The Transition Movement is a global movement consisting of Transition Towns and Transition Initiatives exploring local strategies for building low-carbon, resilient communities able to mitigate the effects of climate change and peak oil. Since Transition Town Totnes was launched in 2005, Transition Initiatives have spread around the world. Drawing on the example of Transition Newcastle (in Australia not the UK) this paper will consider the potential and some of the challenges of Transition Initiatives in an urban context.
The Transition Movement
According to Rob Hopkins (2008), the Transition Movement co-founder, Transition Initiatives “are an emerging and evolving approach to community-level sustainability” (p. 136). They are based on four key assumptions:
- It is inevitable that we will experience life with dramatically lowered energy consumption, and it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
- Our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil.
- We have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
- By unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognise the biological limits of our planet (Hopkins, 2008, p. 136).
While there continues to be debate about the timing and impact of peak oil (Maugeri, 2012; Monbiot, 2012), there is no doubt that we need to become more sustainable, and the Transition Movement is a growing response to the imperative for change. The Transition Movement has expanded rapidly since its beginning in 2005. As at August 2012, according to the Transition Network Directory, there were 1027 Transition Initiatives worldwide, of which 433 were officially registered (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives). In Australia, there were 83, of which 42 were registered.
Initially Transition Initiatives were encouraged to follow 12 steps (Brook, 2009; Hopkins, 2008; Smith, 2011):
- Set up a steering group and design its demise/transformation from the outset
- Start raising awareness
- Lay the foundations
- Organise a Great Unleashing
- Form theme (or special interest) groups
- Use Open Space
- Develop visible practical manifestations of the project
- Facilitate the Great Reskilling
- Build a bridge to local government
- Honour the elders
- Let it go where it wants to go…
- Create an Energy Descent Action Plan (Hopkins, 2008).
More recently, however, there has been a move towards a more flexible approach (Hopkins, 2011; Smith, 2011). The 12 steps have developed into a “much richer and diverse range of ingredients” (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/support/12-ingredients). Hopkins (2011) suggests that Transitioning is “a social experiment on a massive scale” (p. 17) and that the Transition model needs to be “loose enough for people to make it their own where they are” (p. 77). Thus the emphasis is now on broader principles:
- Positive visioning
- Help people access good information and trust them to make good decisions
- Inclusion and openness
- Enable sharing and networking
- Build resilience
- Inner and outer transition
- Subsidiarity: self‐organization and decision-making at the appropriate level (Hopkins, 2011).
One of the challenges faced by numerous Transition Initiatives is adapting the Transition model to larger urban areas (Smith, 2011; Taylor, 2012). The Transition Movement started in Totnes, a town of around 8000 people (Hopkins, 2008) and what worked in a small rural community will not necessarily work in a larger urban context (Smith, 2011). The recognition of the need to address a variety of contexts can be seen in the move away from the name Transition Towns to Transition Initiatives.
Transition Newcastle and the Transition Streets Challenge
The Transition Streets Challenge is one of the main projects of Transition Newcastle in the context of an Australian regional city. According to the 2011 census there were almost 150,000 people living in the Newcastle Local Government Area (LGA). When the adjourning LGA, Lake Macquarie, is included the population was over 340,000.
The Transition Streets Challenge aims to bring neighbours together to explore ways of reducing their energy and water usage, reducing waste, and building a more connected neighbourhood. While it is called the Transition Streets Challenge, most of the groups aren’t restricted to one street but include some people from neighbouring streets. As one of the participants said “my community isn’t necessarily the people who are on the other end of my street, but those around me, the people I bump into, who have chickens or lemons or a vacuum cleaner to share.”
The aims of the Streets Challenge are:
- To encourage households to become more sustainable
- To bring neighbours together and to build strong local connections that will lead to ongoing action
- To engage households not already moving towards sustainable lifestyles.
- To discover what people can do together that they can’t do alone
- To promote broader community education and engagement
The Challenge grew out of a planning workshop held in June 2011. Over the previous years, there had been discussion about what the focus of Transition Newcastle should be. We had addressed some of the 12 steps (as they were then known), and were struggling with deciding where to focus our energy. In particular there had been debate about whether Transition Newcastle should be a local coordinating hub for a range of regional initiatives or focus on a fewer local programs. There had also been debate about whether we should just focus on the Newcastle Local Government Area (LGA), or the broader Newcastle region. Although we had over 500 people on our email database, the actual core group was very small, and so we decided to focus our energy on just the LGA and that we would focus on a few programs. In particular we prioritised:
- The Transition Streets Challenge
- Nourishing Newcastle (a local food project)
- A festival with speakers, workshops, stalls and entertainment
- Building closer links with the City Council.
The Transition Streets Challenge was inspired by a number of other programs. The Transition Towns Totnes projects Transition Together and Transition Streets (Beetham, 2011; Ward, Porter, & Popham, 2011), and the CSIRO’s Energymark program (Dowd & Ashworth, 2009, 2010; Mendham, Carr-Cornish, & Dowd, 2010), demonstrated the possibility of street-based discussion groups. Various community lead initiatives like the Painted Fish and the Hulbert Street Sustainability Festival in Freemantle (http://thepaintedfish.com.au/) and Café 101 in Tighes Hill (Dunton-Rose, 2010) showed the potential when neighbours came together to work on a project. Other people at the planning weekend wanted fun activities that would strengthen relationships in the streets.
These different inspirations led to a multifaceted approach involving:
- A practical workbook as the basis for discussion within the streets. The workbook has chapters on energy, water, food, transport and waste/consumption, and provides information and ideas for action.
- Thought provoking challenges highlighting how we take many resources and the environment for granted. Participants can choose which challenges they participate in, and a focus is on having fun and building community.
- The opportunity to develop creative responses that can help the streets become more sustainable. Each month focuses on one of the workshop book themes and the streets are encouraged to think about what they can do together to become more sustainable.
- Workshops run by Transition Newcastle, Newcastle Council, Hunter Water, Permaculture Hunter and other groups. Some of the workshops are specifically for streets involved in the Challenge while other workshops are open to the general public.
- Street events such film nights, street parties and local food dinners which will help to create interest in the street and bring people together.
At one stage consideration was given to incorporating friendly competition into the Challenge (e.g., streets or households competing against each other) but we decided we wanted to focus more on community building and cooperation. While these types of competitive challenges are often an entertaining component of many “reality” TV shows, we decided that they were inappropriate in the context of community building. Early in the Challenge some participants did actually express concern that the Challenge would be a competition and that people would be compared with each other.
Building a cooperative approach is crucial to the success of the Challenge. We are hoping that participants will be willing to discuss their water and energy use, buying habits and other practices that could be considered fairly private. We hope to see high levels of trust in the streets. One way we are trying to promote this trust is through the challenges. So rather than competitions, we are including challenges that involve neighbours working together. Examples include:
- A local food dinner where the streets try to have a meal together with all the food produced in the Hunter
- Turning off their water at the meter for a day and collecting all their water for the day from a neighbour’s tap.
- Seeing how many cars in the street they can keep off the road for a week.
In the introductory chapter of the workbook we emphasised the importance of cooperation:
A major part of the Transition Streets Challenge is cooperating with your neighbours and so it is important to ensure your discussions and activities are a positive experience for all involved. The following are some practices (most of them fairly obvious) that could help make the Challenge work successfully.
Respect will be at the heart of a successful Transition Streets Challenge. People will come to the Challenge with different backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, commitments and priorities. This diversity can bring richness to our community (and the Challenge) and we need to respect differences. We can help show respect by:
- Letting everybody have a say and actively listening to them.
- Being reliable, trying to do what you say you will do, and letting people know if you can’t.
- Being understanding when other people can’t do what they said they would do.
- Being committed to the process.
- Respecting people’s privacy.
- Offering practical and moral support to your neighbours.
- Respecting people’s differing levels of involvement (Transition Newcastle, 2012).
While it is too early to judge how successful the Challenge has been, as it isn’t due to finish until the end of 2012, there are some promising signs that the streets will act together. One street recently held a successful pedal-powered screening of a “The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” and another street has received two small grants from Newcastle Council for activities being organised by the group.
Potential and challenges
The Transition Streets Challenge highlights some of the potential and some of the challenges of Transition Initiatives. Building resilient communities is central to Transition Initiatives (Hopkins, 2011) so that communities can adapt to new conditions and absorb shocks when they come (Cato & Hillier, 2010). One way of helping communities do this is by creating “thriving, healthy, caring local communities where people’s ways of life take into account the needs of future generations” (Beetham, 2011, p. 1). By helping people build “strong ties with one another” (Hemminger, 2011) and building stronger, more coherent communities (Cato & Hillier, 2010), communities will be more likely to respond to challenges as they arise. Through the Transition Streets Challenge, Transition Newcastle has decided to focus at a street level and provide opportunities for neighbours to deepen their relationships. The plan is to encourage more and more Transition Streets throughout Newcastle in order to create a network of streets committed to becoming more sustainable.
Transition Newcastle needs to develop more initiatives, however, that build resilience at a broader scale. Many of the changes needed for Newcastle to become more sustainable will not be able to happen just at the street level. We need to consider how we can influence local and regional planning, and work with a much broader cross-section of the community. Strategically the Transition Streets Challenge provides an opportunity to raise our profile, (in the past 15 months our email database has grown from 526 to 814, an increase of 55%) and to build closer links with Council.
While Hopkins (2011) recognises the importance of inclusion and diversity, in practice many Transition Initiatives have struggled to engage marginalised communities (Merritt & Stubbs, 2012) and Transition Streets Challenge is no exception. Cato (2008) suggests that the towns to first become Transition Towns were “post-materialist, comfortable, and predominantly white settlements where people have the resources and leisure to be open to radical thinking” (p. 95). There is greater diversity now, but Transition Initiatives are still predominantly found in (over-)developed countries (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives) and middle-class, well-educated people are likely to be over-represented (Merritt & Stubbs, 2012; Smith, 2011). All five streets involve in the Transition Streets Challenge are from Inner Newcastle and participants are mostly well-educated, employed (or university students) and white. Transition Newcastle would have liked to involve a greater variety of streets, but did not have the resources needed to engage streets unless there were highly motivated individuals already in the street. Merritt and Stubbs (2012) suggest that “better-off communities” are more likely to be engaged in these types of initiatives because they are more likely to have their own established and accessible assets, and to have the ability to mobilise these resources; a position supported by the experience of the Transition Streets Challenge.
One of the strengths of the Transition Movement is that it is decentralised and community led (Smith, 2011). Rather than relying on local, state or national government to drive the process, Transition Initiatives encourage local communities to work out what they can do in their specific context (Brook, 2009). At the same time, Transition Initiatives are encouraged to build relationships with local councils (Hopkins, 2011). At the planning weekend Transition Newcastle made a conscious decision to focus on local issues and to build relationships with Council rather than addressing state or national issues. The Transition Streets Challenge has proved to be quite effective in assisting Transition Newcastle build stronger links with Newcastle Council. The Challenge is consistent with a number of priorities in the City of Newcastle’s Community Strategic Plan, (City of Newcastle, 2011b) and the Carbon and Water Management Action Plan (City of Newcastle, 2011a). This means that the Council has been quite supportive of the project providing a $2000 grant (the only funding we have received besides a private donation of $600), assisting with the layout and content of the workbook, obtaining books and DVDs relating to topics in the workbook, and organising workshops coinciding with the Challenge. We hope that the relationship built through the Challenge will provide a foundation for future work with Council.
Criticisms of the Transition Movement include that it tends to be non-political and avoids “rocking the boat” (Smith, 2011, p. 102) and that there needs to be a greater critique of our current economic system (Trainer, 2009). Transition Newcastle has debated whether or not to sponsor or publically support direct action in relation to the coal industry (Newcastle is the world’s largest coal port), the carbon tax and other issues. Although individual members have been actively involved over the last couple of years, we have generally decided not to do so officially as Transition Newcastle. Moyer (2001) identifies four roles of social activism:
- The Rebel dramatically illustrates social issues and puts them on the social and political agenda through dramatic direct action.
- The Reformer works through existing social and political frameworks to have policies and alternatives incorporated in relevant laws and policies.
- The Change Agent focus on building large-scale public support for creating a new political and social consensus leading to a paradigm shift.
- The Citizen upholds a widely held vision of the democratic, good society and who demonstrate ordinary people support social change.
Transition Newcastle focuses on the roles of the Change Agent and the Citizen. We have decided not to be a protest organisation. In Newcastle, Rising Tide and other groups undertake dramatic actions highlighting Newcastle’s role in the carbon cycle, coal seam gas mining, the destruction of iconic fig trees and other environmental issues. They push boundaries and are willing to be quite confrontational. Together Today and the ClimateCam initiative of Newcastle Council, on the other hand, are working within the current system to develop policies and practices that will be acceptable to policy makers and business. Climate Action Newcastle has developed a range of programs that aim to build large-scale public support for action on climate change.
Transition Newcastle is building public support, the role of the Change Agent, through a range of activities including a Fair Share Festival (which in 2012 focused on transitioning to connected communities, localised fair economies and sustainable lifestyles), films nights, stalls and other awareness raising. We had originally hoped that the Transition Streets Challenge would contribute more to public education through local media following the streets, but unfortunately we lacked had the personnel to make this happen.
The role of the Citizen allows people who would otherwise not be involved in a social movement to participate. Through the Transition Streets Challenge we hope that people who have not been actively involved before in environmental issues will participate because their neighbours are also participating. The CSIRO Energymark program found that there were advantages in using pre-existing social networks to promote discussion about energy technologies and climate change (Dowd & Ashworth, 2010) and the Transition Streets Challenge is linking into, and expanding, social networks at a street level.
One of the strengths of the Transition Streets Challenge is that it allows people to become as involved as they want. There are a range of pathways for people to become involved in the Challenge. Some people will meet on a regular basis to work through the workbook and become very involved. But there is also the potential for neighbours to take much smaller steps. They might come to one or two events like a film night or the local produce dinner or they might attend a workshop on a topic that is of particularly interest to them. Hopefully the Challenge allows people a non-threatening entry to addressing sustainability.
Although Moyer (2001) discussed the four roles in terms of individuals, they can also apply to organisations. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy and more sustainable ways of living will require “large-scale social and economic changes” (Cato & Hillier, 2010, p. 882) and will involve abandoning our current consumer capitalist society (Trainer, 2009) and is likely to entail political conflict (Cato, 2008). Just focusing on the roles of Citizen and Change Agent is unlikely to produce the changes required: all four roles are needed. Transition Initiatives are not operating in isolation and there are other groups contributing to creating the change we need to see.
Transition Initiatives play an important role in creating, and working towards visions, of a more sustainable future (Hopkins, 2011), creating alternatives outside the formal economy currency such as currencies (Cato & Hillier, 2010), and facilitating widespread community involvement. It is also important that Transition Initiatives work in partnership with other organisations working taking different approaches.
The rapid growth of Transition Initiatives clearly shows that many people want to see change and want to contribute to an alternative vision of more sustainable communities. As Transition Initiatives are established in more and more settings, the model has been able to adapt to a range of contexts and provides a flexible framework for communities to start moving towards more sustainable communities. The changes required are massive, but Transition Initiative provides hope. In the words of Rob Hopkins (2011, p. 17):
What we are convinced of is this:
- if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
- if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
- but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
[An article of mine written in May 2012, but just published in New Community Quarterly.
Stuart, G. (2012). The Transition Streets Challenge: Potential and challenges. New Community Quarterly, 10(4), 41-45.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
- How (and why) I joined the Transition movement
- Food month(s) for our Transition Streets group
- Consumption and the Transition movement
- Transition Streets Challenge – comments from coordinators
- Take a street and build a community
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Brook, I. (2009). Turning Up the Heat on Climate Change: Are Transition Towns an Answer? Environmental Values, 18(2), 125-128.
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