Lancaster our middling city
Lancaster must be a city – it’s got a cathedral and a market and a city council. Proof enough! But of a Saturday we all go "into town” and every seeming stranger that we meet there, knows someone who knows someone that you know.
Much I could tell you about the activities of Transition City Lancaster, how it cafes and film watches, garden shares and sews, tree plants and debates; but you’ve read it all before or you can visit our old and soon to be replaced website. In it’s nearly five years of existence Transition in Lancaster has made a mark, carved out a little niche, become something that non transitioners can point out to friends and professional colleagues in council and university circles.
So much, so good, but creating TCL has been difficult and it continues to be difficult to keep it going. That difficulty relates to the size and type of town we are and to unravel it I think we need to look more closely at ourselves.
Lancaster is not so much a split community as a layered one; think of it as a gateau or one of those little lighthouses full of coloured sands you used to get from the Isle of Wight and you won’t go far wrong. We have our solid foundation of the “forever” Lancastrians, the old families who are in businesses and shops, do the plumbing and the milk rounds, are the solicitors and estate agents, the shop assistants, the nurses, the hairdressers and the unemployed. There are the academics from two universities, the small pockets of immigrants, war time and latter day Polish, Asian families who run some of the best restaurants and there are professionals, long-time “incomers” who often came to study and never went away. And all this is swelled byover 15,000 students many of them from overseas who add their interests, habits and talents to our town every year. And there are few enough of us in our little layer that we know, and get to know an awful lot of these “ people like us” and so many that we never quite feel the need to delve much into other layers of our community, unless it’s to talk to the people next door about where our wheelie bin’s gone.
The Five Advantages of a/our Town Community
The town has facilities, active groups, co-workers – there’s the theatre that shows our films, the church that forms a centre for our activities, the community pub that often hosts events and meetings, the council Sustainability Partnership, the community orchard, the CIC that runs carbon saving projects, the university Green group, the workers’ cooperative wholefood shop. Transition is supported by a range of like- minded people in easy contact with each other – we make and cultivate good relationships and there is always someone to turn to for advice and support.
We know each other – see “layers” above and people know people across the town, so if we were to push ourselves into it we have many potential connections across and within layers that could make communication and working together easy, see below disadvantages for why this is not happening.
There are always new people coming to live in town, especially at the professional level and this brings new ideas, fresh blood to TCL. Also, because we are relatively small, one new person can find room to develop ideas and to make a difference pretty quickly. At its best, we remain open to change and the organisation doesn’t get set in its ways. Those of us who have been around longer also have the opportunity to switch role or do something new – praise be!
The universities offer us ready access to relevant courses, speakers, student volunteers and often to a sense of where the “cutting edge” might be and what the wider significance is of the ordinary things we do in Transition. There are people in both universities who need to know about Transition and occasions when they want to study its working which can mean a steady flow of ideas between town and ”gown”, also opportunities for those who have little experience of academic life to work alongside university people.
It’s no more than 15 minutes’ walk to the countryside, wherever you live in Lancaster. Local food production is still fairly obvious and there are opportunities to get involved in supporting and learning about the growing business.
The Four Problems of our/a Town Community
We are too big to feel the need or have the tradition of “pulling together”. We stay in our layers of people like us and that automatically disincludes some other layers. Whilst I know the people in my street quite well and there are many things we could do together, especially if we teamed up with “them on the main road” as well, I don’t because there are Transition people to share with and I suppose it’s easier, fewer potential conflicts, if we do it that way. Which relates closely to the next problem.
We organise ourselves as a distinct Steering Group which does steering stuff on its own, with interest groups – Food, Education, Real Wealth and Livelihoods etc. which do their own thing too. Another set of layers, really but unable to take advantage of neighbourhood links and just perpetuating the problem above. Sometimes I think we would be much better of just having Transition Lancaster Central, Transition Bowerham and Transition Freehold - groups would have initially to work hard to recruit and create connections and they might have a more fluid structure for decision making but afterwards people would bump into each other on the street and you would drag in your neighbours and be far more like a big village.
Communication is a distinct problem in our town. We don’t look to any central point for information and somehow, unless you talk face to face, things are often just” not heard”. Events, like an energy saving talk, free and in a really convenient place, are considered irrelevant by people who really would benefit and tell you so afterwards. Why? Because they don’t consider Transition is for them and don’t come out of their little layer of Lancaster society. So when we talk or advertise, it’s only reaching the already converted and that’s why expanding TCL here is really difficult. You have to be innovative and persistent in communicating, which is where a central Transition communication strategy could really help an initiative like ours.
One final problem, which may be just a Lancaster thing, is that operating within our green and environmentally conscious layer can feel restrictive, as though we are perpetually about to tread on someone else’s toes can’t innovate because “so and so” already does that sort of thing. Basically, despite being in a town environment, we forget the other forty thousand out there, who all potentially could be and many are (without us) in transition.
Being in Transition in a town which thinks it might be a city often seems a complicated business. We can’t be alone in our problems or our advantages – which are often the same thing seen from a different angle. Maybe it’s past time some of us town/city initiatives got together to share ideas and work out some ways to overcome our disadvantages and make the most of the good things that come our way.
Pictures: Lancaster (university) Scotch quarry volunteer uni students (Simon Gershon)