Transition Towns

Peterborough, Ont., and a handful of other Canadian cities are facing the post-oil future head on. Here's how.

In September 2008, Canada joined an emerging global movement when the town of Peterborough, Ontario, was officially declared a “Transition Town.” And this past May, members of the city council got their heads around the idea and lent their support to the project.

Transition Towns—there are now nearly 200 worldwide, including four others in Canada—are places working to adapt to a world that is being profoundly shaped by climate change and peak oil.

The founder of Transition Town Peterborough, a retired oil-executive named Fred Irwin, described it as a movement to “get a critical mass of the community working together to cope with the challenges we’ll face because of climate change and depleting global oil reserves.”

So far, the “transition” in Peterborough has focused mostly on education—about peak oil, climate change, and the shared solution of those two problems—drastically reducing energy consumption. They’ve also run a series of workshops on sustainable living, and set-up a demonstration permaculture garden.

One of the most obvious markers of this transition in Peterborough is the one-acre plot surrounding the house belonging to Sandy White and Maria Dasilva.

They’ve covered their front yard with cardboard to kill the grass, and next spring, they’ll start turning it into an “edible landscape.” White and Dasilva have also left their backyard wild and planted fruit trees, and started learning the nutritional and medicinal values of the wild plants.

The two women say they plan to put signs up around their property naming the plants and hope others will come by to learn how to add similar elements to their properties. And by the end of next summer, they hope to be 50 percent self-sufficient in terms of produce—which fits in with their philosophy of eating and shopping as locally as possible.

White and Dasilva kicked-off their project after attending a series of workshops held by Transition Town Peterborough. They were connected with student volunteers who helped with the property-design, planting and instruction.

This kind of resourcefulness, combined with openness and knowledge-sharing, gets to the heart of the Transition concept.

One of the movement’s founders, a celebrated British environmentalist named Rob Hopkins, points to the lack of structure as part of Transition’s appeal.

The Roots of Transition

Hopkins started the world’s second Transition Town, in Totnes, England, in 2006.

“When it started out, we had a few ideas of projects to start,” he says. “We put those out to people who were interested, they then went off and played around, added things, took things away. The model [of transition] keeps being changed all the time. It’s something that learns from its successes and its failures all the time.”

Hopkins also stresses that the process of transitioning towards a low-energy lifestyle should be enjoyable—“more like a party than a protest march.” In other words, the Transition message is more about what a person can do, rather than what he or she shouldn’t do to create a more sustainable future. In fact, in the world of Transition, even doom and gloom come with a sense of humour.

Participants at a Transition Town Totnes workshop wrote and performed poetry and stories to express their hopes and fears for the future:

HOPE: Alternative power for rock bands.

FEAR: Vegetarian, totalitarianism.

HOPE: Misshapen fruits and vegetables become hugely more desirable than perfectly shaped ones.

FEAR: Crocs will still be fashionable.  

Transition Town Totnes has also started a local currency in order to encourage the growth of the town’s small independent businesses. New urban gardens have sprung up in response to transition-efforts and workshops are put on to help people learn skills that have been lost in the age of power-tools (such as building homes from scratch out of local materials).

“Transitioners” in Totnes are also close to completing The Energy Descent Action Plan to help the town adapt to a world without oil (they’re counting down to 2030). The development of such a plan is central to the development of any Transition Town.

In Canada, Guelph, Ont., Dundas, Ont., Nelson, B.C. and Victoria have followed Peterborough’s example by signing on. More than 20 other Canadian communities are considering doing the same.

For inspiration on starting your own Transition Town, check out this trailer.