Woodland for Energy Descent

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‘Trees have the capacity to rise to the heavens and connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and keep us warm through the winter . . . When W.H. Auden wrote “A culture is no better than its woods”, he knew that having carelessly lost more of their woods than any other country in Europe, the British correspondingly take a greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left’

Roger Deakin, Wildwood (2008)


A Google search for woodland in Worthing brings up street names, guest houses, even a stables. What is missing is real, living woodland. Places are often named for the natural world they have ‘displaced’ (destroyed). The fact is, Worthing has little in the way of woodlands.

The Woodland Trust recently started an initiative (‘More Trees, More Good’) which suggested that no-one should live more than 500m from an area of accessible woodland less than 2 hectares in size. For Worthing, only 0.1% of people live within 500m of such an area. This compares with an average of 14.5% in West Sussex and 15.6% nationally.
Woodlands are an essential element in the transition to a low carbon, post-oil future. In fact, a community with healthy, sustainably managed woodlands could be regarded as one which is more resilient and able to respond to external shocks such as resource depletion and climate change. Not only does woodland provide a crucial green lung for urban communities, it also offers a source of renewable energy, building materials, food in the form of nuts and fruit, as well as opportunities for countless crafts, skills and opportunities to reconnect with nature. Beyond this, we could add that woodlands play an important part in the carbon cycle . . .

Other Transition communities in the UK are involved in woodlands: Lewes is running a Woodland Skills youth training programme and a Living Willow project, Totnes are planting 4000 native trees by the end of March 2011 creating a coppice, they are also attempting to become the ‘nut tree capital of Britain’ with sweet chestnut, walnut, almond and hazel trees being planted, Ladock-Grampound Transition in Cornwall is creating an’edible woodland’ area. (There are many more: check the internet!)
For TTW, we already have well-established groups looking at Local Food, Energy, Re-skilling, and Heart & Soul, whose members may find in very worthwhile to consider woodland as part of Worthing’s future and think about how we can enable this to happen. We are making the first moves towards developing an Energy Descent Action Plan, investigating what is possible and needed in Worthing to break our addiction to oil, adapt to climate change, and create a thriving local economy over the next few decades. How might woodlands be part of Worthing in 2030 and beyond?

A local site is being considered as a possibility for woodland regeneration. It was formerly used as a landfill for many years, but could be brought back into use as a productive woodland, subject to various checks and agreements. We clearly need to identify more potential sites for this purpose.

Part of Worthing’s EDAP vision for 2030 desperately needs to include new areas of woodland, and this will go beyond purely recreational space. Seeing woodland as a living natural, renewable resource and relearning all those skills such as coppicing and pollarding that enables managed woodland to be one of the most productive relationships between people and nature. In addition, we will need to make fuller use of existing spaces where new trees can be planted. Roadside verges and roundabouts for a start. How about the Offington Roundabout planted with a copse of sweet chestnut? Or the huge car parks at Lyon’s Farm dug up and native tree species planted on the edge of the Downs? All that land we’ve previously used for the car will be looked at with fresh eyes when cars are just too expensive to run.

So, Worthing in 2030 will contain more woodland than it does in 2011, but trees don’t grow overnight! If we want a ‘wooded Worthing’ for the future we will need to work out how this can happen. What are the steps necessary? There is a long list for ‘backcasting’ for woodland as part of an EDAP: land availability; partnerships with existing organisations; council support; volunteers; and so on . . .

There is a Chinese proverb which says ‘the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the next best time is now’ Well, I guess we’ll have to go with ‘now’ then!

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Visioning and Backcasting for an Energy Descent Action Plan

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Back in June, 2011, Transition Town Worthing ran its first World Cafe event.

The purpose was to work on the detail already collected in Worthing’s Transition Timeline, and with input from the local community, start building content and firming up ideas. The Transition Handbook refers to this process as ‘backcasting’. In other words, you start off with a vision of what you’d like things to be like, then take several steps back and work out what actually needs to happen to make that vision a reality.

This all sounded great at the planning stage. Book a venue, organise a lovely cafe atmosphere conducive to enabling discussion, set up tables/people to ‘host’ discussion based on a variety of topics for the EDAP (e.g. energy, transport, food, local economy, wellbeing, re-skilling, waste, and so on), and work out a structure for the 3 hours of the event.

Well. it all sort of worked. We had the cafe with loads of homemade cakes and fairtrade beverages. We even got TTW members turning up to the event, eager to take part. I even took along my 1979 edition of the Usborne Book of the Future for an introduction to thinking about the future, and how it’s often a hit and miss affair . . .

Where we diverged from the ‘vision’ for the event was the backcasting, because getting people to focus on what was already on the timeline and work with that rather than come up with a swathe of new ideas was what happened. So we need to rethink how we approach this sort of EDAP event in the future . . . World Cafe principles worked well. We had separate tables on food, energy, local economy, reskilling, green spaces, housing, transport and waste. Each was chaired by a TTW person with some background in that theme.

It also made me think that backcasting is crucial because it brings work on the EDAP back to the present, and things that are happening now. For TTW this means the Angmering CSA, food mapping, community gardens and woodland, as well as our reskilling and heart & soul activities. Without that anchor to the present, transition towns are at risk of being seen as ‘all about the future’ or ‘dreamers’.

Getting people into the right frame of mind to develop their vision of the future is an art in itself. The work of TTW’s Steering Group over the coming months is going to be focused on the EDAP, with backcasting as a priority. We will clearly need to get external input on most of the themes, but need to have a blueprint in place first.

Hmmm. I’m going to vision my lunch now, and backcast to work out how to make it happen!