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Strategic thinking

Image - Geofutures (contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2010)


What kind of information about your local area – its soils, its energy generation, the levels of food production it might realistically attain and so on – do you need to gather in order to underpin your work?


While in Transition we may not always have all the answers, it is vital that in our work we try to at least ask the right questions. As has already been discussed, a low-carbon, more localised economy will not come about by accident; it is a collective design project. It demands that we think strategically...

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If done well, the data generated by this kind of research is hugely useful to relocalisation efforts, providing an underpinning to stimulate social enterprise and create key strategic local infrastructure.

Full description

While in Transition we may not always have all the answers, it is vital that in our work we try to at least ask the right questions.

As has already been discussed, a 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 an intentional 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 whatever it might grow, 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 footprints 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.

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 kick-start the food relocalisation process, which were then worked into a successful Local Food Fund bid (see the box below). I asked Tully Wakeman, who coordinated 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 District Council to do a resilience analysis for the area, and which would have developed many of the tools discussed above, has so far failed to proceed due to insufficient funding. It is hoped that awareness of this vital aspect of Transition will grow and the much-needed tools will be developed.

This kind of strategic overview thinking is specialist work, and your initiative is likely to need some help with this. Seek the support and engagement of local universities/specialists, or seek funding to resource it. Only take this work on at a depth you feel you can manage.

Transition in Action: Transition Norwich’s Local Food Projects

by Tully Wakeman

Transition Norwich Food Group has combined with East Anglia Food Link to secure £137,000 of funding from the Local Food Fund to create and run several schemes designed with food resilience in mind.

Two market garden schemes:

These have been set up to provide fresh, organic vegetables to designated subscribers. The schemes comprise a 4-acre field on a local farm, 6 miles from Norwich city centre, and a 2-acre site on the playing field of Hewett School, a large comprehensive school in Norwich. Both sites are supported by the same full-time paid employee who has been appointed to coordinate and oversee the growing and distribution. 2011 was their first full growing season. 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 has been installed in a city-centre location, to mill locally grown wheat (and other cereals). The electric mill is 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’ that will be created from the flour mill produce.

An oats and beans project

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

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 coordinator.

We have also helped in the development of a community garden, Grapes Hill Community Garden, which a group of neighbours have created 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!

Transition in Action: an economic blueprint

by Fiona Ward

This work, being driven by Transition Training and Consulting as part of the REconomy project, aims to assess the local resources and explore the vulnerabilities and opportunities of three districts that have Transition initiatives in their midst, in the light of climate change, peak oil and wider economic uncertainty.

In each place (a range of market towns, rural areas and cities) we will identify and quantify a number of economic opportunities that exist in a new type of local, Transition economy, and then help existing businesses and social entrepreneurs to act on them. We will produce and begin to implement an integrated ‘economic blueprint’, working with key local organisations such as local authorities and Chambers of Commerce.

The work will generally focus on energy security, local food production, retrofit of homes and a small number of goods or services important to the local economy. With our project partners we will consolidate and analyse existing data and knowledge about each 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 community-owned energy companies and food hubs.

A working group of local strategic bodies will be formed as part of the project and will take responsibility for taking forward the most viable ideas. The benefits of our work will include the identification of the most viable economic opportunities, a better understanding of the area’s vulnerabilities, stronger partnerships between local organisations and a better-coordinated and better-informed response to the challenges facing each district.

The direct beneficiaries of this will be the organisations and public bodies that shape and influence the future of the districts, and whoever will benefit from the new economic activities that are started as a result. 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, buildings and local economy.


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