Transition Town Totnes: What’s new and renewing
It seems a little odd that the newest guy, a “blow in” from San Francisco, should be writing about the oldest Transition Town. But maybe that’s just as it should be. Totnes is a bit of cross roads, much like San Francisco in that regard, where ideas and cultures converge for one reason or another. They’re edge places that give rise to hybrids and experimentation, where challenging new life forms emerge. Summer of Love. Transition.
“Blow in”, though, is a bit harsh. I’m new to Totnes, as are a good number of people who come here for their own reasons – quiet retirement, raise a family, Schumacher and Dartington, yoga lifestyle, “alternative” healing arts or simply alternatives to default culture. More recently, Transition. People are coming here looking for what’s next, to connect with others, to live in community. Maybe reconnect with themselves. In fact, it seems most people I know here, in Transition or not, come from somewhere else. So, I was naturally drawn to a recent participatory community art project called “Where are you from?” It revealed that everyone’s on their own journey, has a story, and that the question, “where are from?,” can be loaded and the answer complicated. Mine’s pretty simple, though. I moved to England for family and to Totnes for like-minded people.
I’ve known about Transition Towns and Totnes since around 2007, but its foundation story begins a couple of years before. Most people know by now that Transition Town Totnes was founded by a couple of guys who settled here by choice, Naresh Giangrande and Rob Hopkins. They’re still here and TTT just celebrated the 5th anniversary of their Great Unleashing. Since that time, there have been hundreds of people involved in one way or another with scores of projects big and small undertaken with greater or lesser success.
So, you’d think by now they’d have perfected this Transition thing and that TTT would be humming right along, problem solved, the process dialed in, the whole town marching in lock step toward a socially-just carbon-free future. Not so. I’ve heard, several times already, the (probably apocryphal) story of the dismayed Transition tourist from Germany: “Where’s the Transition going on here? Why are there so many cars? Where are the bike racks? Where are the wind turbines?” Funny, and fair enough. It’s not obvious when you blow in what’s going on. No flag flies. No signs exhorting “Welcome to Totnes, please leave your carbon at the door.”
Once here, I was happy to find out that that there is still plenty of wonderful messy “edge” here to welcome new people and energy, new possibility. The local economy is in serious need of retrofit. Housing is expensive, inefficient, and scarce. There’s too much reliance on cars, especially since bus routes have been cut. And for the last three years, local government and local business have made it nearly impossible to accomplish the otherwise simple task of installing bicycle racks in the town.
The recent TTT birthday celebration was an all day facilitated workshop sort of celebration: acknowledging all the hard work and successes, but looking honestly in the mirror, too. Nearly a hundred people showed up. Many, who have been head down working hard on their projects for years, didn’t know one another. There was lots of talk about improvements needed in communications and process. Project priorities were envisioned, articulated, posted to the walls and marked up. “We need to reach out more.” “Let’s open a café.” “Let’s remake our economy.” “More days like this!” New people spoke up. Old hands sat back and smiled.
I’m new and enthusiastic, so perhaps that colours my perception that TTT is itself going through a bit of a renewal. This past spring, I joined the Business & Livelihoods group, newly reconstituted after it crashed and burned last autumn. We’ve taken on some ambitious projects and feel like we’re soaring.
But it’s not just me. In February, Frances Northrup came down from up north to take the post of Transition in Action manager. She’s a doer. Transition Streets won the Ashden Award this year and is launching a new campaign. The EDAP went online last year and Jacqi Hodgson is working hard to keep it relevant in the halls of local government and as a living document. Wendy and Joy have made Incredible Edibles a fresh and delicious manifestation of Transition. And Julian Burn is oh so close to getting those bike racks installed.
I’ve asked around and others feel it, too. So, much has been accomplished over the last several years, by so many wonderfully possessed and inspired people, and there’s still far to go. But the movement here is healthy and pulsing with life, cycling energy, working, renewing, re-creating.
photos: Top: a local business closure. Bottom: Incredible Edibles installation at Steamer Quay.