertheless, despite strong scrutiny concerning the use of case studies in “policy mobilities”
research, there have been limited attempts to quantify the ways in which TMNs present and disseminate
case studies and, by doing so, generate trends of presence and absence in literature on sustainable
development. Assessing patterns of representation for continents, countries, municipalities and themes
across nine international case study collections published by ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability
since 1991, this study responds to this research gap and identifies the presence of “usual suspects” in the
ICLEI case study collections, along with notable absentees. By doing so, the study contributes to policy
mobilities research and literature on TMNs, by encouraging reflection and further research concerning the
representation patterns influencing which municipalities and what topics are presented in discourses on
sustainable development.
Keywords: ICLEI; case studies; comparative urbanism; municipalities; TMNs; urban sustainability
1. Introduction
This paper explores the role of transnational municipal net-
works (TMNs) in governing for sustainable development,
with specific focus on the production and dissemination of
information and knowledge concerning municipal efforts to
increase sustainability. Municipalities, it is claimed, play an
important role in a transition to sustainable development
that requires multi-level governance and diverse forms of
action [
]. As such, municipalities have initiated a diverse
range of experiments aiming to contribute to sustainable
development at the local and global level [
]. Various
TMNs have been established to provide coordination and
support functions that may add value to, and help spread
knowledge about, the actions of single municipalities [6].
TMNs are typically associations, organised as networks
of members who may pay subscription fees and usually re-
ceive services in a variety of forms [
]. TMNs may address
multiple themes or single issues, be formed of particular
types of municipality, or represent different geographic ar-
2016 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
eas [
]. As such, it is difficult to directly compare TMNs
]. ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability (com-
monly known as ICLEI, and formerly known as the Inter-
national Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) has,
since its foundation in 1990, emerged as a prominent TMN
addressing sustainable development [11–13].
ICLEI provides a range of information services aimed at
members, stakeholders and the general public. This paper
focuses on ICLEI’s use of case studies as an information
tool, assessing the continents, countries, municipalities and
themes represented in nine collections of case studies. The
paper identifies patterns of representation across these col-
lections and assesses ways in which the composition of the
case study collections (i.e. the representation of certain
types of activities in particular locations) may influence the
framing of the practice and study of sustainable develop-
ment in municipalities, and the possible implications of such
representation for research and practice [
]. By doing so,
this paper contributes to literature considering the role of
materials (e.g. publications) in “policy mobilities” [15,16].
2. TMNs: Roles and Functions
TMNs are said to help municipalities address local, national
and transnational concerns by providing services that fulfil
local (intra-municipal), horizontal (inter-municipal) and ver-
tical functions (national, international) [
]. Kern and
Bulkeley [
] identify three main characteristics of TMNs: 1)
voluntary membership; 2) self-governing polycentric and non-
hierarchical structures; and, 3) provision of implementation
support to members (as opposed to the lobbying of conven-
tional non-governmental organisations (NGOs)). As such,
TMNs often act as mediators and convenors, promoting “gov-
ernance by diffusion” [
]. TMNs may be seen as a
dynamic alternative to traditional forms of government [
] or
as “quasi-governmental actors representing conventional
interests embedded in the international system [
]. Giest
and Howlett [
] argue that TMNs function more effectively
when working with the support of national governments and
when focused on specific geographical regions (cf. [7]).
This suggests that the location of TMN activities may
be as relevant as the topics or themes that they address.
Studies by Dolowitz et al. [
] support this perspective
and downplay the diffusion effects of TMNs, noting that the
policy searches of municipalities tend not to be systematic
but are more often based on convenience and geographic
proximity. That said, when there is evidence of careful and
comprehensive searches, diffusion (or at least learning)
may be said to occur [
]. In order to be representative of
their members (and/or constituency group), TMNs thus face
a challenge to accommodate the interests of both the typi-
cal and more ambitious municipalities, for whom different
types of information and services may be relevant.
Representing members and their interests is a sizeable
challenge for TMNs. Various authors observe the over-
representation of certain cities or categories of cities in
literature on sustainable development and within TMNs [
]. In some cases, this may lead to the development
of “core-periphery” dynamics influencing the operations,
activities and thematic focus of TMNs [
]. On such oc-
casions, prominent and active members may contribute to
the consolidation or diffusion of particular norms, themes
or solutions, or dominate the internal governance of TMNs.
Given that TMN members only ever account for a fraction of
their possible constituency, issues or perspectives relevant
to the large group of non-members may be downplayed or
silenced in TMN agendas (indeed, the non-representative
nature of TMNs, and their overall significance, remains un-
der scrutiny, see e.g. [
]). TMNs should thus be careful to
avoid representing only “the usual suspects” [8,28].
An overview of several theoretical frameworks proposed
to describe the roles and functions of TMNs can be found in
Table 1. One task that is common to these frameworks is the
production and dissemination of information and knowledge,
and specifically the communication of best practices aiming
to facilitate learning for improved sustainability performance.
Best or good practice has no clearly defined meaning, yet
may be assumed to refer to J
anicke and Weidner’s definition
of “success in comparative terms as best (or nearly best)
achievement” and thus encompass pioneering, radical and
incremental approaches in comparison to the status quo
], pp. 14–15). Nevertheless, McCann and Ward write
that “neither success nor failure is absolute. One does not
make sense without the other” ([
], p. 828). The absence
of best practices, indeed the absence of a case, may re-
veal and legitimise “attempts to change and embed new
policy models” ([
], p. 829). There is thus a need to crit-
ically assess patterns of presence and absence and their
implications in collections of materials such as case studies.
Best practices may also play a role in vertical gover-
nance, demonstrating “what is possible” to national govern-
ments, and thereby becoming tools for the advocacy and
lobbying efforts of TMNs. Similarly, some municipalities use
TMNs as platforms when aiming to raise their profile for
green place branding purposes [
], although this may
not be the primary aim of all municipalities in such networks
]. Finally, best practice examples may enable bench-
marking processes [
]. In this case best practice would
contribute to the internal governance of TMNs and their rule
setting processes, as well as learning in municipalities.
Table 1. Overview of network roles and functions.
Bulkeley et al. (2003)
Andonova et al. (2009)
Feldman (2012) [5] Bouteligier (2013) [37] Busch (2015) [31]
1 Knowledge
dissemination (case
studies of best practice
as tool for
Information sharing
(communication of best
Production & spread of
(communication of best
Exchange of information
(communication of best
Platform for members
(communication of best
2 Lobbying Capacity building &
Evolution of policies Increase of member
3 Implementation of EU
Rule setting Initiate local action Advocacy and lobbying Commitment brokering
4 Policy initiation Advocacy and lobbying
3. Case Studies as Dissemination Tools
Although the precise aims of TMNs when disseminating
information may vary, various TMNs use case studies as
an information tool (e.g. C40 Cities, Energie Cit
es, Euroc-
ities) [
]. The publication of case studies enables TMNs
to fulfil multiple objectives, e.g. by sharing information be-
tween members and more broadly, to society. Such case
studies may focus on general issues of relevance to sustain-
able development, or more specifically on activities linked
to specific themes that in turn may be linked to associa-
tions’ thematic priorities or financing; case studies may also
promote members or be offered as an incentive to get non-
members to join. Case studies thus act as a functional
tool for awareness-raising, exchange of ideas and capacity-
building. However, recent literature has highlighted a num-
ber of possible problems with the ways that case studies
present concepts or information.
For example, many case studies focus on a single action
in a specific municipality addressing a single theme. This
striation of “sustainable development” may risk making the
concept appear geographically or thematically specific or
limited, and thereby consolidate isolationist or elitist norms
]. For example, some writers (such as [
note an imbalance in the presentation of “developed” and
“developing” world narratives in academic literature, lead-
ing to over-representation of cases from Europe and North
America. Similarly, McFarlane [
] and Pierre [
] suggest
theories of urban governance developed in studies of North
American and European cities dominate over alternatives.
In other words, the frequency, framing and form of assess-
ments used by academics may distort understanding of
urban contexts and result in the presentation of frequently-
occurring cases dubbed “usual suspects” [28].
There are other potential problems with the use of case
studies. For example, solutions proposed in some case
studies may accentuate the problems identified in others
] and context-specific analysis is often devel-
oped and presented with limited reference to the global
challenges that stimulate local action; such lack of perfor-
mativity means that analysis is frequently detached from,
or devoid of, meaning [
]. Comparison between cases
may be difficult because, as even advocates of compara-
tive urban research note, comparative analysis depends
on “some degree of reductionism as a step in preparing
empirical observations” ([46], p. 447; cf. [14]).
Others contend that case studies have limited util-
ity, even when they provide interesting information, as
the scope and format of case studies tends to limit the
amount of information that can be provided. Even in a non-
comparative format, complex issues, such as institutional,
political, socio-economic or environmental dimensions, may
be presented in an overly simplified manner, or even dis-
counted by readers on the basis of assumptions about
perceived relevance [
]. Such perceptions have led to crit-
icisms of municipalities as being “purposefully conservative”
doing little more than that which they consider practical or
convenient [
]. Whilst there are not necessarily clear
alternatives to the use of case studies, McCann and Ward
are among the authors stating the need to explore the impli-
cations of presence and absence in more detail [30].
In sum, recent works suggests that the over-
representation of case studies in academic literature on ur-
ban sustainability may contribute to an over-representation
of certain kinds of municipalities, e.g. cities of a certain
size or in certain locations—at the expense of others. Cities
that are not represented, under-represented or less visibly
active may thus be considered to be either “free riders” or
“silenced” in debates on sustainable development. Against
this background, this article focuses on the extent to which
different continental regions, countries, municipalities and
themes are represented in nine collections of international
case studies published by ICLEI. In particular, the paper
investigates a claim made in a major ICLEI publication.
In 2012, ICLEI published the global review “Local Sus-
tainability 2012: taking stock and moving forward” [
]. As
a complement to the review, a compendium of case studies,
“Showcasing progress”, was also published. “Showcasing
progress” included short versions of 14 case studies in the
main ICLEI Case Study series. ICLEI was keen to stress
that the featured case studies were “not the usual sus-
pects”, suggesting their awareness that some case studies
perhaps risk becoming too familiar, repetitive or informative
due to their frequent appearance in collections [
]. How
well does ICLEI’s claim stand up? Did the compendium
feature a new group of municipalities? Or did the “usual
suspects” reappear? By illustrating patterns of represen-
tation, the article will explore if “usual suspects” exist in
this report and across ICLEIs collections of case studies,
and consider the implications of such occurrences for both
theory and practice.
4. ICLEI and Case Studies
4.1. The History of ICLEI
In September 2015, ICLEI celebrated the 25th anniversary
of its foundation. A short history of ICLEI follows (cf. [
In 1989, 35 local government leaders from North America
met and pledged to establish local regulations to phase
out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. At this meet-
ing, “Larry Agran, Mayor of Irvine, California, USA and Jeb
Brugmann imagined an agency that could coordinate local
government responses to global environmental problems”
]. An international consultation with local government
officials was held, and in September 1990, more than 200
local governments from 43 countries attended the World
Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future.
The Congress concluded with foundation of the Interna-
tional Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI)
and adoption of ICLEI Charter [52].
Operations began in March 1991, with the basic organi-
sational structure of ICLEI being established: ICLEI World
Secretariat, hosted by the City of Toronto, Canada, and a
European Secretariat in Freiburg, Germany, opened. This
world-regional structure has developed over time and to-
day, ICLEI maintains eight regional Secretariats and four
national offices [
]. ICLEI regions broadly correlate with
the UN Geoscheme of regions and sub-regions, which is
used for statistical purposes in the international system.
Since 2010, ICLEI World Secretariat has been hosted by
the City of Bonn, Germany, with six thematic centres lo-
cated at offices around the world [
]. The thematic centres
partly reflect the widening and deepening of ICLEI’s man-
date and activities over time, as did the formal change in
the organisation’s name made in 2003, when ICLEI became
ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability. Recent years
have also seen an increase in ICLEI membership. In 2006,
New Delhi became the 500th active ICLEI member, and
by November 2008, membership doubled when Mumbai
joined. There are presently around 1000 active members
of ICLEI in over 80 countries.
4.2. Agendas and Activities
ICLEI defines itself as having a triple role: as an associa-
tion of municipalities, a movement of municipalities, and an
agency for municipalities. In other words, ICLEI provides a
forum for members to meet and represents its members in
other arena (e.g. UNCSD, UNFCCC), whilst initiating and
participating in actions to raise awareness or increase ca-
pacity of municipalities and other stakeholders. The broad
and multi-dimensional role of ICLEI is realised through a va-
riety of initiatives, including campaigns, projects, alliances
and awareness-raising activities including conferences.
For example, at the UN Conference on Environment and
Development in 1992, ICLEI proposed the Local Agenda 21
initiative, which subsequently developed into a significant
conceptual and practical tool for municipalities to frame and
develop their work around environmental issues. Similarly,
the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign (CCP), launched
at the First Municipal Leaders Summit on Climate Change
in 1993, subsequently developed into a significant reference
point for municipal work on climate change [
]. ICLEI also
plays a central role in a number of other initiatives, such
as the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign,
and the EcoMobility Alliance.
4.3. Information as a Key Tool
Dissemination of information occurs on multiple levels and
using a variety of means. ICLEI has a global website, plus
dedicated websites for different continental regions, national
offices, initiatives, alliances, projects and conferences. Dis-
semination actions include regular newsletters, e-newsletters,
conference publications, books, reports, manuals, training
guides, and case studies. Dissemination of information has
multiple objectives, such as providing information on ICLEI
as an organisation; fulfilling associative needs by represent-
ing members; or awareness-raising or promotion of past or
ongoing actions by ICLEI or its members.
4.4. ICLEI Case Study Collections
Since its inception, ICLEI has published case studies in var-
ious series that are both international and national/regional
in scope. The publication of case studies and promotion
of particular practices suggests a willingness to influence
other municipalities and promote replication (in appropriate
contexts) of the described approach. Interest is generated
by describing an approach that is considered singular or
unique, innovative or successful, implying a normative eval-
uation of case studies as “good” or “best” practices [
ICLEI case studies aim to present best practice in its local
context, by describing a project and its results; identifying
lessons learned; and assessing the “replication potential”
and costs of a project [57,58].
Case studies may represent the experiences of member
municipalities or ICLEI initiatives to specific or general au-
diences; highlight specific themes or topics (advocacy); or
support capacity-building by illustrating particular methods,
ideas or processes. For example, the main ICLEI Case
Study series, issued by ICLEI World Secretariat, addresses
international municipal efforts for sustainable development
across multiple themes. In contrast, ICLEI Oceania Water
Campaign case study series presents thematic information
with exclusive focus on the Oceania region. Other case
study collections have been published in relation to specific
international or regional projects or initiatives (e.g. [
5. Method
5.1. Data Collection
In early 2013, ICLEI launched a new global website
( This replaced the previous website, which
was archived at ( The archived web-
site remains online, although many of the internal links no
longer function. On the old website, ICLEI displayed its
publications in the section “ICLEI Publications”. There were
five categories, each of which contained sub-sets of pub-
lications with varying themes, purposes or target groups.
These categories were: ICLEI Case Studies; ICLEI Briefing
Sheets; ICLEI Papers; ICLEI Global Reports; and, ICLEI
Annual Reports.
On 21 February 2013, unaware of ICLEI’s intention to
archive the website, the researchers downloaded all ICLEI
case studies. A subsequent check ensured no further publi-
cations were added prior to archiving, meaning the down-
loaded files may be said to provide a complete and accurate
record for the period from ICLEI’s foundation up until the
end of February 2013. Case studies published during 2013–
2015 have subsequently been downloaded from the new
website, providing an almost complete record of ICLEI case
studies and enabling assessment of the collections’ de-
velopment over time. It is possible that other documents
relevant to the study but unavailable on the website exist
in other forms or locations, e.g. as paper copies, or in col-
lections not mentioned on the Publications page. However,
notwithstanding this uncertainty, it may be reasonably in-
ferred that the case study collections used as the empirical
data for this study are representative and likely to provide
interesting insights into the ways in which municipal work for
issues concerning sustainable development are portrayed
by this particular TMN.
5.2. Scope
Four major decisions were made to limit the scope of the
study. These were:
Attempt to provide a complete record of the online col-
lections published by ICLEI up to the end of 2015, by
including material from the old website
and (for the period 2013–2015) the new
Focus only on case study collections that are interna-
tional in scope (see Table 2). This choice was neces-
sary because the organisational structure of ICLEI is si-
multaneously global and continental/regional. As such,
some, but not all, ICLEI regional Secretariats issues
case study collections that focus exclusively on their
member countries. Including such collections would
thus distort the balance of this study. The second choice
thus limits the scope of the case study collections as-
sessed in this study to those that are international in
scope, as opposed to collections primarily defined by
their geographic or thematic limitations. However, this
second choice necessitates a third choice.
Present results from the analysis of the collections, to-
gether with a brief separate analysis of the main series,
in order to distinguish more clearly between the two
types of collection.
Make limited analysis of the thematic content of case
studies. By including both the main ICLEI Case Study
series (which may cover any theme under the umbrella
of sustainable development) and other collections that
are thematic or project-related yet international in scope,
the ability to draw conclusions concerning thematic fo-
cus is likely to be skewed somewhat in favour of the
themes addressed in such collections.
In other words, it is possible to be quite categorical
about data concerning continents, countries and cities,
whereas the study of themes or topics addressed in case
studies necessarily implies some degree of interpretation
and subjectivity, in the sense that themes or topics may
overlap, or there may be discrepancies between words and
content within or between case studies. It is not possible
to be quite so categorical. Thus, to clarify, the thematic
results presented in this study have been developed in the
following way.
First, the key words from the titles of case studies have
been added to the main data sheet (see below) in which
empirical data are stored. Key words are verbs, adjectives
or nouns that influence the composition of the title and its
emphasis. To ensure data was collected from all studies, in
the absence of a clear title this information was extracted
from the case study’s summary or abstract. In the same
way, approximations or synonyms were used to simplify
data collection. As such, the thematic analysis provides
a reasonably good overview of the thematic focus of case
studies, but little information about the content of studies.
The thematic data are indicative and should only be inter-
preted as such. Deeper review or content analysis would
be required to make any larger claims concerning its signifi-
cance or the evidence of trends, etc.
In addition, it should be noted that the collections do
not only present municipal examples. A small number of
other sub-national entities such as counties, regions or
states are represented, as are several national initiatives
(e.g. from Mexico, Norway and India), one company (from
the USA), and ICLEI CCP campaign. There is also a risk
that municipalities represented for specific actions in the
main ICLEI Case Study series reappear in the other collec-
tions (i.e. that the main topic of a case study is repeated
across collections). Ultimately, the main focus of this paper
is not to provide methodological certainty about such issues,
but rather to identify the frequency at which municipalities
are represented in international collections and illustrate
general trends concerning themes.
Table 2.
Examples of case study collections available from or that are included or excluded from
this study.
Scope Collection Comments
298 case studies
ICLEI Case Study series - This collection addresses multiples themes.
included - (unspecified start) from 1991 - Dec. 2015. - The case studies are numbered 1-181.
- However: case studies 98-100 are not listed on the website
and case studies 94-97 are duplicated as 104-107.
- Case study 155 comprises not one but seven case studies that
were published jointly with the International Energy Agency
(IRENA) in 2012, i.e. +6.
- Thus, the main Case Study series contains 180 publications
(i.e. (181-7) + 6).
Climate Roadmap series - 32 case studies.
- Published 2009 in connection with UNFCCC COP15. - 13 case stories.
EcoMobility (2011) - 13 case stories.
- Related to work of the EcoMobility Alliance.
GIZ-ICLEI NEXUS collection (2014)
- Examples of approaches to resource management and service
- 8 case studies and 29 shorter case stories.
Local Action for Biodiversity (2008) - 23 case studies.
- Related to project of the same name.
SWITCH Urban Water Management (2011) - 6 case studies.
- Related to project of the same name.
URBAN LEDS project (2015) - 1 case story.
WBCSD-ICLEI Innovative City-business Collaboration (2015) - 6 case stories.
Excluded Federation of Canadian Municipalities
- External collection linked from with no obvious
ICLEI logo; national scope.
ICLEI Africa case studies - Duplication of main ICLEI Case Study series.
ICLEI Canada case studies - National scope; also access restricted to ICLEI members.
ICLEI East Asia publications, including Korea and Japan case
- National scope; published in Japanese and Korean.
ICLEI Oceania case studies - Case studies are included, but exclusively concentrate on
ICLEI South East Asia
- Regional collection presenting cases from Indonesia, Thailand,
- Based on Canadian International Development Agency project.
and Philippines.
Innovation, Knowledge and Exchange Network (IKEN) - External collection linked from but with no
ICLEI logo.
Local Renewables case studies
- Duplication of main ICLEI Case Study series plus one external
case study.
5.3. Compiling the Data
Data was compiled in excel, with sub-sheets developed for
specific categories. The main sheet records the issues such
as the case study collection, case study number, the avail-
ability of the source document, the case study title, municipal-
ity/organisation in focus, country, continental region, year of
publication, ICLEI membership status (July 2013), and themes
addressed. The sub-sheets contain collations of different in-
formation sets, e.g. the results on cities presented below.
6. Results
6.1. Results: All International Case Studies
A total of 298 case studies were gathered from nine collec-
tions. Figure 1 shows the share each continental region
has of the total number of case studies. Studies focusing
on the Americas account for the largest share, with 115
studies, and Europe has the largest share for a single
continental region.
Figure 2 shows how the representation of examples from
different continental regions in case studies has increased for
all regions over time (in the case of North America, due to a
significant number of new studies published during 2015). In
particular, the portrayal of case studies from Asia and Europe
has increased rapidly during the second period. A detailed
breakdown per country is provided in Figure 3, which illus-
trates patterns of representation per continental region and
identifies countries that occur frequently in the collections.
6.2. National Results for Different Continental Regions
6.2.1. Africa
During the first period, case studies from six African coun-
tries were represented in the collections, including one
study from Senegal in West Africa, a Francophone nation.
This example stands out, being the only such case during
the two periods. Indeed, despite an overall, if small, in-
crease in the number of studies on African examples during
the second period, fewer African countries are represented
in this period. South Africa emerges as the dominant sub-
ject of case studies. During both periods, there are no exam-
ples from Northern Africa, the Sahara or the Horn, including
populous countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt or DR
Congo. South Africa is, of course, a fairly urbanised nation,
yet so too are nations such as Algeria, Libya, or Tunisia. It is
thus interesting to consider why the presentation of “Africa”
in ICLEI case study collections has increasingly come to
mean Anglophone, Southern (South) Africa.
6.2.2. Asia
The Asian continent has the largest share of the world’s
population and in recent decades has been subject to rapid
urbanisation. It is thus no surprise that there was an in-
crease in studies on Asian nations over time. In particular,
examples from India and Japan were the subject of a large
number of case studies, particularly compared to the first pe-
riod. Perhaps surprisingly, China—with its large population
and economy, significant environmental challenges, and
rapid urbanisation—is not so well represented, although
several other populous countries in the region, such as Iran,
Pakistan and Vietnam are not subjects of any case studies.
Interestingly, South Korea, as host to ICLEI offices, receives
no more representation than Thailand. No countries from
Central Asia are represented in case studies.
6.2.3. Europe
The pattern of representation in case studies for European
countries was fairly consistent, albeit with increased vol-
ume and diversity after 2002. However, few examples from
former-Soviet countries are recorded as case studies, and
together, Germany and Sweden account for 47% of all Euro-
pean case studies. In the case of Germany this is perhaps
unsurprising as the country has Europe’s largest population
and economy and a long history of environmental engage-
ment. Moreover, ICLEI’s European Secretariat has been
located in Freiburg since 1991, and since 2010, the World
Secretariat has been based in Bonn.
However, the number of Swedish examples may appear,
given the country’s size, surprising, despite the country’s
history with Local Agenda 21 and its other efforts to in-
crease sustainability. The Swedish share perhaps reflects
the strong degree of municipal autonomy and resource base
of Swedish municipalities [
]. It may also be influenced
by resources of those seeking to access (and produce) infor-
mation, in that some forms of policy search and information
collection (e.g. search engines) may favour examples that
are (a) already disseminated, (b) documented, and (c) in
English. Many Swedish municipalities have, over a long
period of time, successfully managed to document and dis-
seminate their experiences in English to wide audiences
via Internet.
Figure 1.
Share of all case studies per continental region.
To clarify, a 0.5 study signifies that the study concerned
two municipalities in the same or different countries, thus
“halving” the study.
Figure 2.
Number of studies per continental region during
two time periods.
Figure 3. Number of case studies per period and region in the nine collections.
6.2.4. North and Central America
These two continental regions are presented together as
only three countries are represented in the case study col-
lections. Two things are immediately obvious about the
results: first, that Mexico is the only country from Central
America and the Caribbean with case studies in the col-
lection; and second, the reduction in examples from the
USA during the second period (offset by seven publications
during 2015). Indeed, Canadian municipalities are the sub-
ject of almost as many case studies as US municipalities
since 2002. This may reflect a number of issues, e.g. US
domestic politics (although some would argue Canadian
politics with regard to environmental issues has not been
dissimilar); an increase in the availability of other platforms
(e.g. the US Conference of Mayors); or the strong role of
Canadian municipalities in ICLEI, with Toronto hosting the
World Secretariat from 1991-2010, Edmonton hosting the
2009 World Congress, and with Canadian representatives
on ICLEI’s Executive Committee.
6.2.5. Oceania
ICLEI’s Oceania case study series presents only Australian
examples, so it is perhaps no surprise that Australian exam-
ples also dominate the Oceanian share in other collections
too. One example from New Zealand is present, yet no
examples from other countries are included. Both Australia
and New Zealand have significant urban hubs and strong
local government systems; this may not be the case for all
countries in the Oceania region.
6.2.6. South America
The pattern of representation evident for South America
is somewhat similar to that of Africa, in the sense that vol-
ume increases in the second period whilst diversity does
not. Portuguese-speaking Brazil dominates the collection,
and within Brazil, the examples of Belo Horizonte (host to
ICLEI’s 2012 World Congress) and Betim from the State
of Minas Gerais account for 32% of the national total (and
22% of the South American total).
6.3. How Frequently Are Countries and Municipalities
The significant share of two Brazilian cities from one State in
their national and continental region totals highlights the need
to delve deeper into the issue of specific case representation.
As previously stated, the majority of the case studies
portray municipal examples. Of the 298 case studies as-
sessed in this sample, 144 case studies (48%) present
examples appearing only once in the collections, whereas
the remaining 154 case studies (52%) present examples
from 52 frequently occurring municipalities. This means
that, in total, 196 municipalities and/or other actors are rep-
resented by the case study collections. Of these, the 52
frequently occurring municipalities represent around 25% of
the examples, yet over half the total number of case studies.
In the following section, the composition of the 154 mul-
tiple cases will be assessed. Europe (47.5), South America
(40) and North America (31) have the largest number of
cases, followed by Asia (23.5), Africa (10), and Oceania
(2). There are no multiple cases from Central America. The
share of multiple case studies in each continental region’s
total varies considerably (see Figure 4). This measure re-
veals the relative diversity of the case studies represented
per continental region.
The same data can be used to show the share multiple
case studies in each continental region have in the total
298 case studies. Figure 5 shows that multiple case studies
from Europe (16%) and South America (13%) account for
29% of all case studies. Together with North America (10%),
multiple case studies from these three continental regions
account for 39% of all studies. In other words, specific mu-
nicipalities from these continental regions are represented
so frequently that their combined total is greater than that
of the combined total for all case studies from Africa, Asia,
Central America, the Middle East and Oceania combined
(35%). Likewise, the total is greater than that for the com-
bined total of single examples (i.e. those appearing only
once) from Europe, North America and South America.
The significant variation in the representation of countries
is also noticeable when looking exclusively at multiple case
studies. The countries named in Figure 6 account for 79% of
multiple case studies and approximately 41% of all studies.
Following on from this data, Figure 7 reveals the munici-
palities which are most frequently represented in the case
study collections, i.e. the multiples. These are all repre-
sented in the countries named in Figure 6, and it is perhaps
no surprise that the three of the six most-represented mu-
nicipalities are located in Brazil.
The 23 municipalities in Figure 7 account for 62% of the
154 multiple case studies, or 32% of all 298 studies. 18 of
the 23 municipalities are located in Europe, North America
and South America; there are no Central American, Middle
Eastern or Oceanic examples.
The prominence of these municipalities may have
various causes and it is possible to speculate about pos-
sible implications of these choices. It could be that these
cases were or are judged, according to some criteria
or purely subjective terms, to be the most relevant, suc-
cessful, innovative, etc. However, other criteria may have
played a role, e.g. participation in ICLEI projects, status
as an ICLEI host city (Freiburg, S
ao Paulo, Toronto), host
to ICLEI World Congresses (Belo Horizonte, Cape Town,
Edmonton), or other roles in ICLEI (e.g. representative
in Executive Committee). As ICLEI is a membership or-
ganisation, it would be surprising if there were no such
effects. Indeed, such representation is an important
function of the organisation.
Municipalities of different sizes and population are
represented in Figure 7. The megacities of S
ao Paulo
and Seoul and Calvi
a, a small town of around 50,000
inhabitants on the island of Mallorca, are obvious outliers
in terms of size, although there are no smaller (i.e. vil-
lage/rural) municipalities. Sixteen of the municipalities in
Figure 7 have populations in the range of approximately
400,000 to 5,000,000, accounting for 72% of studies on
these 23 municipalities, and 23% of all studies. (The mu-
nicipalities featured in Figure 7 that are exception to this
are Calvi
a, Freiburg, Helsingborg, S
ao Paulo, Shimla,
Seoul and V
o). In other words, 16 municipalities ac-
count for almost one quarter of all ICLEI case studies
on sustainable development at the local level. The 12
most-represented municipalities feature in 63 studies,
41% of multiples and 21% of the total collection.
6.4. Which Themes or Topics Are Represented in the
Case Studies?
The data presented here should be interpreted as highly
subjective, for the reasons already described. Thus, this
section does not aim to present a full or “scientific” account
of the data, but rather to illustrate some basic findings that
may inform future research.
A number of verbs and adjectives are deployed when
constructing titles. Those that appeared most frequently
were synonymous with “Involving” (34), “Reducing” (19),
“Promoting/encouraging” (17), “Implementing/action” (15),
“Managing” (15), and “Integrated/integration” (15). 11 stud-
ies referred to “leadership/best” but only 3 mentioned “ambi-
tion”. Of other categories, 3 mentioned “fighting/combating”
and 3 “benefiting”. The use of such words seems to imply
an emphasis on participation and awareness-raising, strate-
gic management, and actions to reduce negative impacts.
Concerning themes, energy (68) and climate change
(55) featured prominently, ahead of transport (47), urban de-
velopment (39), water (31), waste management (29) and en-
vironment (23). Concerning measures for each theme, stud-
ies on energy focused on renewable energy (37) or energy
conservation/energy efficiency (31). Other prominent sub-
themes/measures included economic development (42),
biodiversity (33), welfare/well-being (28), emission reduc-
tion targets (21), and mobility (16). Other topics featured
less prominently, despite their past inclusion as strategic
priorities of ICLEI, e.g. pollution (3) or soil (1). Themes
such as disaster prevention or health, together with cultural
issues such as heritage (all 1), were also less prominent.
Figure 4.
Multiple case studies as a proportion of continen-
tal regions.
Figure 5.
Multiple case studies per region as a proportion
of all case studies.