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Transition Towns

Author: David Towell

In adding to our series of Innovation Stories, a key resource is the great wealth of local examples generated through the Transition Towns movement which start from a focus on sustainability and environmental justice.

Transition efforts start from trying to visualise what it would mean to live together sustainably. Just as one example, in this case from the USA, here is a five minute animation Visualising a Plenitude Economy from the Center for a New American Dream:

This animation suggests ways in which we could use our time differently and reclaim human-scale production at the local level so as simultaneously to move away from the chimera of indiscriminate economic growth, share income more fairly, do more for ourselves and our neighbours, consume less and strengthen community. Win, win, win! 

Thinking more broadly, the classic definition of sustainable development comes from Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland report): ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. More recently, the distinguished economist, Amartya Sen, has reformulated this definition in the language of capabilities, as ‘preserving the substantive freedoms and capabilities of people today without compromising the capabilities of future generations to have similar or more freedoms’ (The Idea of Justice, Harvard University Press, 2009).


In one important sense then, efforts to build a sustainable future are always a contribution to social justice: justice for future generations and from the outset Brundtland recognised that poverty reduction, wealth redistribution and gender equity are all crucial to environmental conservation.

Since 1987 the growing evidence for potentially catastrophic climate change and the shrinking supplies of the traditional forms of cheap energy have raised the urgency of effective action, locally and globally. The widest grass roots response to this challenge is the ‘transition towns’ movement, originating in the U.K. but now a global network of 1100 or more self-organising initiatives (current news at www.transitionnetwork.org). Indeed, as small measure of the growth of this movement, this website identifies five local initiatives, each with hundreds of members, within 2 miles of my North London home.

The most useful guide to this movement comes in books by its founder, Rob Hopkins, notably The Transition Companion, subtitleMaking your community more resilient in uncertain times’ (Green Books, 2011) and its sequel The Power Of Just Doing Stuff, perhaps optimistically subtitled 'How local action can change the world(Green Books, 2013). Given the origins of this movement, the substantive focus of local initiatives tends to be on renewable energy and conservation, food production, construction and transport, within a localised economy which seeks to escape from our addiction to growth. So more concretely, The Power of Just Doing Stuff reports on several large-scale efforts especially in relation to green energy production, for example, in Bath, Brixton and Lewes in the U.K.

But there is more to it than this. First, local initiatives are highly participatory, using ‘social technologies’ like ‘World Café’ and ‘Open Space’, so as to engage the widest range of voices and experiences: always asking a key question about inclusion, ‘Who is here and who is not here?’. 

Second, the local agenda emerges through interested participants organising around enthusiasms. I can’t find many examples of this yet, but these could certainly include efforts to include disabled and older people and utilise their talents; at the same time seeking to address social isolation. 


Third, a common outcome from these localising efforts is the growth in local interaction, new spaces for mutual engagement and celebration of community: all contributing to greater resilience. Fourth, rather less tangibly, transition in our way of life is requiring people to look both inside and outside themselves so as to develop a new set of values, perhaps best expressed simply in the work of the environmental economist, Tim Jackson (Prosperity without Growth, Earthcan, 2009): a set of values grounded in family, friendship and community, in which we redefine ‘prosperity’ as residing in the quality of our lives, the health and happiness of our families, the strength of our relationships, our sense of shared purpose, our trust in local communities and our potential to participate fully in the life of society.

Starting from sustainability could be a route therefore to combining sustainability and social justice but, learning from the transition movement, we perhaps need a more ‘balanced score card’, i.e. a broader range of high level goals, and seek to engage locally-elected bodies (local authorities) in the programme of change. An impressive example of this across Europe, The European Sustainable Cities Charter has now been signed by 2700 local authorities from 40 countries. The 2004 Aalborg commitments make sustainability central to local policy making, including through attention to local economic development, protection of the environment, non-polluting transport and responsible consumption. They also emphasise social justice and the health and wellbeing of local citizens; and recognise the need to advance this agenda through strengthening participatory democracy. Looking also beyond Europe, Robin Hambleton's Leading the Inclusive City (Policy Press, 2015) offers us many more Innovation Stories.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Transition Towns © David Towell 2015.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.