What is the most appropriate scale for your Transition initiative to work on?
In a rural market town with a distinct historical catchment, defining the scope of a Transition initiative is straightforward. There is often still a cultural memory of the reach of that catchment... in large conurbations, such as San Francisco or London, this becomes more problematic.
Ultimately, the best scale to work on is the scale over which you feel you can have an influence. Single street? Perhaps not ambitious enough. Entire city? Possibly asking a bit much of yourselves. Choose somewhere in the middle that feels do-able and that feels like home.
In a rural market town with a distinct historical catchment, defining the scope of a Transition initiative is straightforward. There is often still a cultural memory of the reach of that catchment. In Totnes in Devon, for example, research I carried out[i] found that, for the majority of people surveyed, what ‘local food’ meant was food that was sourced within 30 miles, close to that of the town’s historical market catchment. In large conurbations, such as San Francisco or London, this becomes more problematic.
How would Transition work on the scale of Los Angeles? (by Joanne Porouyow)
Sensible people say it’s impossible, but impossible things are happening every day. The Transition movement in Los Angeles is unfolding today via a series of neighbourhood initiatives. Our city hub supports seven active local initiatives that are holding regular meetings. Others occasionally hold Transition-style gatherings. On any given week, there are several Transition-type events offered within our local network (and countless more offered by other groups). Two years into this work, our direct email lists reach perhaps 2,000 people, with immediate distribution far beyond that. Our speaker’s bureau maintains a brisk schedule, each week fielding several requests from other groups.
The local Transition initiatives have spawned time banks, community gardens, rainwater harvesting installations, a backyard food redistribution network, and monthly clinics on alternative health care. Our more colourful events have included bread-baking workshops, 100-mile meals, “Repurposing Old Clothes” workshops, and a Chicken Run Party where participants built a coop together. Peel back the surface of any of these projects or events and you’ll find far more than a cool, greener thing to do. There is a conscious effort to create comprehensive solutions to the great challenges that humanity faces today, namely peak oil, climate change and economic contraction, combined. Back in 2005, when I was driving home from Santa Barbara, if you’d told me that within five years all these things would unfold, I’d have laughed through my pain and declared it was impossible.
Cities can do this in different ways. In London there are over 30 Transition initiatives across the capital, from Transition Town Brixton to Transition Finsbury Park. They concentrate on their neighbourhoods, with projects such as the Brixton Pound (see Tools for Transition No.19: Plugging the leaks) building on people’s sense of their part of the city.
Since 2010, people have been discussing ‘Transition London’ as a city-wide network to support neighbourhood activities.[ii] In Bristol, on the other hand, ‘Transition Bristol’ was set up to catalyse neighbourhood groups through a sense of being part of a bigger picture. While the neighbourhood groups have busied themselves with practical local projects, Transition Bristol has, among other things, worked with Bristol City Council to produce its ‘Peak Oil Plan’.
As with much of life, there are no absolute answers. Ultimately, the best scale for your initiative is that over which you feel you can have an influence. That could just be your street, your block of housing, your school or village, or on a much larger scale. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison once said that you should situate your food garden “no further from the kitchen door than you could throw the kitchen sink”. Similarly, with Transition, start with what feels manageable. If you get moving with that, you will no doubt inspire other people in neighbouring communities. They might start their own initiatives, creating a ‘ripple effect’ far more manageably than if you had tried to do everything yourself!
Transition and scale in London (by Alexis Rowell, Transition Belsize)
As a Londoner, one of the first questions I asked myself when I came across Transition was “Can it work in cities?” Totnes in rural Devon, the Transition mothership, is a very different place from central London or indeed from any significant urban centre. Totnes town itself is small – 8,500 people – it’s got a hinterland (about 23,000 people) that could supply a lot of its food; it has an institutional memory of what it once meant to be a market town; and it numbers among its residents a lot of folk, often from urban areas, who arrived seeking the good life, an alternative life or simply a friendlier, closer-knit community.
The London Borough of Camden, on the other hand, has 220,000 residents. Every day, 200,000 commuters come in to work. You can’t create community on that sort of scale. That’s why I went back to my neighbourhood – Belsize Park – to see if I could make Transition work there. Belsize ward is 8,400 people – about the same size as Totnes. Greater Belsize (the people who think they live in Belsize) is about 16,000 – about the same size as Lewes, another of those market towns with a strong Transition group. The one exception I have so far found to my rule is Brixton, which has a population of about 90,000 and is really the exception that proves the rule: it works because it has an incredibly strong identity.
I’m all in favour of working with other local green groups, so in Camden we have an umbrella organisation called CamdenCAN, which acts as a meeting place and information marketplace for the work of Camden’s green groups, including our numerous Transition initiatives. But I’ve resisted the creation of Camden, North London, London Transition structures. I think it’s all too easy to get bogged down in meetings rather than getting on with proving that we can create a better society. And I think that’s reflected elsewhere: Towards Transition Glasgow is not a Transition initiative; it’s more of a meeting of minds. Transition in Glasgow happens in neighbourhoods. If you do try to create a Transition group on a city-wide basis, then you risk stretching yourself too thin. You end up talking to people miles away about projects that are local to very few. You risk becoming isolated as a steering group and no nearer to knowing your neighbours. You may also simply try to squeeze too many interests into one steaming cauldron.
The key lesson here is that Transition works in cities but not at the city level. It can be a street or a market town, but it’s got to be somewhere where people recognise each other in the street. One of the founders of Transition Belsize left us after a while because his neighbourhood is some way away on the border of Camden and Barnet. His community is really his street. So he knocked on every door in his street, offered every resident a tomato plant and invited them round to his place to watch The Power of Community, the film about how Cuba coped with life after oil when the Russians cut off supplies (see Resources section). That’s as much a manifestation of Transition as Totnes or Belsize or Brixton. But Transition London or Manchester or Bristol? I say no!
I don’t think Transition is about building tiered bureaucracy and I don’t think there’s any point trying to make Transition work at the city level. Every hour spent in a Transition London meeting is one that could have been spent building my local Transition initiative and proving to yet more people that Transition is a viable way forward.