Transition Streets was initiated by Transition Town Totnes in 2010 and won the 2011 Ashden Award for Behaviour Change. Since its inception, it has been run with almost 700 households in Totnes and district, with, on average, each household reducing its emissions by 1.3 tonnes (a saving of around £600 per year). It has subsequently spread to other communities, both in the UK and further afield. By far the furthest afield is the recent emergence of the Transition Streets Challenge in Newcastle, Australia. Fascinated to see how this happened and what Transition looks like on the other side of the world, Transition Network’s Rob Hopkins spoke to Graeme and Cathy Stuart of Transition Newcastle to find out more. You can either listen to this podcast, or read the transcript, with photos, below:
G: I’m Graeme, and I’m the convenor of Transition Newcastle. It was started by Will Vorobioff in 2008 or so and he had done the training in Totnes and was really inspired by it and got it started. I’ve been involved since about 2009. My work is around community engagement so I guess I’m particularly interested in those aspects of it.
C: I’m Cathy and I got involved in about 2011 in Transition Newcastle, basically because the meetings of the group moved to our house so I didn’t have much choice really! But I have since become quite passionate about it myself. I became a home sustainability assessor in about 2009-10 so I was really interested in making homes in particular more energy efficient and looked into all that. This whole project came about through a planning weekend that our group had in 2011 and it was really basically a lot of inspirations coming together I think. One was Will’s really strong feeling about the benefits of the Totnes model.
G: He’d been really inspired by the Transition Streets you guys had done, really inspired by that.
C: There’s a magazine in Australia called Renew run by the Alternative Technologies Association here and they had a great article on a street in Western Australia in Perth that had really come together and were doing really amazing creative things as a group. They’d done a two month course on sustainability issues and then come together and done stuff as a street.
They’d have film showings in the middle of their street, where they’d block off the street and bring their couches out onto the street and bring in a van and show films. They’d have open days and invite people in and did a lot of gardening in the street. Really inspiring things. For me, that was one of my real inspirations.
G: There’s another group in Newcastle who got together to have a cafe in their back yard every Sunday. For me that was quite inspiring, they have heaps of people there now and just the idea of what can happen when we bring people together, I was really interested in seeing that. Other people were inspired by the idea of it just being a bit of fun, and bringing together the things we were interested in to the one project, some of which didn’t really come off. So there were a number of things which came together.
Will had contacted Transition Streets in Totnes and got a copy of the manual, or the workbook which I must admit, in the end helped shape it, so you can see there are similarities but it’s also been changed…
C: We definitely started with that as a base and thought in the first part that we would just be able to adapt the specific information, but the more we worked with it the more we ended up basically starting again. I guess what we did was use the workbook from the UK, it certainly fed into some of the types of things we did in our workbook but ours ended up having quite a different look and a different structure.
Did you take the Totnes one with an eye that when you reworked it you were reworking it just for Newcastle or did you have a sense that you were reworking it for other Australian groups?
C: That’s really interesting…yes, we had quite a talk about it. Did we want to make it really specifically Newcastle? Newcastle is the 6th largest city in Australia with about 600,000 people in Greater Newcastle, something like that. So did we keep it just for Newcastle, did we make it for the state of New South Wales or did we want to make it more Australia-wide?
What we ended up doing was making it very specifically Newcastle so that was good from the point of view that we linked up and had quite a lot of support from Newcastle Council, the local area council here and so had very specific information on what services were available with the consumption of waste chapter for example, what specific services were available to local residents.
The issue we’ve got now is that we’re wanting to make the workbook available to groups throughout Australia and what we’re thinking about doing is keeping that local information but move it to one or two pages at the beginning or end of each chapter so that then when we offer it to another group they can just modify that one or two pages that makes it relevant to their local area.
Are you the only place in Australia that’s doing this or has it popped up in other places too?
C: As far as we know.
G: There’s another group who are working towards doing it themselves too.
Once you’d created it how did you then find the groups, how did you kick the whole process off?
G: We basically did it through our networks. Originally we toyed with the idea of trying to make it into nearly like a competition to join in the streets, so there’d be like a search for it. But we ditched that idea. We really wanted to avoid the notion of a competition in any sense. But we thought it would be really great if we could get some media on board and really have a think about – are you going to be one of the pilots.
We saw the first round as a pilot. We advertised just through our networks to find the six streets who were willing to give it a go and we got five streets in the end which was a good number because we did want to test it our and see what worked and what didn’t.
C: We managed to get some newspaper articles in local newspapers and had a couple of spots on the local ABC radio (the BBC equivalent). We were trying to reach out to broader media than simply our own networks.
G: In each street somebody put their hand up to be the street co-ordinator and who roped in other people. We launched it, we had a bit of a launch in a school hall with music and a couple of speakers and a cake and a few things like that, just to give a sense that something was happening. I think that was very useful to do and created a good vibe for it.
So you provided each of those groups with a workbook and did you give them support, did you go along to their meetings and help them get started?
G: Yes we did. The idea was that each group would have a facilitator, basically a contact within Transition Newcastle. It varied from group to group. Some of them were really happy to have support in the early days, whereas some groups went pretty independent fairly quickly. But there was somebody available. We didn’t give them a workbook each because originally it was planned to be a 7-month programme but the workbook wasn’t actually completed and it took much longer than we thought.
C: We did it chapter by chapter, so we would hand out the first chapter and promise them the next chapter the next month. It worked for the first couple of months and then with the amount of work that went into producing the chapters, and there was probably about 10 or 12 people who contributed to the workbook overall. But just getting it laid out and finalised and all in a similar format, it just blew out basically.
G: The streets were happy, they were saying that they wanted longer to spend on some of the topics, so they were quite happy at the slower pace.
C: One of the other really important support mechanisms I think that we put in place, was the people running the streets were the street co-ordinators and then we had Transition Newcastle facilitators, one for each street. What we did was organise some co-ordinator and facilitator meetings where all of us came together. Those I think were really important for the street co-ordinators to feel that if things weren’t going as well as they would have hoped, that then they had support not only from Transition Newcastle as a group but also from each other, from the other streets.
They realised that they were all doing well. We had about four or five of those throughout the programme and that was one thing that quite a few of the co-ordinators commented on, that those meetings were really important for them.
How did it go for the groups on the ground? What’s been their feedback, what’s been their experience of it?
G: I think essentially people were really positive about it. We’re about to do some focus groups and interviews with the street co-ordinators, the street participants and the people involved from our end as well to really document it as much as we can. On our blog there are statements from each of the co-ordinators which Cathy helped collect, and they are all very positive about it.
From my point of view what I found really interesting, it seems to me that it’s been really strong in building connections in the street. We’ve struggled to really quantify how much of a difference it’s made to their energy and water usage and all those sorts of things. One of the things we really want to do next time is work out how to collect that sort of data more successfully. I think we’re going to have lots of evidence about how to build communities, but at the same time we do want to talk about some of the anecdotal environmental impacts.
C: It was interesting, there were a lot of people doing renovations to their homes for some reason, maybe that’s a particularly Australian thing at the moment, I don’t know. But anyway, a lot of them were really mindful of incorporating more sustainable practices in terms of making their homes more energy efficient, water efficient in the process of making these renovations and changes to their homes.
There were things like, one of the participants had a pool. One of my big things, not sure if you have them over there, it’s a pool ioniser, a solar ioniser that replaces a lot of the pump work, so you can reduce your pump usage by 75-80% for people who have a pool, which a lot of people do in Australia of course, that can be a huge component of their electricity bill.
This guy got an ioniser and it made a huge difference to his energy bills but also then looked at putting energy meters on fridges and finding out that the beer fridge in the shed was using three times what the main fridge in the kitchen was using, so basically he just got rid of it which is fantastic. He ended up being able to reduce his energy bill from something like $1000 a month to almost a quarter.
G: I think he said his bill had been up higher and he’s done some work to reduce it and though he’d done a bit. Then he took part in the Challenge and reduced it a lot further.
Once you’ve finished these pilots is the plan to roll it out more further afield and try to get in more groups?
G: We’re going to be getting the feedback. We’re doing a bit more work on the workbook and then we do hope to get more. I think one of the things about the programme too which I think is different to the Totnes one is that it’s called the Challenge because we incorporate challenges through it. Early on some of the participants were worried that it was a competition and it isn’t.
We did think it might be fun to have friendly competition between the streets but we realised it wasn’t really in keeping with our philosophy and the spirit of it and would add an un-useful dimension to it. The Challenges are to do as a street or as a household against yourselves. There’s a challenge of having a local food meal or one of the ones a few of the households did for the water one was using only water from a bucket for a day. So these challenges are designed to raise awareness while having a bit of fun. Some of the streets really got into it quite a bit and others probably didn’t, so we’ve tried to make the programme fairly flexible.
C: One of the other things we incorporated was we have a regular monthly film night and we would make our film night for Transition Newcastle on the theme that the streets were working on. Again it was trying to incorporate things as they were working through the workbook. We also ran some workshops in conjunction with Newcastle City Council which were moderately successful, probably not as much as we would have liked. We tried to have these external things and if people wanted to get more into what they were learning about that there would be other activities that were happening that they wouldn’t have to organise in the street, they were being organised externally.
G: We were thinking that people might be interested in taking up workshops for their streets but I think there was probably enough on in the streets so they didn’t want to take on extra things. We have close connections with the local permaculture group and we’d toyed with the idea of having a ‘Permablitz’ as they call it, where they do a makeover of a yard. It didn’t get off the ground but there is still interest in doing that and we’re about to contact the street co-ordinators to see if any of them do want to, to continue the momentum.
RH: Do you get a sense from having been involved in this and seeing it work that when people come together to do things in this way that they discover something that wasn’t there before? What’s the power that comes from coming together to do stuff do you think?
G: For me it’s discovering each other’s passions and interests that’s really important, and getting to know people. In one of the streets they say one of the outcomes has been the street’s safer, because they’re in Inner Newcastle. People know each other. There was an incident in the street and people came out much more quickly because they knew each them. There’s a house of students in the street…
C: …who were regarded quite suspiciously in the community and that certainly changed. They got involved in the Challenge and the rest of the street is much more accepting of them now.
G: The council runs place-making grants, make your place grants, small up to $2000 grants to do things in the locality. Three things have been funded for the street through this programme. People have got together. In answer to your question, for me, they discovered they can do things together. When they get together, things happen.
What I really get excited about with this project is that we don’t know what is going to happen. One of the groups got some money and created scarecrows which they put in the local shopping street to promote local food sources, places where you can buy local food and that sort of stuff. We would never have thought of doing that as an outcome of Transition Streets but that’s what happened. You have to let go of control.
How has it deepened and enriched the wider work of Transition Newcastle do you think?
G: I think it’s given us a bit of a focus. I’m about to have an article published in New Community Quarterly discussing those challenges. We’re in one of those setting where, with 400,000 – 500,000 people in the area, where do we focus? Where do we put our effort as a Transition programme? I think this has really given us a focus and a way to connect into something meaningful and getting more people involved. And us not having to do it all, that’s been one of the really good things!
C: We’ve been able to produce a resource that hopefully now will have a little bit of a life of its own. We can offer it to people and they can do with it what they would like.
G: Some of the streets are going to continue to do things. We’re not going to know what they’re doing necessarily, but things will still be happening.
What’s next for Transition Newcastle?
G: First, we’re going to revise the workbook and then we’ve got quite a lot of energy to redo the Transition Streets Challenge in Newcastle but also to encourage other groups to do something similar. So to share the resource and the research…
C:…the research and evaluation of it. We’ve applied for funding with a view to rolling it out for up to 20 streets over the next couple of years again locally and trying to get funding for a part-time co-ordinator to help drive it all. It’s been a difficult process rolling this out. We’re a fairly small group. Two of the couples who are actively involved have just had children so they were really limited in how much they could contribute, and another couple of people who were involved were doing major renovations and caring for elderly relatives, that sort of thing.
It was a huge, huge undertaking that ended up not having a lot of people power put into it, so even though the workbook was done I think next time we’d like to think that we’ve got a bit of support running it by someone who’s actually being paid to do it a couple of days a week.
G: I did some calculations and worked out that if we’d done it through my work and paid people for what it would cost it would have cost us about $150,000 to do. It actually cost us $2,600 so we basically had money for printing and we had a little bit of money to do a few other things. We gave each of the streets a copy of your second-latest book and also In Transition 2.0 so we had some money to buy those. But in total we only had $2,600. Once again the power of community to do that, people’s passion.
One question I get asked when I do talks is "how do you get the confidence to do that?" There’ll be people listening who are thinking it would be lovely if we had Transition Streets in my town but how’s that going to happen? Why do you do this? What is it that makes you decide you want to put your energy into this?
C: It’s interesting isn’t it? I still struggle with the fact that none of us within the actual active group of Transition Newcastle have run it in our own streets. In some ways it was much easier and less daunting for us to produce a programme that then we offered to other people and I still struggle with that a little bit because at the end of the day, would I have the courage to run it in our street? In some ways I really want to but in another it’s confronting…
G: It was fairly daunting for us to take it on because it was a big project. For me the motivation is just that I get amazed when I see what people can do when they come together. That was my real motivation to do it, to see what happened. One of our street co-ordinators is fantastic to talk to. She really got into it and was fantastic at knocking on people’s doors and getting people involved. I find her quite inspiring.
This is one of our debates. Some of us are keen to make it widely available under a Creative Commons licence. Other people think it would be better to make it available as a $5 online book. If people ask for it we’re happy to share it. But we are doing an edit of it to make it more widely relevant and then we will certainly by happy to share it as far and widely as we can. We might want to put a little cost on it but there’s still discussion and debate about that.
C: We had some difficulty with getting all the layout done because we couldn’t pay anyone to do it of course, so there are real inconsistencies within the chapters and between chapters. At the moment we’ve got a graphic design artist who’s volunteered her skills and time to actually make it consistent for us, so there’s a few tightening up around the edges things we want to do and then it will just be widely available.
G: In terms of, as you were asking before, what next, one of the issues is that in all the streets we’re pretty well educated, middle-class mostly, some were students but still fairly middle-class. As you can see the workbook is pretty full on. I’m really interested in seeing how we can create other resources which would be more broadly accessible. I think there’s real potential to sell the programme as a community building programme and selling it as that to various groups and organisations, so neighbourhood centres might be willing to run it as a community building one which then gets the word out about sustainability to much broader audiences.
What I’d love to see is short videos which would address some of the key themes or at least collating [existing] videos. And also developing fairly short things which capture some of the key themes and then training up. I thought wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could get some funds to train up some local people who, rather than expecting everybody to read it, they can give an overview of the key themes of the chapter and host discussions?
People from the local community, particularly if we’re going into more marginalised communities, if we could pay somebody from the community to take on that role, that is my vision for it. I think it might be possible to get funding to do that through community building funding here. There are quite a few government funds available in Australia. We could do it through sustainability things but I think also we could look at doing it through the community building thing and taking that sort of approach.
You can read an excellent paper by Graeme about the Transition Streets Challenge here.