October 25, 2019
Started in Totnes
15 years ago, Rob Hopkins gathered a group of friends in Totnes and kick-started the Transition Town movement which now has a global reach into almost 1,000 communities around the world. The ideas were simple if a little quirky for the time – to find ways of living more sustainably. I met Rob a few years ago and he struck me as remarkably unassuming and low key given the international following that his ideas have attracted. In his new book, From What Is to What If he lists some of his favourite projects that he has encountered along the way.
It’s not easy to be a happy environmentalist, but Rob Hopkins might have found a way. In 2005, together with a group of friends in Totnes, Devon, he co-founded what became known as the Transition movement. It seeks to make the world a sustainable place to live, not through protest or resistance, but simply by looking at where you live and making it sustainable. “It’s not that difficult, actually,” he says.
In Totnes, they connected neighbours to share unused gardens. They planted fruit and nut trees in public spaces and bought their own mill. They are now building 27 sustainable homes. And Totnes is just one of the 992 initiatives all over the world that now make up the movement.
In his new book, From What Is to What If, Hopkins looks around this wide network, and elsewhere, at the sometimes brilliant, sometimes eccentric, but always imaginative ideas people have come up with. Sometimes Hopkins can be too imaginative – for instance his summaries of psychology, education and brain science seem wishfully simplistic. In person, however, he is not dogmatic or excitable. Tall and bespectacled, he speaks softly and kindly. Besides, in the most important ways, he is right. We can feel optimistic if we are willing to imagine new ways of doing things not every single one of them needs to work. “Part of the beauty of Transition,” Hopkins writes, “is that it’s all an experiment. I don’t know how to do it. Neither do you.”
Here are some of the projects he champions.
Make your own pop-up village green
The south London suburb of Tooting has many fine qualities, but it is not an area of outstanding natural beauty. Nor does it have an obvious central square for public events in the summer. So one Sunday in July 2017, with £1,743 raised by crowdfunding, a group of local people took stalls, turf and flowers to the bus turning circle on Tooting Broadway and made it their village green for the day. They called the event the Tooting Twirl.
“Transition Town Tooting is a particularly imaginative group,” Hopkins says. “Very artistic and playful.” Before the Twirl, they staged the Tour de Tooting in 2016, a parade of home-decorated bicycles. They also run a community garden, a repair cafe and the annual Foodival, where people contribute locally grown produce, which a group of chefs from Tooting’s restaurants turn into a variety of dishes, served up the following day at a public feast.
Turn your road into a playground
Hopkins makes some tenuous claims about brain development to justify letting children play in the street when one ordinary fact would do: they clearly love it. And thanks to the work of a community interest company called Playing Out, street play is now quite easy to realise, especially in Bristol, where the council has designed a simple process allowing residents to apply to close their road to traffic for short periods.
“You need to have two parents with hi-vis jackets and you have to let everyone on the street know,” Hopkins says. And that’s about it. Organisers often provide a few boxes of chalk or balls or bits of string. Then, given the freedom of the street, the children do the rest. Meanwhile, everyone apart from the two supervisors gets free babysitting. Some neighbours like the chalk to be cleaned away afterwards, but it’s not generally a divisive event. It can be quite convivial, in fact. Perhaps more than anything else in the book, it’s something you could quite easily start tomorrow.
Tune back into nature
It’s easy not to hear the birdsong that surrounds us, even in cities; but Hopkins believes that with a little practice you can learn to notice it again and enjoy life a little more as a result. From the fanzine Caught by the River, he found out about people who seek out the experience and decided to join them for Dawn Chorus Day in May last year. It wasn’t the easiest decision, because it meant getting out of bed at 4am.
Dawn Chorus Day began in Birmingham at some mistily remembered moment in the 1980s, and has since been held on the first Sunday in May each year. “I thought: “Well, I’m going to get up early and listen to some birds,” Hopkins says. It wasn’t the easiest decision, because it meant getting out of bed at 4am. “But actually it was magical. It was like going to the Royal Philharmonic.” For a long time afterwards, he noticed birdsong more keenly, wherever he was. “It really brought me back into the world so much more than I was before … I do it once a year now and it kind of lasts me through.”
When a Transition group wants to imagine the future of its community, Hopkins recommends not holding a meeting, exactly, but playing a game. Called Transition Town Anywhere, it was devised for the Transition network conference, and involves building a model of the town you want from spare boxes and other odds and ends.
“Our cardboard-and-string shops, banks, doctors’ surgeries and bike repair workshops took on a reality,” Hopkins says in the book, “and that reality assumed a deep significance. People were proud of what they had created.” Today, some of them have reason to be even prouder. When they first played Transition Town Anywhere, Hopkins and his group devised the Yeast Collective, a combined bakery and brewery. “As I write this,” he says, “the brewery has been up and running for five years, and is shortly to move into a shared space with an amazing sourdough bakery.”
Give prisoners something meaningful to do
One of the biggest problems for people in prison, or at risk of going to prison, is finding something – besides crime – to do. Hopkins visited LandWorks, another Devon charity, which operates a market garden for offenders and potential offenders on a two-acre patch of land in a former quarry. The project’s “trainees”, as they are called, spend six-months developing skills in growing, landscaping, pottery, woodwork, construction and design, and cook and eat together.
The project gives prisoners a sense of purpose and belonging. LandWorks claims its reoffending rate is just 4%, far lower than the UK national average of 29.3%. The charity’s approach could easily be copied just about anywhere. When Hopkins visited, one of the staff told him that a few days previously he had seen a couple parked in a car outside the site. The staff member asked if he could help them. “The guy said: ‘I came here four years ago. I was just showing my girlfriend.’ It had been such a profound shift for him.”
Turn your city into a park
“It’s one of the most beautiful ‘what if’ questions,” Hopkins says. “What if London was a national park?” And as you may have heard, this actually happened in July, when the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, signed the charter to declare it the world’s first “National Park City”. To some extent, this is just a branding exercise, intended to encourage people to protect and enjoy the capital’s green spaces. In another sense, the way people see the city is the most important thing of all.
The vision came from Daniel Raven-Ellison, a geography teacher and devoted walker, who calculated that 49.5% of London was already green and blue space. Besides organising a free National Park City festival, it is now “the mayor’s ambition” to reach at least 50% and to “increase tree canopy cover by 10%” by 2050. If it becomes normal to see this giant city as a natural environment as much as a built one, that will be the biggest change of all. “It’s an overarching narrative that opens up so many possibilities,” Hopkins says. “I love it. It’s beautiful.”
Make your own museum
The old silk mill in Derby, built by the Lombe brothers in the 1720s, was arguably the first factory in the world. In 1974, it became the Derby Industrial Museum, but by the 2010s it needed a fresh start. The project was entrusted to Hannah Fox, whose brief, says Hopkins, was: “Here’s the keys and a very small budget. See what you can do.” Next summer the silk mill will be relaunched as the Museum of Making, designed and made by the residents of Derby.
Fox began by building a workshop on the site and inviting local people, with some expert help, to create a prototype museum, right down to the cafe furniture, exhibition cases and displays. With this design, they were able to secure funding for the project. Once the main renovations are complete, the plan is for local people to finish the fit-out. In the meantime, a mobile “Makory” tours the area, offering a preview of the attractions in the new museum, and Derby hosts an annual Maker Faire, gathering people who enjoy making things to display and share their skills.
This community-led approach has been so well received in Derby that it is now a normal way for the city’s other museums and galleries to begin new projects. Hopkins dreams of seeing it spread further still, perhaps even into hospitals and schools.
Be like Liège
“I’ve spent 12 or 13 years working with different Transition groups all across Europe with this vision of the future in my head,” Hopkins says. “Normally, I’m the one who’s saying: ‘It could be like this. What would it be like if it was like this?’” About five years ago, however, he visited Liège in Belgium, where a small group of people had formed a plan to create a “food belt” around the city. The aim was, within a generation, for most of the food eaten in Liège to come from less than 9km away. Naturally, Hopkins loved the plan. Then he went home.
Four years later they asked him back and he could hardly believe what he saw. “They had started 21 cooperatives and raised €5m. They had two farms and two vineyards and a brewery, and three shops in the centre of the city, and pedal-powered business collecting it all together, and a local currency they all use. Their waste gets taken off by somebody who grows mushrooms on it … 70% of all the food for the schools comes from an organic market garden. It was really emotional for me.” It had clearly been hard work for the Liègeois as well – “some were quite frazzled by it” – but it seemed to Hopkins that the change is now permanent. If you want to know how ambitious your town can be, look at Liège.
“There is something about the lure of a smartphone that I find unable to resist,” Hopkins says and he is far from alone. In the book, he suggests a range of techniques to deal with the problem, from deleting apps to making the screen black and white, or even consciously uncoupling from the device on a meditation retreat. There is a more direct approach, however: just embrace being bored.
Hopkins quotes the American academic Sherry Turkle’s remark: “Boredom can be recognised as your imagination calling you.” On this basis, he believes it’s an important part of being happy and generating good ideas. It is, he writes, “a moment when our brain might start composing a song or a poem, coming up with a really interesting idea for supper or a new approach to a problem”. Hopkins went to art school, and finds being away from his phone gives him more chances to draw. He now has an old Nokia, which has required him to relearn the habits of predictive text – a nuisance, he admits. “It hasn’t even got Snake on it.”
Create a Ministry of Imagination
“I appreciate that this might sound like something out of a Harry Potter book,” Hopkins writes. Indeed it does. Still, he believes that both local and national government would benefit from a department that would evaluate the effect of policies on the public imagination and try to make other departments more imaginative themselves. On looking into it, Hopkins even found an example already in existence. In Bologna, Italy, an Office of Civic Imagination helps community groups work with local government to improve the city. The idea emerged when several people volunteered to repaint a park bench but became entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare and eventually required the separate authorisation of five different departments. The office now runs six regular city labs, where they try to understand how citizens and government can work together.
From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want by Rob Hopkins is published by Chelsea Green (£19.99).