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Ingredients of Transition: Strategic thinking

ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLANS (4.1), SOCIAL ENTERPRISE/ENTREPRENEURSHIP (4.2), STRATEGIC LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE (4.4), COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP OF ASSETS (4.6).

The Challenge

Creating an Energy Descent Action Plan and/or the intentional relocalisation of a community will raise a lot of questions. How much arable land surrounds the settlement, how much food, fuel and fibre might it produce, what productive role might back gardens, allotments and new urban market gardens play? How much energy infrastructure is needed, and how much could realistically be installed? Failing to ask these questions will hamper attempts to think strategically about relocalisation.

Core Text

While in Transition we may not always have all the answers, it is vital that in our work we ask the right questions. As has already been discussed, a Transitioned, low carbon, more localised economy will not come about by accident, it is a collective design project. It demands that we think strategically, because nobody else, none of the statutory bodies who you would imagine would be doing this work, appear to be actually doing it. Several Transition initiatives are starting to do some very interesting work looking strategically at the practicalities and the possibilities of the localisation process.

In 2008, Transition Stroud produced a document called Food Availability in Stroud District: considered in the context of climate change and peak oil for their Local Strategic Partnership Think Tank on Global Change. It looked at the land around Stroud and to what extent it would be able to feed the local population (110,000 people). Using DEFRA data for the area and its current patterns of land use, and assuming a more seasonal, less wasteful diet in the future, they concluded:

“In terms of food self-sufficiency, much more work is needed to assess both food requirements of the population and the food production capacity of the farms. However, in broad terms it is likely that the district could be self sufficient in meat and dairy products (although it may not produce enough cereals for animal feed) and it probably has the capacity to produce much more fruit and vegetables. However, the district is unlikely to be able to produce enough basic carbohydrate (cereals for bread, potatoes etc) or sugars to meet people’s basic needs. This is only a preliminary analysis and further work is planned”.

As part of creating its Energy Descent Action Plan, Transition Town Totnes undertook two detailed studies, ‘Totnes and district renewable energy budget’ and ‘Can Totnes and District feed itself?’ The former was based on data from a report done a couple of years previously which was reworked and updated. ‘Can Totnes and district feed itself?’ was a detailed piece of work, carried out with Mark Thurstain-Goodwin of GIS mapping consultancy Geofutures and Simon Fairlie, editor of ‘The Land’ magazine. Part of it included looking at the context in which Totnes sits, and the pressures on any produce it, which generated the map above, showing that although it may see itself as a market town with a distinctive rural hinterland, it falls within both the food footprint of Plymouth to the west and Torbay to the east. The conclusions of the study were that Totnes and district could feed itself, but that it would not be able to do that as well as heat all local homes with wood fuel, and it also noted that producing vegetables is the easy part, that the greater challenges lie in producing grains, fats and sugars.

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Transition in Action: An Economic Resilience Blueprint by Fiona Ward.

This project, being driven by Transition Training and Consulting, aims to assess the local resources, and explore the vulnerabilities and opportunities in the Forest of Dean district in the light of climate change, peak oil (energy security) and wider economic uncertainty. It will identify and quantify a number of economic opportunities, and help existing businesses and social entrepreneurs to act on them. It will produce and begin to implement an integrated ‘economic resilience blueprint’ working with key local organisations.

It will address three issues: energy security, a sustainable local economy and re-localising food production. Working with our project partners MAIDeN, Geofutures and SWEA we will consolidate and analyse existing data and knowledge about the district, with additional data collection activity initiated as required. Local organisations, interested parties and other experts will be involved in workshops and analysis throughout, with innovative ideas from other places used to stimulate discussion, such as local energy companies and food hubs.

Clearly at this stage we cannot accurately predict the most viable opportunities, but once the data collection and analysis stage is complete, we propose that a working group of local people is formed to take forward the most viable ideas, and to shape at least 1 economic project within each of the 3 key areas before the conclusion of this project phase. Its benefits will include the identification of 3 key catalyst projects, a better understanding of the areas vulnerabilities, stronger partnerships between local organisastions and a better co-ordinated and better informed response to the challenges facing the Forest.

The direct beneficiaries of the Blueprint will be the organisations and public bodies that shape and influence the future of the district, and whoever will benefit from the 3 new economic activities that are started in this phase of the project. As the economic blueprint is increasingly implemented, the indirect beneficiaries will include businesses, smallholders and individuals living or working in a district that has more understanding of, and control over, its critical food systems, energy and local economy.

Michael Dunwell, who initiated this project on behalf of Transition Forest of Dean is working with TTandC to secure the final bit of funding for this project.

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East Anglia Food Link (EAFL) and Transition Norwich did a similar study as part of Transition Norwich’s ‘Resilience Plan’ for the city. Their conclusion was that Norwich could feed itself, and that all it required was food grown within 6 miles of the city centre (due in part to their ability to grow cereals which produce high levels of calories on relatively little ground). They argued that the principal obstacles to this happening are the lack of storage and processing facilities which prevent locally grown food from feeding local people. They also argued that a revival in market gardening would be a key part of any strategy. Their study was based on DEFRA’s land use data, and it assumed a simpler, more seasonal diet, lower in meat and dairy products.

What is fascinating about the Norwich project is that it led to the identification of several key projects that would kickstart the food relocalisation process, which were then worked into a successful Local Food Fund bid (see box). I asked Tully Wakeman who co-ordinated the Norwich research why such a study is important. He told me:

“It is important to have a sense of the whole food picture for a settlement such as Norwich. A trap a lot of NGOs fall into is overthinking about vegetables. The tendency for people to equate renewable energy just with electricity rather than the range of different ways we use energy is even truer when we look at food. Only one tenth of what we consume, in calorific terms, comes from fruit and vegetables, yet that is often the main focus for community NGOs looking at food security. Yet where is the other 90% going to come from? Growing vegetables in gardens, allotments, community gardens and so on offer a degree of food security and can happen relatively rapidly. However the other 90% requires the rebuilding of the infrastructure required for growing, processing, cleaning, storing, milling and distributing grains and cereals, and that takes longer and requires more planning”.

I also asked Mark Thurstain-Goodwin of Geofutures for his thoughts as to why this kind of work matters. “This is vital for key strategic decision making”, he told me. “It enables us to look at relocalisation efforts not in isolation, but to really get a sense of how different settlements overlap with each other”. But is this something that community groups can do on their own? Mark is doubtful:

“There is some of the key data that you can get access to, and this can be useful, but it can also be misleading. What you really need is a data geek, and there aren’t that many people around who understand this stuff. Much of the data is held by local authorities, and so doing this work in partnership with them would be the ideal. While a lot of decision-makers can see the point of this, none are yet undertaking it. For this kind of work to really accelerate and gain traction it needs to be low cost, and that needs initial investment”.

A project proposed by Transition Training and Consulting which would have worked with Forest of Dean to do a resilience analysis for the area, and which would have developed many of the tools discussed above, failed to proceed due to insufficient funding. Hopefully awareness of this vital aspect of Transition will grow and the much needed tools will be developed.

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Transition in Action: Transition Norwich’s Local Food Projects

Transition Norwich Food Group has combined with East Anglia Food Link to secure £137K of funding from the Local Food Fund to create and run several schemes designed with food resilience in mind:

2 market garden schemes: these have been set up to provide fresh, organic vegetables to designated subscribers. These comprise a 4 acre field on a local farm, 6 miles from Norwich City Centre, and a 2 acre site on the Hewett School playing field (a large comprehensive school in Norwich). Both sites are supported by the same full time paid employee who has been appointed to co-ordinate and oversee the growing and distribution. The first full growing season starts Spring 2011. A formal Co-operative Board of Trustees has been set up, drawn from members of Transition Norwich, and 100 ‘subscribers’ (who each buy into the scheme by ordering a vegetable box). The produce from the school site will provide vegetables to the on-site school kitchen, and the rest will be sold to people who live in the immediate neighbourhood. Part of the capital funding has already purchased a tractor for use on both sites.

A Norwich flour mill: this will be installed in a City centre location, to mill locally grown wheat (and other cereals). The electric mill will be capable of milling 1 tonne of grain a day. A good baking and distribution system already exists in Norwich, with a well known independent wholefood wholesaler and retailer on board to sell and promote the newly branded ‘Norwich Loaf’ which will be created from the flour mill produce.

An oats and beans project – brokering with other local small farmers to grow beans and oats for local consumption, with a shift away from other cash crops which are otherwise sold on the open market.

These projects are a tangible expression of a detailed study published by East Anglia Food Link in Spring 2010, which showed that it would be possible to feed the population of Norwich and its suburbs within a radius of 6 miles of the City, if shifts in growing and diet were achieved. This report resulted in considerable local press coverage and debate within the farming community.

Transition Norwich also supports and celebrates an existing ‘Grown Our Own’ project – a community allotment scheme supported by Norwich City Council, where members are able to rent small land strips and use shared tools, seeds, and facilities, with expert advice from the scheme co-ordinator.

We have also helped in the creation of a community garden – Grapes Hill Community Garden – where a group of neighbours have combined to create a community garden behind their terraced city houses, on the site of an old car park. We see all these projects as a small part of creating exemplars of infrastructure for a more resilient Norwich, which can be easily replicated later by others. There is no copyright on creating resilience!

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The Solution

This is specialist work, and your initiative will likely need some help with this. Seek the support and engagement of local universities/specialists, or seek funding to resource it. Don’t take this work on at a depth greater than you feel you can manage. If done well, the data generated is hugely useful to relocalisation efforts, providing a strategic underpinning to effort to stimulate social enterprise and create key strategic local infrastructure.

Connections to other Ingredients

MEASUREMENT (1.6), VISIONING (1.7), BUILDING PARTNERSHIPS (1.11), PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS (2.2), LOCAL FOOD INITIATIVES (2.8), ENSURING LAND ACCESS (2.10), FORM NETWORKS OF TRANSITION INITIATIVES (3.1), INVOLVING THE COUNCIL (3.2), ORAL HISTORIES (3.4), PERMACULTURE DESIGN (Tool 1).

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