Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Visit to Totnes: A Community in Transition to a Low Carbon Future

We’ve decided to break journey in Totnes on the way to London. Totnes was the first Transition Town in the UK so we we’re keen to see what we find. Rob Hopkins, who first promoted the concept in Kinsale, Ireland now lives and works here. The premise of a Transition Town is that it is based on promoting the power of localisation. Think global, act local has never been more true than in these towns that promote their local economies, have strong local communities and encourage their residents to use public transport, cycle or walk and to recycle/re-use their waste products.  We’ve already been to 3 other transition towns in Kinsale & Kenmare in Ireland as well as Penwith here in England so we are keen compare experiences. 

We arrive at the station not having booked any accommodation.  The town is crowded with tourists and buzzing with activity.  We hadn’t expected to find Totnes so busy but it is the peak of summer.  We walk the length of the town and eventually find a B&B… but only just.  It is a cheerful room and we crash when we get there…exhausted from the past 3 weeks.

The purpose of Transition Towns Totnes (a community led charity) is
to strengthen the local economy, reduce the cost of living and build resilience for a future with less cheap energy and a changing climate.  This is achieved through volunteers working in different areas that include the traditional groups of energy (this includes water matters), food, transport, building & housing but also less talked about areas such as education, the arts, REconomy, and skills share.  What was also interesting was the emphasis on the inner dimension of the transition process.  This particular project asks and answers questions such as:

How does what is happening inside us shape the outer world? If we need an outer Transition to make our systems for transport, food, energy and shelter into something sustainable and healthy, what is the inner Transition that goes with this? What does this look like for individuals, groups and communities?  

Not having contacts in town, we find it difficult to get our finger on the pulse of Totnes so we start at the People’s Café.  The Café is part of the Adult Education Centre and is linked into the Transition Movement.  We chat to the owner and learn a little about what goes on here.  There appears to be a greater awareness amongst the community regarding ideas around Transition as compared to the other towns we have visited.  Certainly everyone here is keen to promote the ‘buy local’ and ‘think local’ concepts and our B&B host tells us that the idea has boosted the tourist industry in Totnes.

One of the projects that has taken off is that of leasing allotments for cultivating crops. This is a common concept in Europe but Totnes Town Council did not originally have land available for leasing allotments.  The residents came together, formed an allotment association and lobbied Council till their wish became a reality.  I particularly liked their catch cry -  “Give Peas a Chance!”  While each tenant plants their own crops, there is a lot of exchange of
produce and ideas that happens with each other.  It is certainly a great idea for growing your food locally and promoting social interaction.  Not everyone is able to grow their own food, but supporting farmers’ markets and buying at least 80% of what you eat from products that are available locally seems to be an idea that is catching.  Many people are used to popping into a supermarket and just buying fruits and veggies without a thought as to where it’s come from or if it is in season.  Being more thoughtful about your food choices is one way to start transitioning to a lower carbon future. 

Car sharing schemes are also very common in Europe and it is far more feasible to consider not owning a car here because the public transport is excellent!  We have found it really easy to get about using the trains and buses in Europe and wish we had the same facilities in the suburbs of Sydney! 

While we were not able to make contact with the Transition Network, (they actively discourage drop in visits due to being inundated by visitors) we were able to visit a Totnes Town Council meeting on a proposal titled Shared Space that dealt with traffic issues in town.  It was great to see how well patronised the meeting was and how well informed both the community and the Council Officer were on the issues being discussed.  Having run similar meetings myself, it was interesting to be a spectator and realise that meetings such as this seem didn’t really differ from one continent to another.  Some of the people were quite hostile and ready to pick holes in anything the officer said, while others were far more rational about the proposed measures to reduce speed through the town.   

We’ve also learnt that Transition Town Totnes has an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) that is looking at the different pathways the town can take to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.  The aim here is to find ways to reduce consumption from 9 barrels per person per annum to 1 barrel per person per annum by 2030!  Obviously, this will require massive changes in the way people consume and go about their daily routines but we do find a town that appears to be committed to achieving this. Totnes also has its own currency but tourists seem to take the notes away as souvenirs rather than spend them in the town! 

One of the concepts being promoted here is that of Transition Streets.  All it requires is 6 neighbours or friends who live nearby to work together to cut energy use and hence carbon dioxide emissions, reduce household consumption and spending and to come up with practical ideas on how this might be achieved.  An obvious bi-product of this initiative is the social interaction that is created and a general sense of wellbeing.  The websites states that participating households save, on
average, about £570 per year off their household bills and around 1.3 tonnes of CO2. 

We are excited about the Transition Streets ideas because it feels doable.  We live in a street where we already enjoy great social interaction and connections with our neighbours.  Our Council area is titled the Bushland Shire and most people move into the area because they already have an affinity with the natural environment.  It is not uncommon to find solar panels or rainwater tanks so coming together to take these ideas one-step further should not be a big ask.  

Perhaps this is where we start when we get back to Hornsby?

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