The streets are alive!

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When anyone asks me what is Transition about, I usually say ‘community’.  The best place to build community has to be your street and neighbourhood. But where do you start?

Playing in the street, Worthing, June 2012

As the Dad of a one year old, watching her play outside in the garden is up there with those great moments of parenthood. Exploring the grass, standing up against the picnic table, looking at snails, picking up pebbles, and sniffing flowers is all part of the rich development playing outside can offer the proto-toddler.

What happens when they get older? Is playing out in the street an option? We did it in the 70s (no, really, we did!) but what about 2012? Have the quiet residential locales of 1974 been crushed by the car?

Well, no. Not everywhere anyway. Pockets of active resistance to the concept of the street as a danger zone do exist. It’s all too easy to subscribe to idea that streets are for cars, not people. Thankfully a few pioneering parents have taken matters into their own hands.

Road closure: DIY style.

I think the images speak volumes of the fun and connections that were made on the day.

‘Hey, hang on! I thought it said no cars!’

A vision of the post-peak car future in Worthing?

So, what was the inspiration for this day of DIY urban transformation? Event organiser Kathryn Kay directed me to Playing Out, a Bristol-based organisation dedicated to making streets safe for children to play in. Their brilliant website contains free resources and lists ‘ten good reasons for street play’. Each one of the ten of the reasons seems justification in itself, but one of them stood out:

Playing in the street increases community cohesion and brings neighbours of

all ages together by providing a sense of common space and shared ownership. It

can engender a sense of collective responsibility and thereby increase the safety of

the neighbourhood.

The community comes together.

Playing Out has started something here, and maybe this is the quiet revolution. It gives a very different meaning to ‘manning the barricades’ to what most people would imagine, but there is something extraordinarily powerful and comforting about what a bunch of local residents can do when they put their efforts into something positive.

Kathryn explained, ‘ if we don’t provide opportunities for our children to play out in the street, then in a generation all recollection of playing out will have gone.’

The experience of Playing Out in Bristol has led to several projects, neatly discussed in the video below:

The Write Up Your Street project has created temporary art installations at strategic points and gently reinforce the Playing Out message:

Chalk Action!

Tools needed: flourescent tabard, box of chalk, and a homemade ROAD CLOSED sign. Bring it on!

Hope Blooms Despite All

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Bad news hits the town. In a big way.

It’s easy to feel despondent walking around Worthing.

Litter swirls around my ankles in the unseasonal wind; the grey forboding skies look ready to open at any moment, threatening to drench the concrete of the 70s brutalist-design multi-storey car park; and people shuffle by wrapped in their own worlds, insulated from the unpleasantness courtesy of ipods and mobile phones.  The local paper concentrates on ‘important’ (see above as an example), but ultimately negative, local issues. In summary, there’s often not a great deal to feel cheerful about.

And then, turning a corner away from a busy road and a roundabout that for some reason often causes the meekest of drivers to morph into road-rage perpetrators, I see this:

Tree with knitted cardigan.

Now there’s a surprise. A garden that has been created on a verge on the edge of a redevelopment site. A few months ago it was weeds, litter and rubble. Now it’s got colour, life and beauty.

Flowers: Better than old MacDonald’s wrappers and empty cans of Red Bull. Discuss.

I originally thought that this might be an example of guerrilla gardening, but no. It has been done by a local church charity group who have gone through all the proper official channels (and months of red tape) to make this happen. Good on ’em!

What’s through the square window?

For me, it shows how even a small location can transform the feel of an otherwise drab, forgotten street into something that explodes with community spirit, life, and hope.

Creativity amongst the concrete

We’ll need more spaces like this in the future. With more veggies than flowers, too. But, then again, I’m pretty certain I noticed a few leaves of Swiss chard amongst the blooms . . .

What is Community?

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A few years ago, my Canadian relatives gave me a poster on ‘How to build community’, which has been placed on my vision board at home.

It is always a source of inspiration and I always think the community-building aspect is a fundamental part of how a Transition town works and what energy descent will mean in practice. What is community? Well, we could talk about online communities, which are part of the mix, but largely a reflection of the multi-tasking, time-poor, physically disconnected age we live in. We could define community by asking how we can build it. Read on . . .

How to build Community:

  1. Turn off your television.
  2. Leave your house.
  3. Know your neighbors.
  4. Look up when you are walking.
  5. Greet people.
  6. Sit on your stoop.
  7. Plant flowers.
  8. Use your library.
  9. Play together.
  10. Buy from local merchants.
  11. Share what you have.
  12. Help a lost dog.
  13. Take children to the park.
  14. Garden together.
  15. Support neighborhood schools.
  16. Fix it even if you didn’t break it.
  17. Have pot lucks.
  18. Honor elders.
  19. Pick up litter.
  20. Read stories aloud.
  21. Dance in the street.
  22. Talk to the mail carrier.
  23. Listen to the birds.
  24. Put up a swing.
  25. Help carry something heavy.
  26. Barter for your goods.
  27. Start a tradition.
  28. Ask a question.
  29. Hire young people for odd jobs.
  30. Organize a block party.
  31. Bake extra and share.
  32. Ask for help when you need it.,
  33. Open your shades.
  34. Sing together.
  35. Share your skills.
  36. Take back the night.
  37. Turn up the music.
  38. Turn down the music.
  39. Listen before you react to anger.
  40. Mediate a conflict.
  41. Seek to understand.
  42. Learn from new and uncomfortable angles.
  43. Know that no one is silent though many are not heard – work to change this.

For me, the most important point here was ‘Learn from new and uncomfortable angles’. This is because energy descent is unprecedented and even those highly-educated and professional amongst us will need to do this. My experience in a Transition initiative showed me that sometimes individuals with significant academic qualifications were often quite inflexible in doing things differently. I remember conversations along the lines of ‘well, all this transition stuff is no different from sustainable development’. The idea of doing anything from a new or uncomfortable angle would be unacceptable. The thought of being a energy descent  ‘beginner’ would not be entertained.

Being out of your comfort zone is often where we are with all of this. It is enriching and humbling at the same time as being educating.

A transition town/village is probably the best response we have right now to energy descent. The people involved in a transition town are a community in their own right, and a microcosm of the wider community. Looking at the list above, it seems to me that most points are experiences for those actively involved in a transition group. Working together is the essence of it really. Whenever anyone used to ask me ‘what is this transition town thing all about?’ I would always blurt out something about peak oil and climate change, and get some fairly blank looks. Once I started mentioning the word ‘community’, people’s reactions were much more upbeat. They got it.

As I’m reading Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything at the moment, community is one of the aspects that gets a mention as something we should be growing and developing in the future. Whilst we may be peaking in oil, gas and coal production, as well as other essentials (water, soil), it is suggested that we are nowhere near a full potentail in terms of community.

Living in a village (which is taking its first tentative steps towards transition), I find that many of these community-building steps are already happening. After being a local for the past five years, it is very natural to greet people in the street, even ones I don’t know. Saying ‘Good Morning’ to a random person in the street will mostly get a smile and a positive response. The few people it is tricky with are those who don’t look up when you pass them, even if there is no-one else around. My theory is that these people are ones who don’t live locally and aren’t use to greeting strangers when they are out. I always think it’s a shame: the chance to connect with someone wasted.

Something as simple as ‘look up when you walk’ sounds obvious, but seems to be a quality that is increasingly missing through mobile phones, ipods, and just an embarassment over having to acknowledge/speak to someone whilst you are moving from A to B. Saying ‘hello’ to someone who isn’t looking up when they are walking is a barrier, but one that can be overcome. I know people who will say it anyway, often taking the other person by surprise. We could call this ‘guerrilla greetings’ and I would wholeheartedly recommend them. Until there is a point of people being able to communicate with each other in their locality, any discussion of community seems quite abstract. Looking up is also a good community-builder as it enables you to be aware of both the place you are in and the here and now.

So simple, but so elusive.

The ‘How to Build Community’ list is always a source of inspiration, and a manifesto for living. I was going to add ‘in an post-oil future’ at the end of the previous sentence but it’s now that this stuff is important. It’s always easy to stick up a poster and think how nice it would be if . . .  but doing most of these things isn’t difficult. I mean I’m not sure about dancing in the streets, but everything else sounds great: the community I want to live in. These are the things that makes life worth living. Being a strong community is a clear advantage to all who live there, particularly in uncertain times.

Transition Findon . . . it has to start somewhere!

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Well, here’s what I decided. After helping set up TTW back in 2009, by the time 2012 began, I came to a point where a lot of things had changed.  For those of you who don’t know Renee and me, we had a baby daughter last summer. That meant that pretty much everything we did took a seismic shift. Attending TTW evening events and meetings immediately became a thing of the past, and all the time I’d spent previously on TTW matters suddenly disappeared.

For a while I’d been questioning the logic of constantly having to travel into Worthing (for me that’s a ten mile round trip to the centre of town) to do transition-related things. Neighbours in Findon were asking why we were doing Transition Town Worthing instead of something more local, and friends in TTW floated the concept of a Transition Findon on more than one occasion.

Six months after our baby was born, I decided to take a big step back and formally leave the TTW steering group. I couldn’t attend meetings and my work on Worthing’s Energy Descent Action Plan seemed to have reached something of a dead end. My priorities had shifted and I had to focus on what was really important to me and my family.

The thing was, I couldn’t detach myself completely from transition. As transition is about building resilience in your local community I thought why not just put a few feelers out exactly there. Findon is different enough from Worthing to give it a go (a village of 2000 people as opposed to a large dispersed town of over 100,000), and the essence of transition is that if you have an idea and some enthusiasm, GO FOR IT!

Where we are now is a Twitter account (@tr_findon), a blog: https://energydescentforbeginners.wordpress.com/and registering as a ‘muller’ with the Transition Network. Email: transitionfindon@gmail.com

Who knows what might come of it. I’m not planning anything at present, and it all depends who comes out of the Findonian woodwork. I still don’t have any time to set up events and run meetings, but there had to be a beginning to it. Bear in mind that TTW took almost a year from the initial discussions to the first event in September 2009, and that was with 6 or 7 very enthusiastic people involved, giving up substantial time to make it happen. So, this one is going to be a relaxed, slow growth (which is perfect for me at present . . . less is more and all that).

What we’d like to focus on eventually (2013 onwards) are things along the lines of community allotment or orchard, street-scale solar energy project, and heart & soul type activities. What we’d like to link in with that’s already going are the fantastic Angmering Community Supported Agriculture, and the Highdown Permaculture Garden. What we don’t want to do is commit to too much, get stressed about meetings, and over-complicate things. Keep it simple. Whoever turns up will be the right people.

So, there it is. A transition village on Worthing’s doorstep.

If not now, then when?