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Energy descent action plans for cities: some thoughts…

cityThis post was prompted by an email from Brian Davey on behalf of the Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) Group in Transition Nottingham. The subject under discussion is EDAPs (or Community Resilience Plans… or whatever you want to call them), and how one does them for cities, or even if one does them for cities. Their questions give me an opportunity to reflect on the Totnes EDAP process, and to explore some emergent aspects of Transition, especially in the urban context. The Nottingham group have given me permission to reprint their initial email in full, so I will start with that, and then move on to my reflections on the points they raise. This post is as much an invitation for your comments and thoughts as anything else….

“Dear Transitioners,

We’ve been floundering in Nottingham with the Energy Descent Action Plan and it was agreed that I write to you to see if you’ve got ideas that would help..

Part of the problem appears to revolves around what we mean by a “plan” – a plan is a way of attempting to shape the future – yet there is also an explicit ethos in the Transition Movement of “letting things go where they will”. “Letting things go where they will” implies accepting that things will unfold in unexpected ways and being flexible to that, taking up unforseen opportunities as they arise and being prepared to abandon unrealistic aspirations along the route. Instead of shaping the future this is about being prepared to be shaped by the future.

The reason this is important in a city is that a city is a large and very complex beast so the number of unexpected connections and developments is much greater than in a village or small town. It follows that the capacity of Nottingham to generate unexpected developments is hugely greater than in Totnes with 1% of our population. For many years Nottingham had a bike industry and pharmaceuticals – both arose unexpectedly in Nottingham – there was nothing special about Nottingham that led to them being here.

Further – it is not clear to us what the Transition Movement means by planning. For those of us who come to this with a mind-set shaped by business planning for project development the EDAPs that we have seen do not appear to be much like planning. A plan has specific, measurable, achievable targets.

It follows that if the plan is intended as serious thinking about how to achieve an adjusted future then, when you write:

“Nottingham will have a network of community garden hubs in each district to support local people grow more of their own food by 2012″

…then you also have to have something like this written two years in advance of this, by 2010…and written by a group with sufficient capacity to actually deliver it (skills, time, money, organisation, mutual trust):

“In Sherwood the community garden hub will be based at the Sherwood Community Centre gardens with an area of one hectare and with a half hectare extension orchard across the road in Woodthorpe Park. The Sherwood hub will employ one garden worker and an outreach worker and will be open 4 days a week including Sundays. Courses on fruit and vegetable growing and permaculture will be available on one day a week organised in conjunction with Brackenhurst College. There will be 20 regular volunteers and a further 30 occasional volunteers and visitor numbers are anticipated as 1,000 per annum. The budget will be £60,000 – a half of this will be fees from courses, one quarter a reducing grant from Nottingham City Council and one quarter from sales of fruit, vegetables and meals cooked in a joint project with the Community Centre…..”

“….In Wollaton the community garden hub will take over and regenerate the walled garden in the park as well as developing a farm animal training centre on the field opposite the lake which will be used as training for broadscale agriculture in conjunction with Jim Rose of Tinker Bells Farm in Hucknall. 3 people will be employed. 30 people will be trained a year in ploughing with animal skills. Pasture/fodder for the horses will be provided on fields at..

continues….

Well, I made all that up. It was complete off the top of my head fantasy. But in a real plan it would not be. It would be based on discussions and agreements and research that your group had done, as in a business plan. Yes, we do realise that that is much more of a tall order. It is much more ambitious. It would be hard work….but it would be real PLANNING.

The point I am making is that a plan mentions specific places, specific numbers and specific budgets – and that provides the basis for specific actions. Unless you get down to that level of details and start working through tasks to achieve that you will end up, after a few years, with reams of paper of all the things that you said that you were going to do and almost none of them will have even been started on. By focusing more specifically in this way you have to GET REAL and actually start project developing specific very small scale projects – instead of writing “visions” that a few years later are still no more than that and produce disillusionment about the group that has created them as being no more than a talking shop.

EDAPs have been around for a few years now – so if we go back and look at how much of the things that were said would happen for years that are now in the past, how much of them have actually happened. If the answer is “not very much” then what conclusions does one draw from this for the process of writing EDAPs!

Any comments please?

Brian – for the Nottingham EDAP Group

******

totnesedapcover1This is a fascinating area for discussion, and what I am offering here are only thoughts and suggestions, in the hope that it stimulates conversation and debate. So, let’s start from the beginning. What is an EDAP and why would anyone do one? ‘Create an Energy Descent Action Plan’ is the 12th of Transition’s 12 Steps, intended as the culmination of the preceding eleven. The idea is that it is one of the key things that distinguishes Transition from other approaches, that rather than being a disparate assembly of projects, Transition pulls together a range of initiatives and puts them in the wider strategic context of intentionally planning for the relocalisation of the settlement as a whole. An EDAP is, in essence, a Plan B for the community, a mapping out of how the community might get from here to there. The reality is though, that although the first thorough EDAP (for Totnes) has just been published, still none of us know, in practical terms, what planning for the intentional powering down and relocalisation of a city will look like in practice.

How might a Transition group know when it is ready to undertake such a project? It is hard to come up with hard and fast quantifiable criteria such as “when over 10% of people in the community have attended a Transition event” (the Totnes survey showed about 25%), “when over 50%, when surveyed state that the work your Transition initiative is doing is relevant to their lives” (in Totnes it was 61%), or “when over 50% have heard of your initiative” (in Totnes it was 75%). These criteria would be different for every settlement, although clearly some significant degree of community buy-in and support will be vital. Undertaking an EDAP does, however, require certain foundations to be in place, including;

  • a dedicated group of people for whom creating an EDAP is what fires their passion, is the thing they most want to bring about for the Transition initiative
  • good links with as many other organisations in the community as possible (i.e. the local council, schools, other environmental groups, community groups and so on), so the plan can represent their views as much as possible, and get them engaged in its creation
  • some dedicated resource for the project, it is an impossible project to pull of with no budget whatsoever (you’ll need to run events, hire rooms and halls, produce materials and so on…)
  • strong Transition working groups who can drive forward, collaboratively, their parts of the Plan
  • a good level of awareness raising to have been done, so that an EDAP process isn’t constantly having to start from square one every time
  • space in the Transition initiative’s programme of events for EDAP to become a theme that runs through it
  • good web facilities to enable discussion of ideas, collaborative editing of drafts, promotion of events.

Creating the Totnes EDAP, an Energy Descent Plan covering a settlement of 8,500 people and its surrounding catchment of around 23,000 people was a big undertaking. It required around 2o months of time, a full time paid co-ordinator, additional funding for design and printing, and the voluntary efforts of many people. I think that what we have produced is an unprecedented piece of work, something with much that can be replicated in other settlements of a similar size (we learnt a lot doing that will be of use to other communities). A good example of a mini-EDAP, or what was termed a ‘pre-DAP’, can be seen in Transition Forest Row’s ‘Forest Row in Transition’ document, done in a short period of time as a vision document. I am less confident, however, that the EDAP model, as currently imagined, transfers across intact as an approach, to, say, Bristol or Leeds, and here are some thoughts as to why.

1. Can Community-led plans ever be comprehensive?

Can communities be expected to cover all the bases that such a plan would require? One of the things I have done in the PhD I am doing (nearing completion) is to take the Resilience Indicators developed in the Totnes EDAP and drop them into a table generated by Liz Cox at New Economics Foundation of indicators for a sustainable economy. What emerges is that Resilience Indicators generated by a community (well, Totnes at least) tend to fall within the columns that relate to economics, local resilient infrastructure and so on, and not in governance, social enterprise and interdependence (seeing the wider picture) – these things fall, at least in the case of Totnes, outside of a community’s interests/expertise, yet they are essential to an effective and comprehensive response.

They are areas that are usually the domain of Council planners, enterprise agencies, businesses and so on. The Totnes EDAP is the community’s plan, reflective of the passions and interests of those that get involved in the process, but how it now intertwines with Council policy remains to be seen, that will be the focus of TTT’s work over the next few months. Might it be that for cities, effective and comprehensive plans of this nature will require the Transition initiative to work together with its local Council, and with other organisations with some of the other expertise lacking within the Transition group?

2. Do cities and towns develop differently?

A few months ago I sat at Birmingham New Street Station with Andy Goldring of the Permaculture Association, discussing this whole question of what EDAP might look in the urban context. A town like Totnes, every few years, goes through a planning process, where it looks forward over the next 10 years, and plans how it might develop, where to put new homes, services and so on. Cities, on the other hand, are continually re-inventing themselves, pulling bits of themselves down and rebuilding them, constantly changing and shifting; as Brian puts it in his email “cities are large and complex beasts”. On a recent visit to Bristol, I sat by the Arnolfini looking across the docks, realising that since I was 16 and used to sit there, virtually all that I could see has been rebuilt. Andy’s point was that cities are in a process of continual redevelopment, and rarely get the opportunity to sit and plan in the way towns do. In this context, might the role of urban Transition groups be to try, as skillfully as possible, to try and input to, and influence, the process that is already in place, inputting information, vision and the community engagement Transition does so well?

3. Are we talking about a Plan or a Vision?

As Brian points out, there is a tension between producing a Plan, and producing a Vision. He warns of visions as things which “a few years later are still no more than that and produce disillusionment about the group that has created them as being no more than a talking shop”. In creating the Totnes EDAP, we deliberated long and hard about this. We didn’t want to create something that was purely a vision, something that was a long prose piece about carparks turned into allotments and how quiet everything was and everyone has a spring in their step, nor did we feel able to create something that was a hard and fast plan of the kind Brian outlines above.

What we created in the end was neither, and yet both at the same time. Although it is called a Plan, I think of the Totnes EDAP as being more like a story. It starts with a vision, and then backcasts from that. It sets out, sequentially, the things that individuals can do, the community can do, and the local council can do. It is clear though, that as a Transition initiative, we can’t make all these things happen. What we can do is to create a vision that is sufficiently inspiring, enticing, yet also achievable, that it begins to inform the culture of the town as a way forward. It tells a new story of the future of Totnes in a way that is far more appealing than the future being told by the Council and other organisations.

As a follow-up to the publication of the Plan, TTT’s next step is not to undertake to implement the EDAP in its entirety. We don’t have the resources, and our role is project support, catalysing others to develop projects, businesses, community responses. Rather, we hope to create a post focusing on social enterprise, supporting people to make new businesses and livelihoods from the plan, and enabling them to get to the stage of being investment ready. In parallel to this, there will be a process of trying to work with the local council to embed it in their work, and also spreading it out among the community. The Totnes EDAP is a lot more than just a vision, but the vision side of it is also critical.

Given these considerations, might we then start to sketch out some options as to how an urban Transition group might best start to approach an EDAP, or something resembling an EDAP? Here are a few possible models;

1. A Transition initiative-led planning process, like the Totnes EDAP, but which, in the city context, focuses on the neighbourhood scale. It takes the role of gathering visions from across the community and then backcasting how to achieve it. It identifies new areas for food production (like the excellent Sow and Grow report recently published in Glasgow), proposes a range of initiatives and projects that could revitalise and build resilience in the community, with a particular focus on a vision for the area and for practical initiatives which, with some support, the Transition initiative could enable. This ‘A Transition Vision for [insert name of place]‘ could be something that feeds into the wider planning process, as well as galvanising a range of projects.

2. A Council-led process with Transition intervention. Here, the Transition intiative would work at doing what Transition does best, catalysing at the neighbourhood level, while also engaging the local authority, perhaps first pressing for a peak oil resolution (like Nottingham City Council did) and then for a follow up exploring what this means for the city. The best example of this is the Bristol Peak Oil report, commissioned by Bristol City Council and written by some members of Transition City Bristol. This is now an official document, and can start to inform wider planning decisions. In this version, the Transition group pressures to get peak oil and resilience recognised as Council objectives, and then feeds into planning processes, in the same way that Transition Stroud have been inputting into their local council’s food policy. This is a process that, in more enlightened Councils, could begin with the kind of visioning exercise that Transition Taunton Deane did with their local authority. The danger, of course, with this approach, is that with an unresponsive local authority, this could be an enormous drain of energy and source of frustration.

3. A collaborative once-off project, with input from local authority, Transition initiative, academics. A brilliant yet intensely frustrating example of this is the San Buenventura Post Oil Plan, from California, produced by the local authority, with input from academics, transport engineers, architects and planners. An amazing example of visioning and planning done by professionals, but almost entirely lacking in input from the communities affected. Had it been something with input from the local Transition initiatives/community groups, it could have been a very different piece of work. I wish the Totnes EDAP, for example, had had input from the team behind the San Buenaventura document…

This could either be part of, or run alongside, more conventional planning documents. Transition would bring the community engagement part (it could perhaps provide that as a paid service to the local authority) and a wealth of other insights, academics could bring a research side to it and Councils could bring the policy side of things, as well as engineering, highways and a range of other input. The skillful part here is going to be around how these three, culturally very different, bodies talk to each other and collaborate on such a scale. Facilitation would be key. This would, with such diverse engagement, be more able to be a ‘plan’ in the way that Brian refers to.

I may well, of course, be entirely wrong, and several city groups could be on the verge of publishing amazing EDAPs (I’d love to hear from you…). In terms of ‘Let It Go Where It Wants to go” though, perhaps the absence of completed EDAPs out there, in cities as well as elsewhere, perhaps indicates the time is right for reflection on this. I think the principle of creating a story/vision/plan is still central, and I think the Totnes EDAP offers lots of useful indicators for how this might be, but I hope this discussion will generate some focused thinking on next steps.

The three suggestions above are really just starters for discussion. There may be hybrids between them, or entire other approaches we haven’t yet thought of. I asked Ben Brangwyn at Transition Network for his thoughts, and he allowed himself a flight of fancy, unconstrained by budgetary restraints (!), speculating as to what an EDAP for London might look like in an idealised scenario….

As a baseline document to form the foundation of the EDAP process, for me it would be London’s Carbon Reduction Plan created under Ken Livingston, expanded to cover peak oil and economic resilience and accompanied by;

  1. the research that is starting to emerge within the government ministries that’s starting with a common language/understanding for discussing community-led change potential in a volatile world
  2. a listing of all of civil society’s groups that could potentially get involved in delivering analysis and actual change
  3. an analysis of the city’s disparity of wealth (and some mitigation suggestions) by the Equity Trust
  4. a comprehensive list of social enterprises that could arise from this, produced by a combination of Ashoka’s orthogonal thinkers, Unlimited and the School for Social Entrepreneurs
  5. a permaculture design team to apply these principles to the all aspects of the baseline document and finally, a bunch of rappers, celloists, fine and graffiti artists to create a non-static art installation that tugs on the heartstrings and inspires engagement among the young and old alike.

This will certainly be a question I will be bringing to the Open Space discussions at this year’s Transition Network conference (coming soon… get your booking in!), and want to then explore further with people who know more about this. Anyway, some opening thoughts.. anyone want to comment?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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