The Suburban Transition Experience
When confronted with the term ‘suburb’, many of us of a certain age will automatically think of Tony Hancock in the fictitious East Cheam, or of Tom and Barbara Good’s adventures in self sufficiency in Surbiton. In both, the comedy comes from perceptions of a comfortable, middle-class way of life – Hancock aspiring to fit in, the Goods desperately trying to find another way. As with all good comedy, the experiences of individuals articulate something universal.
Ealing is a large borough in the west of London, home to about 300,000 residents, a kind of super-borough comprising sixteen distinct areas including Acton, Hanwell, Greenford, Northolt, Southall and more. Each of these has a town centre and its own local identity. The borough has pockets of charm, but some of our public areas feel like they have seen better days. A combination of the credit crunch and dithering by successive councils means that the town centre has been without a cinema for a full five years. Nevertheless, the borough was blessed with visionary town planners in the 19th Century, so in between the rows of predominantly Victorian houses we have more than our fair share of parkland, as well as 60 allotment sites, some as large as 200 plots. In its day, Ealing was known as the ‘Queen of the Suburbs’. Taken in its totality, Ealing is cosmopolitan, multicultural and ‘green’.
Ealing Transition shimmered into existence about four years ago: a few conversations between neighbours in the South Ealing area began to take on a degree of structure and, well, you know how it works. But how could such a group speak for a population of 300,000 (40 times the size of Totnes)? Should we focus only on our immediate neighbourhood, what should we call ourselves, and how should we present ourselves?
We concluded that if nobody else had started ‘Ealing’ Transition, then we were the best people to do so. If other groups were to emerge in the area, we would happily cede the mantle. Thus far none has yet materialised – despite our best efforts to encourage satellites out in Hanwell, Acton and other areas. We decided our identity should be green and clean, allowing us to speak both to the committed and to the wider cosmopolitan audience. All in all, the logo has served us pretty well.
The internet would be central to our dissemination of the message, but we would also need a physical focal point. We really landed on our feet when the vicar of St Mary’s Church joined the steering group. We’re not a particularly religious bunch, but St Mary’s has ample seating space and audio-visual equipment which makes it possible to show films in relative comfort. We started by showing films, and four years later we are still showing a film every six weeks or so. Films remain a great way to introduce the Transition concept and give us a chance for a chat and a cup of tea afterwards. We have never beaten the 200 who came to ‘Age of Stupid’ but we have high hopes for ‘Chasing Ice’. We still lay claim to be Ealing’s finest cinema!
Unlike many groups, we have never done a ‘great unleashing’ - in a borough this size and with no obvious single focal point it would feel like a drop in the ocean. Our approach has been more like setting a snowball rolling down a hill: initially we grew organically by collecting e-mail addresses, then groups formed and generated their own momentum. A community garden group has catalysed growing in a number of locations around the borough and is now running a small allotment site. An orchard group has planted two community orchards and has just secured council money for a forest garden (these initiatives in particular give us permanent visibility). A bee group formed along community supported agriculture lines invited members to buy ‘beeshares’ at ten pounds apiece and distributed a 1lb pot of honey as a dividend to each of 35 people at the end of last year. And a box scheme now distributes seasonal fruit and veg from just outside of London.
Events have included a food day, an energy conference, and two reskilling days, all of which attracted 100+, as did a brilliant talk by Patrick Holden on food security. Networking is important, and we have good relationships with the local council, Ealing Friends of the Earth, neighbourhood groups, and the Quakers. Links with other Transition groups are good, too. The sum total of our efforts to date is a database just shy of 1500 names with whom we communicate every 3-4 weeks.
This week I have been reading Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth. Near the end he says ‘As important as Transition initiatives… are, they share an annoying shortcoming: they tend to be invisible... One wonders what proportion of the overall populace in that region has any awareness of its existence: if the figure exceeds one percent, that would be pleasantly surprising’. Well, I suppose that’s fair: our 1500 members ‘only’ count for half a percent of the population of Ealing, and we still have a modest 298,500 people to reach. In reality, however, those 1500 are probably concentrated in a much smaller area, so perhaps we are doing better than the numbers suggest.
Ealing is of course full of extremely busy people trying to make a living, and as we found out when trying to hand out copies of the Transition Free Press at Ealing Broadway station, they are not terribly interested in hearing about energy security when they are in a hurry! Scaling up the message remains our big challenge: we have entertained ideas like projecting a film on the town hall and are still trying to secure a raised bed on the station platform. But despite all this it seems our efforts are being noticed…
(Sweeping, indeed! Are they talking about us?!)
Is the suburban experience different to any other? We write copy for thousands, but events feel village-y. We found Transition, Transition found us, and for the moment we are the right people for this place, and we are getting things done. Like other groups, we have worked out ways of operating which are driven by the local geography and the people around us. Possibly the biggest learning for the last four years is to pace ourselves and to do what we collectively have the energy for, which has led to a stable, resilient steering group. For the moment our efforts to create ‘the Good Life’ seem to be sustainable – and that’s a pretty good place to be. I’d like to think Tom and Barbara would approve!