Transition Towns is the fastest growing social movement in the UK and a brilliant way to take positive action within your community. The Spark finds out more.
When Bristol mother and storyteller Inez Aponte saw Al Gore’s eco-documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, she cried for a week. But she has since turned her despair to practical action, thanks to a new movement called Transition, a movement planning for a post-climate-change, low-carbon world.
In 2007, Bristol became the first city to join a larger movement of Transition communities, which began in Ireland in 2005 and quickly spread worldwide. Totnes was the first of more than a hundred initiatives to form in Britain. The rest of the South West has followed and groups are thriving in Bath, Bristol, Glastonbury, Stroud and Taunton. In July 2008 Somerset County Council voted to become the UK’s first Transition Local Authority.
Transition’s popularity is partly down to its positive approach to bad news. Rather than feel despair about the twin threats of climate change and peak oil (or burying our head in the sand), the answer is to face up to reality and start planning now. Transition’s goal is to imagine what an oil-free future might look like, bringing people from all walks of life together to share their visions. This approach has unleashed a slew of constructive projects. For Inez Aponte, who now helps co-ordinate Transition Bristol, it’s an opportunity. “It’s up to us to create the future we want,” says Inez. “That, to me, is inspiring.”
Think global, act local
While the movement is concerned with our planet’s survival, answers lie in our own back yard. Transition uses a grassroots, rather than a top-down approach, believing sustainable communities build resilience for the future. For instance, Bristol is divided into 12 Transition groups, including Knowle (see box below). It’s more streamlined when each area behaves like an autonomous village with shared goals, and there is no need to defer to a higher authority.
This bottom-up approach leaves plenty of freedom for individual groups to decide which activities they want to pursue. Helen Royall, who coordinates Transition Stroud, says this is one of her favourite aspects of Transition. Most communities begin with talks and film screenings, then build to educational and social projects suited to the area, with more complex planning, as enthusiasm and participation grow.
Stroud’s textiles group teaches skills like knitting, crocheting and mending furniture, and the group is building a relationship with a textile recycling plant. “The idea is to take old clothes,” says Helen, “pulp them right down to their original fibre and remake them into something else.”
In September, Stroud will hold its second open homes weekend, during which people who have done eco-renovations will open their homes to visitors. Homeowners will be available to discuss the challenges and benefits of those renovations. Last year’s event drew about 750 visitors, and this year’s weekend, September 12–13, will tie in with the national Open Heritage Days. Groups in Glastonbury, Wells, Frome and Wedmore are teaming up on the same weekend for a similar project in their area.
Collaborating with other community groups is an essential component of Transition. One example is Bristol’s Sustainable Redland, which is helping local permaculturists improve the Metford Road Community Orchard in Redland Green. Building relationships within a neighbourhood and finding greener ways to eat better are some of Transition’s aims. Volunteers maintain the orchard in return for a share of the apples, plums, pears and nuts it grows. The group runs a local farmers’ market at the intersection of Whiteladies Road and Apsley Road, on the first Friday and the third Saturday of each month.
In its bid to find ways to use less carbon, Sustainable Redland has also helped residents install solar water heaters in their homes. The group did the research, then worked with a microenergy installer to get a deal on solar panels, enabling about ten families to install solar water heaters at an economical price.
While most Transition initiatives work separately from elected officials, others, such as those in Somerset, work in tandem. Linda Hull, Transition supporter and member of Glastonbury’s town council, says a goal of Transition Glastonbury was to “build a bridge to local government”. Transition groups wrote Energy Descent Plans: detailed procedures for how a specific community will deal with life beyond peak oil. Now Somerset has adopted Transition principles at the county council level, the groups that have already formed can start making good partnerships with local government, participating in land, transport or energy planning. The county council’s pledges, recorded on its website, promise to undertake a fuel-audit of its budgets and services and produce its own energy descent action plan to work out how to reduce oil use in the long-term across Somerset.
Transition offers something for everyone, and how much time you give is up to you. Paula Malone, of Transition Bath, describes some of the ways volunteers can help: “Activities include taking minutes at meetings, managing the email, writing the newsletter, maintaining the website, distributing posters, and keeping news sources up to date with what we’re doing.” Other volunteers help with the farmers’ market, set up films and talks, or research local energy and food issues.
Transition is also an opportunity to learn more skills. According to Helen, while most members of Transition Stroud are quite knowledgeable about permaculture and the environment, they welcome volunteers who might want to learn new skills, or share different ones. Inez points out small actions can help. “Simply baking a loaf of bread is participating,” she says. This summer, in what she calls an ‘exponential baking circle’, Inez plans to invite several people to her home to bake bread. The catch is that each guest must, in turn, host a bread-making event, and their guests will do the same. A website, www.loavesoflove.co.uk, will count the participants, and Inez hopes the project will spread throughout the nation.
If you feel hesitant about what you can offer, Inez says a key aspect of Transition is the “notion of collective genius”. This model assumes that a group doesn’t need so-called experts or the government to make the best decisions, because enough brilliance and expertise lies within the local community. Everyone’s contribution is valuable. Why not offer yours?
Stall at Green Park Station farmers’ market, film screenings, informational talks and forums, and garden share.
Helping to map unused green space for growing, building networks between local producers and shops, affordable organic food and films.
0117 370 1362 or www.transitionbristol.net
Farmer’s market at Whiteladies Road and Apsley Road, planting apple trees locally, Metford Road community orchard, fruit tree distribution.
To visit Metford Road community orchard, email Janet Brewer: firstname.lastname@example.org or Karen Shergold: email@example.com
Plant and seed swap, film and theatre nights, talks, tea parties, gardeners’ action group and workshops on medicinal herbs.
Barter markets, textiles workshops, a Transition section in the local library, plans for a local currency, community-supported agriculture farms and composting in schools.
Information and talks (on local produce, medical herbalism and more), workshops on how to grow your own on balconies and in window boxes, assembling a seasonal and local recipe book, planting raspberries (guerilla-gardening-style) along the Taunton canal.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Visit: www.transitiontowns.org/Taunton
If not me, then who? If not now, then when? It’s been like that all my adult life, thus my involvement in forming and co-ordinating Sustainable Knowle, a neighbourhood Transition group.
As well as working for Green political change I want to help create a better quality of life in Bristol now. So last year I placed this pledge ‘I will start a group called the Campaign for the Achievement of a Sustainable Knowle (CASK) in my area of Bristol but only if 10 other local people will do the same.’ on the PledgeBank website. I gave the pledge a year to gain support but in less than half that time it was successful, and Sustainable Knowle was formed.
Sustainable Knowle aims to assess the local area and establish what practical changes are needed to make it environmentally and socially sustainable. Our wish-list includes: retaining and improving local buses and jobs; better provision for cyclists and pedestrians; local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy; more local and organic food available in shops, and home-grown; protecting open green natural spaces; and a broad-based public participation in community life.
After ‘meeting’ on the Web, the group begun meeting face to face, initially with a few people having coffee together. We now have regular meetings, a website and are building links with other local groups working for a sustainable Bristol. Our activities to date include: input into the council’s green space plans; campaigning to stop a local pub from being turned into a Tesco Express; litter picking; input into council consultations on environmental noise; support for the 20’s Plenty campaign for a default 20mph speed limit; and support for Sustrans TravelSmart.
We have grown from 10 to 16 in number and hope for increased publicity and growth, so more projects can get off the ground and spark others. Resources, physical and financial, are a constraint – we are short of time compared to the opportunities and amount of work to be done. Being a relatively small number means we are sensitive to slight changes in people’s circumstances such as their work and family commitments. We each need and want balanced lives but also need and want to work for positive green outcomes. The lack of coherent plans on an adequate scale from councils and Government is not helping the transition to sustainability. People are – as always – ahead of the politicians!
Glenn Vowles email@example.com
First published issue 57 (Summer 2009)
Written by Ashley Kuehl
Disclaimer – details were correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.