Geddes lecture – Rob Hopkins – Transition Towns

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The tenth Sir Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture was delivered by Rob Hopkins on 20 June 2013 on the subject of Transition Towns. Rob is co-founder of Transition Totnes and the Transition Towns Network, and has written several books including the ‘Transition Towns Handbook’, ‘Transitions Towns Companion’ and his most recent ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff – How Local Action Can Change the World’.

The Transition Network supports thousands of communities in becoming more resilient through increased local food, local enterprise and a range of other approaches. Throughout his presentation Rob illustrated many examples from across the world of where local community action is supporting local economies and how ‘engaged optimism’ is responding positively to the world’s challenges.

Four aspects underpin the transition movement, and spur local people to act and make a difference:

  1. Dependency on, and vulnerability to, fossil fuel consumption
  2. Climate change – instead of staying below a 2°C temperature rise, we are on a path to a 3.6 to 5°C rise with an associated carbon bubble
  3. We have a skewed ‘extractive’ economy – 97% of all grocery sales pass through 8000 supermarkets; we should be supporting the 3% economy
  4.  Instead of growing our economy we need to grow our happiness and wellbeing

Rob emphasised the need to support the local ‘3% economy’. In Santander (Spain) the ‘market of hope’ has the same covered floor area as a supermarket but instead of being one large extractive enterprise where profits flow outwards to external shareholders, the market supports the livelihoods of hundreds of local families and independent traders, fosters a sense of community and recirculates earnings within the local economy. In this instance, every pound generates three times more employment than a standard supermarket model.

Rob described 4 ways in which the transition movement can make an impact through emergent self-organised action, and used examples to illustrate how local communities are ‘fired with possibility’:

Come together as groups to do things collectively
In Transition Crystal Palace local people have come together and organised a community garden, support a food market, and formed a community owned solar energy company. In Portalegre in Portugal a gift economy has evolved with local people helping each other to do things without a need to exchange money. Other examples included: in Coin in Spain a local producers’ food market is supported, as well as a festival to focus on strategies for reducing domestic energy consumption; in Sarasota USA volunteers harvest and deliver excess produce to local food banks where it is distributed to families in need; in Tooting London a transition shop with ‘nothing for sale, but lots on offer’ provided a space to talk and imagine possible futures; in Brazil a focus has been on social justice, health and education, and empowerment for women; and in Totnes local people have entered into a ‘Transition Streets’ process to meet regularly and consider how improvements can be achieved to reduce carbon; with a by-product being ‘getting to know my neighbour’.

Without being prescriptive, ideas are turned into resilient models that sustain local economies. Examples included: Dunbar Bakery where, following the preparation of a Local Resilience Action Plan to bring about long term carbon reduction, a community bakery supported by local shareholder investment turned a local need into a viable business that provides local employment; in Slough a community share option supports local greengrocers; in Matlock Derbyshire the ‘DE4 Food’ on-line cooperative social enterprise made up of small scale ‘patchwork farming’ matches producers with customers; the Bristol pound recycles local money to support the local economy; in Japan the local Fujino Electric Company promotes renewable energy initiatives; an example in Brixton works at a larger neighbourhood scale, where community investment in solar panels on roofs of buildings has provided training, generates financial return for local investors, and has helped to build momentum around social wellbeing.

Economic Evaluations (Blueprints)
Larger supermarket chains claim to provide employment opportunities, but in reality this is in the form of job displacement. In Totness a ‘local economic blueprint’ mapped the local economy in an effort to identify the benefits of localising business and supply chains. The study revealed that £20m+ left the local area every year, and recognised that if 10% of what was spent was retained it would benefit the local economy by £2m. Such understanding is no longer ‘woolly resilience’ but a powerful force for change; the Transition movement is facilitating this reality by investigating ways to strengthen local food supply chains, promote energy efficiency and retrofit rather than re-build, support local skills development, and develop renewable energy infrastructure.

Bringing in Investment
If there is a demonstrable economic case and a platform of local and willing people then there is the opportunity to attract inward investment (e.g. from larger philanthropic organisations). One example illustrated was the ‘Atmos Totnes’ project which is currently working with an 8 acre former industrial site to create a masterplan for the site as a heart of a new economy, that is “appropriate to a new normal”. At the heart of the initiative is a challenge to extractive industries and a desire to establish a local resilient economy and build local value, where the community becomes its own developer. Instead of development being something that is done to communities, it can become something that is done by communities for themselves!

In a Q+A session Rob spoke of the power of local emergent action and was cautious about formalising a ‘political movement’; issues are ‘deeply political’ at a highly localised area where people feel empowered to act; acting local provides a chance to be explicit rather than implicit. He suggested that the planning profession needs to learn a new language for action; enabling local action is challenging, messy and difficult; responses are not clean, regular, hermetic and repeatable.

Rob was keen to explain that Transition becomes a story that a place can tell about itself, and may become a distinctive local ‘brand’. In this sense, transition (where things emerge) differs from ‘regeneration’ (where things are done to a place).

The Transition Movement and similar initiatives are attracting considerable interest. In Scotland, the Fife Diet has developed from a voluntary network into a Scottish Government funded body and a larger network of people trying to re-localise more generally and to explore what sustainable food might be. (“The beauty of the initiative is it taps into the growing awareness of consumers in the provenance of what they buy – they want to know where their food comes from and supports local business at the same time.” Roseanna Cunningham, Scottish Environment Minister.)

Whilst acknowledging that supermarkets provide range and choice and may allow people to shop out with working hours, Rob noted that the food procurement model is not carbon efficient, and the value added through processing of foods can lead to indirect health issues.

The various projects helped to demonstrate a story about the cumulative benefits of transition; but the overall benefit was to foster a sense of wellbeing through initiating positive action. Rob concluded that the power of transition is in building networks, and he encouraged everyone to get on and do stuff!

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