Transition Towns moves communities beyond sustainability to resiliency

The 320 Transition Town initiatives in 14 countries focus on urban agriculture, crowdfunding, and other social enterprises, using a 12-step model to organize a community toward a sustainable, resilient future.

Kim White/Reuters/File
Braham Amadi (left) and Nikki Henderson pose in a community garden behind a low-income housing development in Oakland, Calif., last summer. Mr. Amadi is CEO of the nonprofit People's Community Market. The Transition Towns Network helps cities move away from an oil-based economy by promoting projects such as community gardens.

A while back, Dowser wrote about Bellingham, Wash., a town that is consciously developing its local economy in order to withstand the global recession. Across the world, communities are forming around principles of sustainable, locally based living, with awareness that natural resources – like oil – are finite, and an understanding that sustainability is more than a choice in a grocery store; it’s a way of life. 

One example of such communities is the Transition Towns Network. This global network is focused on transitioning out of a reliance on increasingly less cheap petroleum. Resilience, according to Transition Town philosophy, is one step further than sustainability – it asks us not only to change what we consume or reduce our impact on the planet, but to actually prepare ourselves for a radically different system of production and consumption. The key is self-sufficiency.

There are now 320 Transition Town initiatives in 14 countries, according to a video made by Rob Hopkins, an ecological designer who founded the Network in 2005. In most cases, the towns in the Network engaged in specific initiatives and workshops, as well as potluck events and meetings where people can connect around issues related to resilience – such as neighborhood leadership, permaculture, or alternative currency.

IN PICTURES: Urban gardens

Arguably, much of what goes on in the Transition Network is happening already, in cities everywhere: urban agriculture, crowdfunding, and other kinds of social enterprises are aligned with principles of resilience. But the Transition Network offers a support base, as well as a handbook to the Transition Town design model, a 12-step guide to organizing a community toward nonreliance on oil.

Los Angeles resident Joanne Poyourow was already focused on the oil question and the problem of climate change when she first learned about Rob Hopkins and Transition Towns in 2004. In December of 2008, trainers from Britain’s Transition Town movement came to Los Angeles, and, Poyourow told Dowser, she and others in L.A. “embraced the Transition Town branding onto what we were already doing." By linking up with the network, they created more name recognition for their work.

“People read about Transition Towns in the news and they say, oh wow, I wonder if that's going on around here, and the name helps them find it where they are,” explained Poyourow. “[Transition Towns] have developed resources that help with communication within and across groups. Within the network, ideas spread about events and initiatives.”

The L.A. Transition Town branch is now focused on food-growing initiatives – community gardening above all, and lawn renewal. They are also launching a monthly discussion series focused on creating social enterprises that help with transitioning away from oil. Additionally, there is discussion about the health-care industry: “Our health-care system is very dependent on oil – extractions of medicine, high-powered surgery – so we are looking at what kinds of medicines are more sustainable and how we can connect people with those. The mainstream says 'alternative practitioners,' but we've identified them as low-impact,” said Poyourow.

L.A.’s branch operates with very little funding. While elsewhere, Transition Town initiatives are formalized into 501 C-3s, the L.A. group sees advantages to avoiding that.

“Nonprofits are not always a sustainable model – relying on grants in these times can be difficult. We've been saying, how much can we do with next-to-nothing? The answer is a lot: So we do things in partnership with local organizations, creating coalitions, and receiving in-kind donations, too," explained Poyourow.

The partnership-based, low-budget approach that L.A. Transition Town is undertaking echoes the work of sociologist Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (2009). Schor argues that the US financial collapse in 2008 signals the end of growth-based capitalism. She sees this as the beginning of a new economy (“plenitude,” she dubs it), where people invest time and energy in local production and social networks.

On the East Coast, Tina Clarke became involved in Transition Towns after many decades working as an activist focused on environmental racism and poverty. Her efforts now are directed toward bringing low-income communities of color in inner-city Pittsburgh and New Haven, Conn., into the network. She is doing this by leading workshops, alongside her co-trainer Fred Brown in Pittsburgh. When Clarke and Brown led their first workshop in Pittsburgh, they expected no more than 15 people to attend. But they were in for a surprise.

“These people don't have jobs, they're losing their homes, there's gang violence – but 52 people came to our workshop,” Clarke told Dowser. “And they really understand what transition is all about. They know what it's like to be on the dirty side of the industrial economy because the trash gets dumped in their neighborhoods.” 

The workshop focused on relationship-building and practical actions, and Brown and Clarke were blown away at how enthusiastic the participants were.

“You have to take everyone's needs into account if you're going to have a transition. And there's no top-down enforcement of this idea, but people believe in inclusion. And in this country, you can't do that without going to the most low-income communities and thinking about what rising oil prices mean to them,” said Clarke.

Coming up, the Transition Town Network is offering a “Spring of Sustainability,” a three-month, free online event packed with webinars on creating a more sustainable world.

Another example of an innovative, community-based approach to sustainability is Project Nuevo Mundo. This project is a collection of eco-villages based in Central America, with hopes to expand globally, where participants can learn skills such as permaculture that they bring back to their home communities and share with others.

This article originally appeared at

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