Global crises inspire local action in city of the future

YOU know an idea is hovering around the edges of the mainstream when it makes it into the script of Radio 4's The Archers.

Organic farmer Pat Archer is starting an action group called Transition Ambridge, a move to plan how the community can act now and survive rather than allow itself to be battered by two mammoth geopolitical and environmental problems ahead of us in the real world.

Firstly, we are fast approaching (at some time thought to be in the next five to 30 years) what's called "peak oil", the time when the world's oil consumption outstrips the rate of production. This, together with fossil fuel scarcity, will require us to drastically reduce our energy use, even without climate change.

Secondly, the Government says we must reduce our carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 in order to help to slow down or reverse the rate of climate change. Some scientists say this is nowhere near enough to avert the disaster ahead caused by global warming.

A growing network of communities around the UK, Ireland and beyond are deciding to take the future into their own hands, rather than waiting around for governments to come up with solutions.

They are becoming "transition" villages, towns or cities, which means they're planning how they can move forward into an era when we can no longer depend on oil and must also find a sustainable way of living

which does not help to wreck the planet.

The comfortable town of Totnes in Devon is the cradle of Transition in this country, having embarked on its first projects four years ago. Transition Totnes was led by local visionary and academic Rob Hopkins, who also helped to create the first transition town, Kinsale in the Republic of Ireland.

About 40 very varied communities, including the cities of Canterbury, Nottingham, Leicester and Bristol, are now joining the transition train. The Pennine villages of Slaithwaite and Marsden together kicked off their transition brainstorming recently, and Leeds looks ready to climb on board, too.

A Transition City Leeds event being held this weekend will, it's hoped, bring together people from the city and surrounding area to be part of the development of a (probably oil-free, hopefully carbon- neutral) future.

But what, in a practical sense, is this transition network coming up with that can possibly make a difference?

Well, for example, in Totnes some of the projects already on the go involve helping businesses to switch to renewable energy tariffs, the bulk purchase of solar thermal heating kits for residential hot water, matching unused garden space with gardenless growers, and educating children about the movement by encouraging them to make films about their vision for the future of the town.

Totnes also has its own currency, the Totnes Pound, which is used by 70 shops locally as part of the move to produce, distribute and consume as

many goods as possible within the area.

In the Cotswolds town of Stroud, projects include shared bike schemes, the promotion of kitchen gardens, so-called "edible landscapes" like nut

trees and planning of an Oil Depletion Protocol.

As in all transition communities, the ideas come from local people. There's no model handed out by a central HQ, and no such nerve centre exists anyway. Transition is about a return to real democracy, say

its advocates.

The time after "Peak Oil" has been called the era of "energy descent", when the oil we do use will be difficult to get hold of and very expensive. We can either wait until that time to react with a knee-jerk, or start planning now in a more rational way, says Paul Chatterton, senior lecturer in human geography at Leeds University. He's one of a group spreading the word about the birth of Transition City Leeds.

"In Totnes, where there are lots of progressive types like greenies (including Green Party councillors) and Lefties, it was easy to get the idea off the ground," says Dr Chatterton. "It took off like wildfire, and now involves thousands of people, working on areas from agriculture and distribution to local food directories, health and education, transport and energy.

"After years of declining interest in local elections, the Transition Totnes thing has involved loads of people in discussion of the future of their town. It's a whole different approach to politics.

"It's about saying, 'Let's not be doom-mongers, but let's not be climate change deniers either, or pretend that oil isn't getting

more expensive. Let's plan, prepare and tackle the

problems together'."

One of the chief aims of the transition network is to force the Government to follow where local communities lead, even though tension will always exist due to Whitehall's inherent relationship with big business.

The idea is not to create some sort of one-size-fits-all Stalinist Utopia, says Dr Chatterton. "We all know where that led. No, this is about letting a thousand flowers bloom, saying 'How can we unleash the creative genius in our community?' Everyone's an expert in their own life, and has ideas, and we want to bring everyone in on their own terms. There will be no central committee telling us how to do it." He is aware of the need to convince the wider community that this is not just about a group of eco-enthusiasts and Left-leaning activists.

"It's not like the future of our city is only of interest to one group. The future's everyone's problem, surely, so everyone's got to get into a conversation about it and bring along their skills."

Dr Chatterton says the transition will mean creating a strong local economy which is resilient to the blows of energy shortages, or even the collapse of the global economy.

In Leeds, where many people are employed by large supermarkets and call centres, the shock-proof city of the future may well replace those jobs with others involving expertise in hi-tech agriculture, energy, recycling, green construction engineering and architecture.

The food we eat will have been produced in a highly energy-efficient way, and travelled few miles from field to plate.

Far from the whole deal spelling a mood of drabness and austerity, a positive approach to downscaling consumerism might well mean that we cheerfully espouse a "less is more" philosophy towards our daily lives.

Amassing fewer goods, but enjoying the old-fashioned simple pleasures around family and neighbours might be one new (but also rather old-fashioned) direction we'll decide to take. "The future Leeds might look a bit more like Heartbeat. Would that be so bad?"

"I'd like to see a sensible discussion in all the neighbourhoods of the city about our needs and how to supply them locally," says Dr Chatterton, who was born and bred in Leeds.

"We could be pretty self-sufficient in Yorkshire. That's not to say we should close the borders, by the way. I'm not suggesting that. But we do have a robust city, with universities and many FE colleges to train the people we might need in different jobs, and lots of green belt beyond the city to meet local food demands. We have huge resources."

He's not so keen on the word "movement" when attached to transition, sustainability or any other idea that to him is simple common sense.

"It implies that some of us are in it and some are out of it, when what we're talking about is our joint future. When someone refers to people who care about all these issues as 'you lot', I just say: 'Have you got your own separate planet to live on, and can you jump off it when disaster happens? We're all here and in this together, mate'."

The Transition City Leeds workshop will be held on Saturday, April 19, 10am-5pm at Centenary House, North Street, Leeds. The event is free and lunch is provided. Children welcome but no crche facilities available. Information: or

email transitioncityleeds@