Transition towns

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Transition Towns (more commonly referred to as the Transition movement) refers to community-based initiatives that address the complex challenges of our time by developing community resilience and creative innovation for sustainability, with a great variety of approaches to create a low-carbon future and nurture a caring culture. There are over 1200 Transition group community initiatives in over 40 countries.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Transition Town initiatives provide spaces for experimentation where citizens can build community resilience and pioneer alternative environmental, economic and social solutions. This includes the (re)discovery of (new combinations of) old and new skills and services to increase socio-ecological and socio-economic independence, and experimenting with permaculture design principles for urban farming and local food production, cooperative production of renewable energy, time banks and other complementary currencies Seyfang & Longhurst 2013.

The TRANSIT research project includes a number of case-studies on transition initiatives and the Transition Network as manifestations of social innovation in the sense that they explicitly engage with changing social relations, involving new ways of doing, thinking and organising. In research project TESS the Transition Black Isle (Scotland) was one of the case studies. Transition Town Halle was studied as a case study in the GLAMURS project and supported by the BASE project the cases of Transition Town Initiatives in Bristol (UK) and Peterborough (Canada) were described.

Shapes, sizes and applications

The Transition movement originated around 2006 in the United Kingdom (UK) and has since rapidly spread across the world. Longhurst (2015) indicates that in 2014 the growth of the movement led to the proliferation of 1120 transition initiatives in 43 countries (see also Feola and Nunes 2014) .

Transition Network is an organisation that supports the Transition movement, amplifies stories of community-led change, and nurtures collaboration across difference to challenge us all to reimagine and rebuild our world. There are currently 23 Transition Hubs (mainly national level organisations) supporting, connecting and inspiring Transition in their territory.

There have been many empirical studies on the Transition Network and local initiatives, ranging from urban studies and critical geography to research fields focused on degrowth and sustainability transitions (e.g. Mason, K. and Whitehead, M. 2012, Bailey et al. 2010, Hopkins 2012, Seyfang & Haxeltine 2012Feola and Nunes 2014). The principles, models and resources developed by early Transition towns have been collected, adapted and shared by Transition Network, the Transition Hubs and others and applied to very different contexts and levels of scale. The term Transition initiative is now used to encompass Transition villages, towns, city neighbourhoods, schools and universities.

Transition Town Totnes (TTT) in the UK is the first and longest running Transition initiative, which was launched in September 2006. TTT describes itself as “a community-led and run local charity that exists to strengthen the local economy, reduce our environmental impact, and build our resilience for a future with less cheap energy and a changing climate, (...) a collection of local volunteers with a small staff team, who come together to work on projects” [1]. Their work “ranges from increasing low impact affordable housing, sharing skills, creating livelihoods, reducing energy costs and carbon emissions, growing our local food economy and working in partnership with other local projects” [2].

Transition Wekerle, launched in 2008 (re-named in 2011), was the first official Transition initiative in Hungary, and helped develop the Hungarian Transition Hub. According to its own website, Transition Wekerle “relies heavily on the cooperation of individuals, local NGOs and local institutions” and “focuses on local food, local energy and local economy in order to lighten our eco-footprint, promote active citizenship, new ways of cooperation and solidarity”. Their initiative ranges from “improving the energy efficiency of old homes through insulation, collecting fruit and vegetable donations at the local market for poverty-stricken families and promoting urban gardening by organising seed-swap events” [3].

Municipalities in Transition is a key approach designed to help communities and municipalities to collaborate well to create systemic change for sustainability.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

The Transition approach is explicitly designed to be applicable anywhere, including the urban context. In fact, one of the interesting things about the Transition approach is that it enables people to experiment with approaches and solutions that may originally have been associated with rural areas (e.g. permaculture, organic agriculture, renewable energy, ecovillages) and do so in their urban neighbourhoods. As argued by North & Longhurst 2013: “the question of how the Transition model can be applied in urban settings has not been clear, leading to the implicit assumption that urban Transition initiatives are more complex and difficult. In contrast, [we argue that] the plasticity of Transition politics means that, in some cases, an urban context might be more productive for the development of Transition initiatives because it allows for a greater diversity of political action as well as providing a density of networks and resources that can be critical for the survival of grassroots interventions”.

Transition Network has identified the municipal level of scale as a space where people can engage in the need for systemic change in a meaningful way, spotting connections, building trust, countering social and economic inequality and fostering a stronger and more practical sense of environmental stewardship. The Municipalities in Transition System fosters this potential at municipal scale, as an approach to help communities and municipalities engage in a collaborative transition towards a more sustainable future.

The Transition movement explicitly aims to contribute to both social justice and ecological sustainability. The first two principles that the Transition Network emphasizes on their website and in “The Essential Guide to Doing Transition”[4] are formulated as follows:

We respect resource limits and create resilience – The urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, greatly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and make wise use of precious resources is at the forefront of everything we do. We promote inclusivity and social justice – The most disadvantaged and powerless people in our societies are likely to be worst affected by rising fuel and food prices, resource shortages and extreme weather events. We want to increase the chances of all groups in society to live well, healthily and with sustainable livelihoods.

The striving for inclusivity is also reflected in sharing Transition initiatives and approaches in an explicitly accessible and open format and tone to enable everyone to “Getting Transition started in your street, community, town or organisation”.

Narrative of change

The narrative of the Transition Network has evolved over time, through three main iterations. The original approach, based on ‘The 12 Steps of Transition’ [5] was replaced by a more open set of 43 ‘ingredients’ [6], a more focused set of which featured in the most recent (2018) version of “The Essential Guide to Doing Transition” [7]. These ingredients include:

  • Healthy groups: Learning how to work well together
  • Vision: Imagining the future you want to co-create
  • Involvement: Getting the wider community involved and developing relationships beyond friends and natural allies
  • Networks & partnerships: Collaborating with others
  • Practical projects: Inspiring others and building new infrastructures
  • Part of a movement: Scaling up your impacts by linking up with transitioners elsewhere:
  • Reflect & celebrate: Reflecting on how you're doing and celebrating the difference you're making

Underlying these ingredients are a number of principles [8] and an outspoken emphasis on the necessity of finding a balance between “the head, the heart and the hands”. The narrative of the Transition Network is explicitly aiming to be “inspirational, positive and evolving” and places much emphasis on storytelling. As formulated on the website, “one of the key ways in which the approach has spread to “over 50 countries, in thousands of groups: in towns, villages, cities, Universities, schools (...) is through telling inspiring stories” [9].

According to Longhurst 2015, the Transition approach is “underpinned by a theory of change that is based on community based activism stimulating wider systemic change towards a post-fossil fuel, high well being society. (...) Transition initiatives provide a supportive experimental space for citizens to work towards changing their systems at a local level. It is a positive and engaging process that is intended to encourage people to engage in areas where they are passionate about change and work towards the building of new localised systems of provision (e.g. energy, food). The theory of change is set out in a set of narratives about why a transition is required and how it should be undertaken. It is offered as a rational and necessary response to the threats of peak oil, climate change and the global economic crisis. It proposes a set of processes for organizing initiatives and projects. The model is innovative in the way that it brings together various ideas and practices into a coherent model. It combines ideas from ecology, addiction studies, system thinking, permaculture, with techniques for participatory community organizing and engagement”[10].

Transformative potential

From the TRANSIT case-study report summary: “Assessing exactly how it contributes towards change is difficult to clearly establish if the various dimensions of change outlined above are taken into account. The extent to which it has influenced the beliefs and behaviour of the various actors who have been involved or engaged by Transition activities would need further, detailed empirical investigation. Furthermore, the way in which the model is implemented differently in different countries adds a further layer of complexity in terms of understanding the possible impact. Some broad observations can be made:

  • The growth of the movement has led to the proliferation of 1120 TIs in 43 countries (April 2014).
  • Locally created ‘experimental space’ has led to new kinds of innovation emerging.
  • Some projects have a tangible localised effect on their community.
  • The Transition narrative has diffused widely. It has contributed to the discourse around the necessity and nature of a Transition as well as being part of the wider anti-growth / anti-capitalist discourse.
  • The Transition model has contributed towards the argument that community based movements can contribute to social change, influencing government policy”.

One of the critiques towards the Transition Towns movement has been its focus on positive action and lack of overt resistance and protest towards existing structures, or in other words its “apolitical pragmatism that masks latent tensions” in the urban context (Mason & Whitehead 2011)[11] and its “insistence on inclusiveness and positive responses and consequent refusal to take positions in direct opposition to institutions or projects” (Connols & McDonalds 2010)[12]. On that basis one could argue that the transformative potential of the Transition Towns movements lies primarily in the (contributing) to supplementing and altering current power relations, rather than overtly challenging or replacing them. Several studies have described the danger of co-optation by established institutions and/or paradigms. The movement's internal narrative is explicitly transformative, though the extent to which that translates into overt challenges to current power relations varies. See for example Alexander and Ruthford 2018. On the other hand, one could argue that the grassroots community work of Transition Towns, also has the potential to challenge and replace current power relations by showing that alternative social relations are possible. The Municipalities in Transition System, for instance, aims to challenge power relations through the process being led by a collaborative group where community and municipality representatives are equals in decision-making. As argued by Lara Monticelli (2018), movements like Transition Towns are focused on ‘prefiguring’ their future vision, i.e. “embody their ultimate goals and their vision of a future society through their ongoing social practices, social relations, decision-making philosophy and culture” and “not only opposing capitalism but also prefiguring post-capitalist societies. These movements are re-thinking and re-politicising conventional modes of production, consumption and living by defending, restoring and creating spaces of resistance and experimentation” (Monticelli 2018: 509-515)[13].

Illustrations

Examples of Transition Town initiatives studied in the TRANSIT project:

Social Innovation Initiatives in the Critical Turning Points-database

Social Innovation Initiatives studied in-depth

In research project TESS [14]

  • Transition Black Isle (Scotland)

In the GLAMURS project

Supported by the BASE project a book on transition was written with the cases of

References

Further reading

Link to other wiki: http://wiki.ecolise.eu/index.php?title=Transition_movement