Transitioning in London
When I first heard about Transition, some years ago, it was in connection with the market towns it originated in, like Totnes. This made sense – self-contained areas, surrounded by countryside, with the potential to grow and be self-sufficient in food and building materials. Places where people know their neighbours, still have a connection to farming, and in some cases have lived all of their lives.
London, a huge sprawling city, disconnected entirely from its food supply – both geographically and psychologically, where people gather from every corner of the world, and often move frequently, didn’t seem a likely candidate for a movement of localism.
But then I began to hear of Transition Towns springing up in Brixton and Finsbury Park – hardly small towns in middle England. When my young son became interested in food growing, and my life demanded a move away from the direct activism I had previously been involved in, I turned to Transition, and after a couple of years of involvement in my nearest initiative, made the decision to start Transition Dartmouth Park, together with a neighbour on my council estate, who shared my interest in food growing and permaculture.
Before starting - and this was crucial, we thought about the scale and identity of our area. There are currently six active Transition groups in our borough of Camden, and most have taken a council ward. But Dartmouth Park is half of the ward of Highgate and we felt this would work as it has its own clear identity, own community hubs and feels like a village. I think for Transition to take hold in an area, it needs to be visible – people need to ‘bump into’ projects in well-used community spaces, to hear about it from neighbours. And in this sense London is no different from anywhere else; it’s just about finding the right scale, and using pre-existing networks and places people congregate.
So Transition Dartmouth Park run our own practical engagement projects in our area, but we work with other local groups where it makes sense. For example we have food growing projects in our local community centre and with our primary school, but are working with several other Transition groups in the area on a home energy metering project. We also collaborate when we speak to the council.
The big difference though, between London and a small town, is whether we really have the potential for genuine resilience – can we grow enough food on balconies, in playgrounds, on council estates to feed ourselves, can we really make a go of local social enterprises when rents are so high. Or are we just showcasing sustainable living in a small way, while remaining reliant on supermarkets and salaries and not really giving ourselves the chance to change our own and others’ lives in any meaningful way?
I go back and forth on this, but think cities just need different solutions. We can grow a lot more food than we do, we can use space better. But ultimately cities like London need to import food and other products, and Community Supported Agriculture – where a community forms a relationship with a farm outside of the city is one solution. Growing Communities in Hackney run a veg box scheme which is supplied by a combination of urban market gardens, a ‘patchwork farm’ – using back gardens and church land, and by using urban buying power to support organic farms outside of London. A Veg Box scheme, using the same model, has just begun in our neighbouring area of Kentish Town and is so far going well.
Transition Brixton has recently shown that community owned, and locally generated energy is possible in London, and last year installed a second solar project on Loughborough estate, funded by a community share issue. And Transition Crouch End are building an amazing cob house and permaculture garden on a beautiful piece of land behind a health centre.
Importantly for me though, Transition is also about creating community, changing attitudes and expectations, and learning new skills, and this can be done anywhere. Before starting Transition Dartmouth Park, I considered whether to achieve a qualitative change for myself and my child, it would be better to move and live as part of a created and self-sufficient community outside of a city. My feeling then, and now, is that for real change to happen we need to bring everyone with us. The projects I have been most inspired by are those like ‘Mums on bikes’ in Finsbury Park, which has given cycle training to Turkish women who have not previously had access to this; by Abundance in Kensal to Kilburn – an urban fruit picking project; by foraging walks I have been on all over London which have taught me that the cycles of nature and food exist everywhere, not only in the countryside.
Being part of Transition in Dartmouth Park, has made me feel connected to my neighbours and the place I live, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever really felt before, and as a lifelong Londoner, I couldn’t really imagine Transitioning anywhere else.