Transition Town Totnes

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Ivar Smit at Totnes public garden

Via Loch Ness, we sail down the Caledonian Canal from northern to southern Scotland. From there, we defy the wild weather by seeking shelter in the lee of the islands. At last, we catch a very welcome easterly wind. For three days and nights, we sail on heading south. We pass Land’s End, the southernmost tip of the UK. But with the wind now against us, we decide to drop anchor nearby at Penzance. From there, we take a train to the town of Totnes.

The one key ingredient for sustainable success is people who know one another putting their back into it together. Ivar Smits Ivar Smits Skipper

The last sustainable solution we discovered was the Scottish ecovillage of Findhorn, a community fully committed to a sustainable lifestyle. But what if you don’t happen to live in an ecovillage but still want to do something about climate change? Rob Hopkins has the answer. The theories he outlines in his book, entitled The Transition Handbook, are a road map for the transition to a sustainable, self-sufficient community not dependent on oil. And they’re being put into practice in Totnes, his own town. We’re curious to learn more.

A bottom-up transition

Although Rob unfortunately isn’t in town, Hal Gillmore, one of his close associates, gives us a warm welcome and even offers us the use of his garden house. We meet a number of other people interested in this concept and learn exactly how the transition is occurring. Hal says, “In Totnes, we coordinate different projects involving local food, renewable energy, zero-energy living and the local economy. We help facilitate these, but it’s the residents who ultimately make it all happen.

“It may sound strange, but one of the first things we organised was a programme to help residents get to know one another. Only then did we start to launch other projects. The one key ingredient for success is people who know one another putting their back into it together,” he continues. So how exactly does it all work? Hal explains everything while showing us around town.

Closer to home equals more sustainable

We first stop off at a giant green strip along the public road. Here the municipality used to cultivate ornamental plants, but enthusiastic residents have since replaced them with edible plants and herbs they grow themselves. A home-made sign tells us that everyone’s free to pick what they like from this “Public Garden”. “It’s mainly about awareness,” says Hal, “awareness that public space can be used to produce food.”

Moments later, we find ourselves in the front garden of a terraced house. Here, too, leeks, onions, carrots, herbs and fruit trees are growing in what used to be the flower beds. Hal admits it’s a big cultural change. “In the past, this would have been unthinkable,” he says. “Your neighbours would probably have laughed at you. But it’s becoming more and more the norm now.”

In theory, it may sound ideal, but gardening is incredibly time-consuming – hardly an activity for young working parents, we point out. “That’s why we’ve started ‘garden dating’,” Hal tells us. “Basically, we pair people who have a garden but no time with those who don’t have a garden but do have time. They then divide the crop among themselves. Not only does this reinforce our sense of community, but it also helps spread knowledge about growing your own food. It’s one of our most successful projects,” Hal says proudly.

Home-grown food reduces waste of all kinds

As we continue our tour, Hal tells us about another advantage of home-grown food. “There’s a lot less waste,” he explains. “If you need something, you go get it from the garden. People are much more aware of food in general if they’ve gone to the trouble of growing it themselves. Plus it just doesn’t get any fresher than hand-picked from the garden.”

Producing food locally helps communities reduce their dependence on oil, one of the objectives of the Transition Town movement. Much of our food today is produced using fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Not only are these harmful to the soil and to human and animal health, but they’re also made from finite fossil fuels. Not to mention that long-distance transport requires large quantities of fuel. When organic food is grown locally, chemicals, transport fuels and packaging are not needed. And that’s more sustainable.

Renewable energy generated locally

On the edge of town, we discover an Archimedes’ screw, a hydro turbine made of two big coil-shaped helices slowly rotating in the flowing water. With the River Dart flowing through the village, hydropower was an obvious choice for making the local energy supply renewable. So several townspeople got together to form a project group with the aim of modernising an old waterwheel. A special passage was created to allow fish to pass easily.

Currently, over ten per cent of all the power used in Totnes is generated by the waterwheel. Residents also use electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. By taking advantage of local opportunities to generate renewable energy, they’re reducing their town’s carbon footprint.

Zero-energy living

Back in town, we visit a couple of ecohomes, some of which happen to be open to the public today. Indeed, residents here learn from one another by literally “spying on the neighbours”. We see lots of initiatives involving insulation and energy conservation. Roof solar power is also on the rise, with Transition Town Totnes facilitating the collective purchase of the panels.

A local contractor explains the recent design of a zero-energy new-build home. He says, “We use as much wood and other natural materials as we can. The walls and roof are also well insulated. We specifically chose the location to maximise the number of windows and to accommodate a big roof, all facing south. That way, sunlight heats the interior during the day, and there’s plenty of room for solar panels on the roof.” The whole house can be heated with a single heat and cold pump, but the residents ended up going with a wood stove for budgetary reasons.

Boosting the local economy

All these local activities promote the local economy. The town even boasts its own currency – the Totnes pound – worth one pound sterling and accepted at participating shops in town. Curious about the details, we learn that it’s actually a type of voucher, rather than official money. But still, the Totnes pound keeps money in the community which, in turn, supports local jobs.

Local shopkeepers are benefiting, too, which is obvious from the many unique shops lining the high street. There’s one selling regional organic products, as well as several bakeries, tea shops and restaurants. There are no vacant properties and hardly any chain stores. The emphasis on “local” is perhaps best illustrated, though, by a shop specialising in local products which actually bears the name Not Made in China.

Transition Network

The success of the sustainable transition in Totnes has not gone unnoticed. The initiative has now been adopted by over 1,100 towns and cities in 43 countries. The Transition Network has been established to help others make the transition through the exchange of knowledge and experience. Curious about whether such a transition initiative is under way where you live, or interested in getting one going yourself? Why not check out and sign up?

For our next blog post, we’ll be staying on in the UK for a little while longer. We’ll be meeting Polly Higgins, the self-proclaimed “lawyer for the Earth”. We’re looking forward to getting to know her and finding out how the law can be used as a tool to tackle the sustainability challenges we face.


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