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January 14, 2009

Are Transition Towns only for the well off?

Transition Towns network is a bottom up movement of community-lead responses to the impacts of climate change. While they try to address both social and environmental concerns, the movement has developed a middle class reputation. This article examines its relevance for the big cities where most people live.

In 2004, a permaculture tutor and some students at a college in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, embarked on a project. They developed a vision of what a practical, community-level response to the impacts of climate change and peak oil might be.

The written-up project, posted on an internet site, was downloaded all round the world and became the basis for the Transition Town idea.

Twelve steps set out a course of action, concentrating on visible, demonstrable ways for people to collectively reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, not just by cutting energy use at home, but also in their eating, shopping and work.

The idea has captured green imaginations from Britain to Australia and Japan. Although Transition Town groups work with government bodies, Ben Brangwyn, a trustee of the Transition Network, says they tend to share the belief that: ‘If we wait for governments, it’ll be too late. If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, maybe it’ll be enough.’

Transition Towns should, at least in theory, combine social and environmental concerns. Reducing carbon emissions overlaps with tackling fuel poverty by improving energy efficiency and cutting fuel bills. Community engagement should draw in diverse groups, empowering them to take action to reduce both the cost of living and their environmental footprints. An emphasis on local supply creates opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses. Working across generations and ethnic groups is identified as a key necessity.

But the list of ‘official’ Transition Towns shows that many existing projects are in small, comparatively affluent, largely white, market towns like Totnes, Lewes, Frome and Tring. So what relevance does this have to the big cities which now house the majority of the British population?

Thinking big
In November, the Transition Network held a Transition Cities conference in Nottingham. It was, Mr Brangwyn says, the first step in determining what the model might look like on a city-wide scale.

Currently, Bristol, Nottingham and Sheffield have Transition City groups. The current trend is for cities to work as a series of smaller ‘urban villages’, Yfith representatives coming together to address geographically-wider issues such as public transport.

But, admits Mr Brangwyn, the model has a long way to go.

‘How we work in multi-ethnic urban areas is a real focus of concern,’ he says. ‘Groups have engaged with black and minority ethnic communities in some areas, for instance holding transition talks in mosques, but we’re not even close to getting to grips with this properly. We’re looking for partnerships to make sure that this is a proper, across-the-board shift.

‘One of the other areas we’re looking at is the idea of city as sanctuary,’ he continues. ‘The effects of climate change are going to include a refugee crisis, so as well as working with existing communities we have to be prepared to integrate large numbers of new migrants, and Transition Sheffield has been leading the way on this.’

Engaging people across the generations seems to have been more successful so far. The Transition Town theory emphasises respect for older generations, and stresses that those who lived through the second world war and rationing have plenty to teach younger people about conserving resources. And, according to Mr Brangwyn, the success of enthusing young people in Totnes through hands-on projects like growing food has translated into higher levels of youth interest in urban

Transition schemes.
With concern about dangerous climate change mounting, governments worldwide are experimenting with low-carbon communities of different kinds. In China, British engineering firm Ove Amp is working on the Dongtan zero-carbon city.1n Denmark and Germany, high building standards mean that new developments have low fuel costs. And, last week, the Welsh Assembly announced ‘Europe’s largest low-carbon zone’, representing massive investment in domestic energy efficiency with the explicit aim not just of reducing environmental impacts, but cutting child and fuel poverty and creating jobs.

The main difference between these schemes and Transition Towns is the latter’s bottom- up approach. Government responses to this community-led movement have been mixed, but in the UK official reactions are becoming more positive. Transition Scotland has received significant funding from the Scottish government, and Going Carbon Neutral Stirling, a ‘transition- like’ project, has had significant public money. Ed Miliband, the current energy and climate change minister, has recently taken to citing Transition Towns as a positive example, and, in July, Somerset Council declared its wish to become the first ‘Transition local authority’.

Transition Towns aren’t without their critics. Radical environmentalists and social justice campaigners have condemned the movement for a lack of social aims, for not engaging with less affluent communities, and for failing to adapt to the fact that lower-income households often have lower carbon footprints in the first place, as they’re less likely to fly or drive as much and may live in flats or terraced homes which are more energy efficient.

Ben Brangwyn acknowledges many of these criticisms, and points out that the Transition model is a work in progress. The movement’s website includes a ‘cheerful disclaimer’ admitting that no one knows for sure the right way for communities to adapt to climate change and peak oil. Transition Towns are, he says, one way of trying.

For more information on the Transition Movement in Scotland visit