Saturday 30 June 2012

School in Transition: Mapping Watersheds

Recently the format of our blog has changed (read all about this on Monday) and the crew are now taking turns to post on different days. For our Saturday slot we are cross-posting a piece by Isabel Carlisle, Education Co-ordinator for the Transition Network, who writes about bio-regional watersheds in Water Week for the Social Reporting Project.
"The water cycle and the life cycle are one" Jacques Cousteau
How connected to your local place do you feel? Do you know where the nearest flow of water is? —I don't mean down the drain! If you live in a city you may not be aware that streams are still flowing under the pavements. If you stand in the right place and listen, you can even hear them. The geographical area that catches all the water for a stream or river is called a watershed. Each one of us lives in a watershed and in the future we are likely to need to rely on our local bio-regions (that's another way of talking about a watershed) and communities much more for the resources we need, and for the social, cultural and community bonds needed to sustain our wellbeing.

Thames Map

In Transition we focus quite a bit on peak oil, but peak water is also on the horizon. It is likely that the geo-political conflicts of the future will be as much about water as about oil. In most parts of the world local communities do not own their water supply. Like most of the "commons" - the resources of the natural world that sustain human life - water has been commodified and ownership is by companies and shareholders. To give an example close to home, in 2006 Thames Water Holdings plc was acquired by Kemble Water Ltd. Kemble is owned by a consortium of investors which consists largely of pension funds and other long-term institutional investors from Europe, Canada and Australia. Ownership is no longer located in the hands of the users of the water and the responsibility of Kemble lies with its shareholders, not people living in the Thames valley.

The barons who drew up the Magna Carta in 1215 and forced King John to sign it at Runnymede on the Thames might be surprised to hear that. Alongside Magna Carta they also forced him to sign up to the Charter of the Forest, which dealt with the economic wellbeing, if not survival, of the common man. It gave the people rights to foraging, fishing, collecting wood, gleaning, grazing pigs and much else besides, and stopped the crown from amassing ever more woodland, grazing land, river usage and river-banks. If you are as fascinated as I am by the whole idea of the commons, where it came from and how it might inform our thinking now, read The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh (2008, University of California Press).

So how might local communities step forward as stewards of their watersheds, reclaiming care of the commons (if not ownership)? For Schools in Transition, which is a new programme starting this autumn with 8 pilot schools, we are developing ways for any school to map itself first into its territory and then into its social system. We are using the watershed as our territorial boundary because everyone is in a watershed, wherever you are in the world: it is one of the oldest human boundaries. People in a watershed are related through the flow of water both upstream and downstream and a bio-region describes life lived in relationship within that biotic system.

River Dart
Mapping is one of the tools bio-regionalists use in re-inhabiting place. To quote Doug Aberley (Boundaries of Home: Mapping for local empowerment. 1994. New Society Publishers) "Our actions bear most fruit when interrelated in an ecologically - and culturally - defined place .... Maps show a vision for the future more clearly than thousands of words." Onto them you can plot community forests, indigenous fauna and flora, apple orchards, sawmills, sources of food, a hydro-electric plant above a restored salmon-run, local businesses, empty land for growing food, cycle paths: maps can develop strategies of resistance as indigenous peoples know well.

The most powerful way to map a watershed is with large-scale paper maps that can be drawn on and walked around so we are planning to print out really large-scale and large format maps for schools. We are also looking at the best digital mapping platform that could be shared between schools and their communities. On top of the watershed the school maps the social system that it sits in, looks for the relationships that will move that system towards sustainability (like organic food growers, bee-keepers, renewable energy generation and local businesses) and defines a project that it can take action on in the local community. It could be lobbying for a new cycle path or clearing a waterway of non-native invasive plant species. The idea is that this is learning outside the walls of the classroom through solving real-world problems.

We want watersheds to enter the national cons- ciousness and for people to take respon- sibility for these bio-regions, which means protecting them from pollution, seeing them as living systems, managing the natural and human resources within them well, valuing them as their basins of relations and feeling bounded once more by the natural world. If you know of a school that would like to be a part of the pilot please contact me: isabelcarlisle "at"

Images Map of the River Thames near City airport made by Year 3 children at Gallions School in Newham, How a Watershed Works from Basins of Relations (Brock Dolman, The Water Institute, California), River Dart, Dart Valley Watershed map

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Treehouse Festival: A demonstration of alternative lifestyle

It's the third day of The Treehouse Festival, during which we've been experiencing communal living and pondering and discussing everything from religion to ant farms.

Each morning we have a fun activity (like yesterday's trip to the beach) and each afternoon we have a seminar/talk. Monday's was from professor Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre at the UEA. It was on the (broad!) subject of climate change. She reminded us of the overwhelming evidence of global warming, it's causes (including anthropogenic greenhouse gases), and the effect that that it is having on extreme weather events and changing ecosystems.

What I found fascinating, however, was where this all points; what does the future hold? Yes, her predictions suggest increases in consumption (and therefore carbon emissions) in the short term, but the further future is a lot less predictable than anyone can really reasonable assume, and depends so much on how we choose to live our lives over the next few decades. She showed a graph of world population over the past 3000 years, and although exact population was not know for much of that, one thing is clear, and that is that we have very suddenly had an increase in population. We are in a transition already, between a sparsely populated world to a denser one. Many things will have to change for us to support our population, whether we do it consciously or not!

Although Corinne was talking in terms of technological fixes, I was painting my own idea of corrective measures. They were mostly tackling behavioural change: a renewed respect for nature, lifestyle changes that are more about local cooperative community than keeping up with the Jones's, and ceasing the distribution of absurd subsidies for our highest polluting industries.

I'm glad that The Treehouse Festival can give such an idea of the lifestyle possibilities that will lead to a more sustainable future, whilst continuing to be an open and fun environment for those who attend!

Monday 25 June 2012

Bread and Circuses

As the Festival season gets into full swing, this is a post about events. How they shape Transition, how they work (or don't), what questions they bring up about our culture. Most of our initiatives are built around events, as we raise awareness in our communities, involve people and keep connected with one another - stalls, seedy saturdays, produce swaps, open spaces, world cafes, film nights, community parades, discussions in cafes, talks in church halls, unleashings. The Network is structured around "away days" in which the team meet and discuss key topics. We converge at the annual Transition conference in a three-day marathon of meetings and networking.
Do we ever kick back and ask ourselves if these are worthwhile? Do we assess their success or significance? Or are we, as the event's organisers, just rushing around making bookings, sorting chairs and flip charts, putting up posters, too busy in a busy-busy world to stop and consider the wheel as it turns. Gotta get it done, get it sorted and on to the next!
I used to work as an event manager, mostly for a local theatre and poetry festival. It sounds sort of grand, organising artists and musicians, welcoming crowds of people, being in charge of the lights, but as Bryony, my fellow EM once said, it's mostly checking whether there's enough toilet paper in the men's. However it does mean you see behind the scenes of the cultural music-hall that shapes most of our lives. You get to see how people come and go, the buzz of gatherings, that empty feeling after the show is over, how the song and dance never quite deliver you to the paradise they promise. You see backstage and front of house - the exhausted young dancer, the bitter old singers, the critical, heartless audience, how far people will go to find a bit of glamour, how much this all costs in terms of money and human energy. The whole ras lila of it all. You get to observe it and ask yourself: is this what life is really about?
"What I remember most is the repetition, the kind of repeat cycles Sebald writes about in his melancholic work, The Rings of Saturn: the actors repeating the same lines, the musicians playing the same phrases, and how it felt as if I were in charge of some kind of machine that only cared that this show was repeated over and over again. And how our ancient folk wisdom warns us about not listening to the fairy music and getting lost for centuries. The Event
But not all events are escapes and entertainments, some of them bring people together in surprising ways, provide information, inspiration and connections you would never come across if you stayed at home. In events you can come together in different and dynamic configurations, take part in activities that make you a participant and co-creator of a new culture, rather than a mere spectator of pageants that boast the power and priviledge of the ancien regime. My own life took a radical change of direction thanks to two events I decided to go to at the last minute: a talk in Santa Barbara called Aboriginal Dreamtime, which started a ten-year investigation into earth dreaming; a series of Peak Oil films organised by Sustainable Bungay, that led to these last four years in Transition.
So I am ambivalent about them, both as an organiser and as a punter. Gatherings are essential, but they do not always work in the way we would like them to. Sometimes they work only because we value them afterwards in hindsight. So perhaps this week as we give time to reflect on our experiences we will find some answers as we look at different Transition happenings. Here to kick off are short responses to two I feel have been pivotal:
Launch of Transition Norwich 2.0
2009. The room is packed. It's a sweltering June evening. I am standing in front of 50 people, rapping about Transition and we are all rapt in the retelling of a children's story:
Uh-oh climate change. You can't go over, it you can't go under it, you've gotta go through it!
The mood is high. I am the second in line of four speakers. Tully opened the evening with some hard data about feeback loops to galvanise a big plan he has to help the city to radically reduce its carbon emissions. This is my call to arms. Afterwards we're going to do some mapping and visioning exercises and then feed back to the room. People are well fired up and standing up and saying what needs to be done.
Inspired, as we all were at the beginning of Transition, at the beginning of the initiative, on a performance high, this feels like a great evening. But it's a false buzz in many ways. You can ignite a fire, but if there's no fuel, the fire will die out. The fuel in Transition comes from our own lives, as we commit them to the flames, take up another way of being on the planet. We don't always want to do that. We want to be playing with the ideas at the top, as Jo pointed out so directly on Saturday. We want to be in charge and feel good. We don't want to be bean counters. We love the wedding but we are not so sure about the marriage when it hits the rocks, as of course it will.
You can't go over it, you can't go under it . . .
At the second meeting there will be 15 of us. Ten of us will commit to reducing our carbon emissions to 4 tonnes in the following year. The big plan will not play out in reality. This is however a pivotal event in Transition Norwich, as it introduces personal carbon reduction into the mix of theme groups and projects. In many ways it will define the initiative. It will create four Transition Circles, This Low Carbon Life and the Low Carbon Cookbook. I will learn not to trust the buzz. I will learn to respect the fire.
Transition Network -Peak Money Day
2012. The rain is pouring down in Hoxton Square. The great London planes shake their new leaves and people stand drenched in doorways. It is an unseasonable and strange Spring. Inside the room, fifty of us are sitting listening to Phoebe Bright from Ireland telling us how the financial crisis is driving the country into despair: we have lost the run of ourselves, she says.
We are at a Peak Money day organised by Eva Schonveld and Transition Network – discussing alternative currencies, REconomy projects, timebanking, credit unions, a mix of initiatives to reclaim the economic commons, away from the private banking sector that controls 97% of our finances.
I am keeping an eye on the door to let people in. Most of whom I don't know and some I do. Some I've had email conversations with like Mark Boyle and Filipa Pimentel about the Transition Free Press. The day is structured around several presentations and after lunch we will split up into groups and hold several world cafe sessions, and finally a plenary. It's a full on agenda and afterwards we will cross the square to talk in the Red Lion and I will catch the train home with Gary and Josiah.
The day has been written up already both by Rob Hopkins and Shaun Chamberlin, so this is not another report. It's a famous pause for reflection about how these kinds of events stick. The fact is, like most people in Britian, even though I have been using money all my life, I have no idea how the financial system works. Now I am getting some understanding. First through the attention of the Occupy movement on the fianancial institutions, now by this attention on Transition economy. By listening to Tony Greenham from nef, talking with Ciaran Mundy about the Bristol pound, listening to Filipa talk about what is going on in Portugal, the picture is coming into focus. I am not an economics thinker, I am a bean-counting writer, who used to be a fashion editor and event manager. Glamour and illusion and distraction I know all about.
We have to break the spell of money, I said.
By putting our focus together in the room, by gazing on what appears to be all-powerful and invisible, is how we dispel the trance that has the whole world in its grip.
You don't see the result straight away. You're not sure the event was a success, or that you enjoyed yourself; the world cafes felt unsatisfactory somehow. But none of these things are important. The fact is events like these kick-start unexpected moves, act like strange attractors in non-linear systems, and bring about change. Most of all, you know now you are not alone in thinking that the show is not what it seems. Because there were fifty of you in that room in the heart of London, in the Baptist Church of Norwich, and in a thousand locations in Britain, in the world, each day, each night. Valuing bread, forgoing the circus.
Poster for Magdalen Street Celebration 2012; Sustainble Bungay Green Drinks poster

First published 6 June 2012 on Transition Network Social Reporting project

Saturday 23 June 2012

Holiday activities

Two weeks ago I was on holiday on this sun drenched beach. A Greek island, Croatia?

These local residents should give you a clue -

- it was North Wales, just a few days after the floods a few miles further south. Fortunately the British weather can change quickly and we had great weather - for most of the week

The high tide comes to the door steps of the houses - so rising sea levels are soon going to become an issue at Porthdinllaen.

The area is great for canoeing and walking the coast patch - which this year goes the whole length of Wales. I did a 6 mile walk and caught the bus back, during which I only met 4 people. We live on a heavily populated island but if you make the effort to walk beyond the car park there are miles of beaches and coves with only sheep to share them.

Friday 22 June 2012

Because the worlds are round... and wavy

For the Summer Solstice and 24 Hours of Possibility I stayed offline and concentrated on connecting with the living systems of the earth, beginning with a visit to the beach at four in the morning to see the sunrise half an hour later.

It sounds like the simplest thing in the world to just remain offline for twenty four hours. The truth is I can't remember the last time I had an internet-free day. Much of Transition communications is a web-based business. Just the previous day I'd been emailing and tweeting everyone in Sustainable Bungay about Green Drinks that evening and updating a post on the website about it. I went to the Green Dragon with a host of flowers in jars to speak about plant families for the second Plants for Life event in three days.

It was a misty dawn just off the sunrise coast here in Suffolk and I settled for sensing the moment of the sun coming up over the sea rather than seeing it. It can be just as exciting, that moment when you FEEL it and become aware of other senses than the visual at play.

But the coast was clear, the tide was out and the sea was calm! And here's what it looked like a few minutes after the sun rose.

The photograph gives only the merest impression of the stillness and the quiet fullness of everything. No one else was around. The tide was out. The wind was occasional and light. I stilled my thoughts and tuned in with my feet on the ground. Everything felt big and wide and yes, if I had to put it in words, filled with possibility. My body felt relaxed and alert all at once. The sun seemed like a being, something like a person.

Back home

I set about making a midsummer birthday herbal drink for Charlotte to take on her journey to the Transition Tin Village at the Sunrise festival later that day. It was some time before seven, the sun well risen and the whole garden alive and shining with its mix of wild and cultivated plants and bushes. Plant and flower time can be a very different experience from clock time and when I glanced again at the kitchen clock it was way past nine o' clock!

By then I had gathered 47 different plants for the midsummer herbal cocktail, and they were infusing in the teapot. You could smell them throughout the house: a whole array of mints, English and Japanese mugwort, elder, heartsease and marigold flowers, two types of fennel, lovage (one small leaf!), anise hyssop, giant mexican hyssop, lemon balm, salad burnet, southernwood, lemon verbena, two sages, chia, epazote (very small leaf!), lavender, vervain, alecost, plantain, white deadnettle... and twenty-odd more. I added some fresh organic lemon juice and some fruit syrup (we'd run out of honey, which tastes better, but the syrup was okay) et voila!

When I asked Charlotte to guess what plants were in the drink, she named at least twenty five that I hadn't put in along with the ones that were there!

Now it was time for the tortilla, or Spanish omelette, all local eggs, potatoes and onions, Norfolk tomatoes and homegrown parsley, basil and Greek oregano. The birthday, solstice and cross-country journey food and drink were prepared.

So when Simon arrived from Norwich with two friends just after midday to pick Charlotte up for their shared car journey to Somerset, I thought, now I'll do my reconnecting with the living systems.

Then realised I'd been doing it all morning.

One thing that struck me during these 24 screen-free, pixel-free hours of possibility: How wavy the living world is. And how round.

Photos: Summer Solstice Foxgloves at sunrise, Southwold; Talking plant families at Green Drinks, Bungay June 2012; Summer Solstice Sunrise, Southwold June 2012; Garden Shining, June 2012; midsummer birthday 47 herbs for infusion; mostly local Spanish tortilla (all by MW)

Thursday 21 June 2012

A Walk Along the Thames in Deep Time

Today's Festival of Transition post is from the new economics foundation blog and is by Dr Stephan Harding, the resident ecologist and MSc co-ordinator at Schumacher College and the author of Animate Earth and Ruth Potts, co-founder of Bread, Print and Roses.

The author and activist Rebecca Solnit describes walking as “how the body measures itself against the Earth”. It’s a poetic description that resonates with our experience of walking, and a sensation that we deliberately set out to evoke with our walk through 4.6 billion years of the Earth’s history on Saturday 12 May as part of the Festival of Transition.

It’s hard, often, to think beyond the scale of our own lifetimes. Even measured in thousands of years, the passing of time is elusive, inconceivable, almost magical. And that’s before we get to the billions. Until the bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009 we were unused to such orders of magnitude. Now, billions are bandied about like loose change (at least where the banks are concerned.) But it’s still hard to get a sense of scale. A billion is one thousand million. What might a billion years feel like?

To connect students at Schumacher College with the vast expanse of geological time, Stephan Harding and his MSc student Sergio Maraschin developed a walk that recreates Earth’s history along 4.6 kilometers of Devonshire coastline. Here, we follow the coastal path where the passing of geological time is evident in the cliff face, the contour of the shore and the shards of rock that crunch under foot through to the point where we finally meet the sea. On the scale of the Deep Time walk, one millimeter equals one thousand years.

Re-creating that walk along the Thames, our group of 30 set off from Festival Pier, one of the few visible reminders of the Southbank Centre’s origins and the spirited optimism of the Festival of Britain when anything seemed possible. We begin to imagine ourselves at the very beginning of geological time. For each step of the walk we pass through about half a million years of Earth’s history, aware in that timescale, of the transitory nature of the apparently immutable infrastructure that surrounds us.

Original post can be found here

Wednesday 20 June 2012

24 Hours of Possibility

Here comes the sun! Welcome to our photoblog for the Festival of Transition and the 24 Hours of Possibility that began at dawn today. Here I am greeting the summer solstice sun as it rises from the sea at Southwold, Suffolk (4.36am). It's a glorious day out there, at the sun's zenith in the sky, at this moment of maximum light on earth. Have a wonderful time, whatever you decide to do (or not-do) today. I'm travelling Westwards across the land and looking forward to meeting up fellow Transitioners at the Transition Tin Viillage and the Sunrise Festival. Oh, and having a dance! Wishing everyone the midsummer best. Keep an eye out for the photos as they appear here during the next 23 hours. (Charlotte)

Connecting with the Earth For 24 hours from between the 20th and 21st June, I'm going offline and concentrating on connecting with the earth's living systems. This will involve being at the seashore for sunrise and later on visiting some of the neighbourhood trees. Here I am curating the medicine bed at Bungay Library Community Garden. (Mark)

08.20 - Sunrise shining through the leaves of the sage flowers - at this hour the day is still fresh and alive with possibility. (Jon Curran)

10:00 am - My task for the day is to mend the damage to my improvised fruit cage, caused by the unseasonable strong winds last week. However, the wind brings rain and the rain brings flowers. Bottom right are potato flowers which are unusually abundant this year (John Heaser)

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The friendlier future starts now

This post was originally published on the Transition Network Social Reporters blog. You can find the original post here.

When I signed up for this week I was quite excited about all of the possible things that I could get up to. Of course, what with moving down the country and various other activities I haven't managed to organise anything. And I am not currently in a Transition Initiative, so there isn't even something that I can go and join in with. So my original plan for my 24 hours of possibility was along the lines of visioning the social tipping point, similar to what Charlotte wrote yesteday. In the name of diversity I have now had a rethink. I was inspired by what Charlotte said
Everything enacted, felt and imagined that day will alter the course of events thereafter.
My immediate thought about what kind of future I wanted to create was a kinder, more connected, more community orientated one. So my theme for my 24 hours of possibility became clear. I am going to spread as much kindness and go out of my way to help as many people as possible.

So why out of all of the pressing problems on our planet have I chosen this to focus on?

Very early on in my Environmental Science degree it became obvious to me that the causes and answers to all of our environmental problems actually lay in people and our behaviour. Changing this was the way out of our oil addicted paradigm. As Einstein said
We cannot solve problems using the same kind of thinking as we used when we created them
And that is ultimately what led me to getting involved in Transition and community work. This thought was reflected back to me again in my recent permaculture design course. It became clear as the course progressed that there were plenty of practical solutions and brilliant ideas to our problems. We knew exactly what to do to get us out of this oil rut, but the area that we weren't so confident about was the working with other people, the cooperation, managing conflict, valuing diversity. This often seems to be a sticking point in Transition too.

It didn't take me much time on the sustain-ability band wagon to realise that preaching to people didn't make you many friends and rarely encouraged change. I discovered that quietly living by example and being clear and open when people asked me what I was doing was much more effective. But one of the things that you cannot achieve on your own is to build community. Having lived in Glasgow, a rather large city, for the past year it has really drummed it home how individualistic and self centred our current society is and how unwilling people are to help other people in need. If we are going to all pull together in the future then this is going to have to change. And as I have learnt, what better way to start by leading by example.

So tomorrow I am going to make a conscious effort to overcome my english reserve, to try and make connections, help people, start conversations, spread happiness and kindness. It won't necessarily be in my immediate community, as I don't particularly have one at the moment, so I may well see no direct beneficial consequences. But that isn't what this is about. If I need a personal benefit then I get one anyway from the happiness it gives me making connections, joining the dots. As permaculture says the more connections and relationships there are in a system the more resilient and productive it is.

There are already lots of wonderful people doing this and I do try and do this anyway, but tomorrow I am going to make a conscious effort.

And who knows I might not stop at 24 hours, this is, after all, the beginning of the future...

Photos: My permaculture design team - working together is often the hardest part (Kirsty Morris), constructing the compost toilet on the Norwich Farmshare site.

Monday 18 June 2012

Festival of Transition: What if . . . the People had a change of heart?

Today we are running our blog week in tandem with the Social Reporters Project. We start out with an introduction to the week (and follow on from my last week's post on Development).

I am in the Museum of East Anglian life at the Festival of Transition event, What if . . . the sea keeps rising? and I want to put my hand up and ask about the rivers. Why did the government withdraw its funds for the river defences of the Ore, the Deben, the Alde, the Blyth? But the question does not happen. The woman from the Environment Agency in London is staring into her computer and talking about plans and scenarios and how some moves are less controversial than others, as we all gaze at the aerial shot of the lovely sinuous and green waterlands of coastal Suffolk.

Maybe it's because I know the answer: because when the seas did rise up in a storm surge in 2007, and there was a massive flooding of the Blyth, the environment officer told us the land was not worth much anyway. Only marsh and watermeadows for a few cows. And that the small-scale local fishing was "not economic", so it made no odds that the harbour collapsed. The money for flood protection would be secured for the big inland towns and commercial sea ports, such as Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe.

That was the moment, just before I stumbled upon Transition, that my small world cracked upon and I found myself among the people, defending the place we all loved in our separate, and now connected ways. We spoke out in village halls and protested on the beaches, and then some of us picked up our spades and began to remake the river walls ourselves. Before the advent of diggers, all the river walls were mended each winter by a few men.

Tony Butler, the musuem's curator, showed us a ditch spade from among the extraordinary set of traditional tools on the 14th century barn in which our meeting is taking place. That's when you see the past and the future in your own hands. How everything hinges ultimately on our own efforts: Who will dig the land, who will shape the land, what is it worth, and in what spirit will this work be done? Up until the 1950s half the population in Suffolk worked on the land; now it's 0.5 percent. The country has become something we understand at arm's length, a Suffolk of industrial agriculture, fringed with nature tourism and leisure. And yet in our hearts, somewhere, we know there is a deeper relationship we have with our homeland, and if we were wise, we would be seeking it out.

Festival of Transition

The Festival of Transition has been running now since May in a series of events across the country: walks in London, talks at the Bristol Green Fair, at the Hay Festival and in Manchester. They have been organised by the Transition Network and new economics foundation, as well other organisations. On Wednesday this Festival culminates in a 24 hours of possibility in which everyone has been asked to imagine what life will be like in the future and live it for that one day. Everything from small individual acts - not using a car, making something by hand - to holding a street carnival. This week on the blog we're going to share some of those actions and reflections as Transitioners across the UK.

June 20 is a big day. It's the start of the Rio+20 summit in which the future of the earth will be discussed by world leaders; it is the summer solstice, the longest day, the day of maximum light, when the sun reaches its zenith in the sky; and it's also my birthday. So in the way days are markers for time, historically, planetary, personally, this midsummer brings a shift of attention. Everything enacted, felt and imagined that day will alter the course of events thereafter.

Traditionally midsummer is a door in time, in which other dimensions, possibilities you have never thought of, slip through our imaginations into this physical world. And maybe this is why I don't ask the government officer why they are abandoning the farmland and the bird reserves, and why instead I find myself looking at Laurence Edward's The Creek Men as they float down the River Alde on the way to Snape.

We think the government will turn the planet around. But they won't. It will be the people who will turn it around. The people who love the land, who know that there is more to life than economic necessity. They will not be the people you expect.

24 hours of possibility

What am I going to do on J20? I will get up at dawn and see the sun rise in the East out of the sea at Southwold and, if it's not too windy and rough, I will jump into the waves and have my first swim of the year. I will sit in the garden and have breakfast amongst the rock roses and ceanothus thrumming with bees. Then I will travel with three students from Norwich across the country to the Sunrise Festival and watch the sun set in the West amongst the hills in Somerset. I'm on the crew for the Transition Tin Village and giving workshops on grassroots communications and medicine plants, so the day will start quietly and end in a great crescendo of dance and song and people.

But that's the outside event. What am I really doing on J20? In a recent post during our week on Development, I asked what if beauty were the driving force behind all our actions, rather than economics? What if the basis of our lives was not how the fittest survived, but the how the most lovely and loving thrived, the people and the flowers?

Looking for the bee and pyramid orchids on a roadside verge on the way home from a Bungay Community Bees farm visit, a man stopped and complained to us how the flowers were getting in the way of his vision of the road. There wasn't much there anyway, he said, and kicked the grass as if to prove the point. Richard, who knows every inch of this land, explained why this was a roadside nature reserve, while Lesley, Mark and I kept looking, eyes down. The defender of cars disappeared into his house. We found orchids everywhere.

"When they moved the green-winged orchids from the Tesco roundabout in Lowestoft they disappeared," Lesley said.

"They didn't like being moved," Richard said. "Nature has its own way."

"Maybe they didn't like Tescos, I said. And we all laughed.

The fact is life is surprising and comes up with extraordinary solutions, so long as you allow it to, so long as you don't get intimidated. If you focus on the things you love and know that nature has its own way, including your own. That's something that creators know, and all people who work with wild flowers. What if . . . the unexpected happens? That the drivers of cars don't always have the right of way, that the politicians don't always have the voice? That what you do on a summer's day alters the destiny of the planet?

Who would have imagined for one minute, for example, that the Southwold Journal one of the most traditional local papers, in one of the most conversative towns in Britain had Transition on its front page this week? People in the town have decided to resist the advance of the Costa Coffee chain in our high street and have been set back by the county council planners' recommendation. So the postmaster and chair of the local chamber of commerce, Guy Mitchell, told the reporter about the recent Totnes campaign, quoting Andrew Simms from nef (and chair of the What if . . . the Sea Keeps Rising) and Frances Northrop from TT Totnes: "Ultimately it’s the community that knows its own needs and that voice is getting louder".

So that's what I am going to do on Wednesday, I'm going to tune into the sun as it rises and listen out for that other voice as it comes through. I'm going to keep an eye out for the beautiful and the free. I'm going to hold out, for what I always hold out for, a change of heart amongst the people.

I'm going to hold open the door.

Images: Laurence Edwards The Creek Men; community toolkit from Festival of Transition; with Tristram and Reuben in the hollow oak at High Ash Farm; bee orchid on the verge outside Bungay; Mark in the Library reading the Southwold Journal.

Friday 15 June 2012

Is Development a Dirty Word?

It seems that development is a dirty word, but I wonder whether it's all about the context. Look at vast parts of the world, and development may simply mean clean water, sanitary toilet facilities and some form of indoor cooking apparatus that doesn't smoke the house out and lead to an early death from lung cancer. That kind of development sounds pretty good to me.

But of course, here in merry England, development means, as Charlotte quite rightly says, those horrible little boxes, usually, astoundingly, build with brick or concrete round a wooden box frame. And, for every fabulous passiv-haus that's built, or (my favourite) that wonderful straw house from Grand Designs, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of awful sterile developments. I'm amazed that anyone buys them.

The Victorian terraces and the industrial architecture of northern England are now seen as part of our heritage, yet in the 1940s and 50s, much of it was seen as a blight, to be cleared to make way for "modern" tower blocks, which in time, came to be seen, quite rightly, as eyesores and utterly inimicable to quality of life. Maybe, in the fulness of time, our own modern eyesores, the "dormitory towns", scattered houses with no communal facilities, no shops, schools or green spaces, will go the same way and be replaced by more enlightened housing. Maybe a return to more traditional high streets, replacing the clone-town blueprint, could lead to more people living, once again, in the centre of towns, above shops, maybe even the shops they own themselves? Maybe development could once again be a good concept, where older, solid housing, in the right place, with the right facilities close by, could be retrofitted, redeveloped even, to make them sustainable, carbon-neutral, and pleasant to live in, with shared green places, like the Wensum or Grapes Hill community gardens.

But as Chris says, we need to demand those kinds of developments over others. As a nation, we seem to dream about a lifestyle based on community (see all the nostalgia around the Jubilee, the books, films and programmes set in the pre-modern age) yet, all our actual real-life choices move us away from that ideal. We are peculiarly inconsistent in our dreams and our reality. As Charlotte says, no-one wants to see green spaces grubbed up for housing, yet, we consciously or otherwise, condone it. And longing for community isn't about nostalgia, about a fictional past that only really exists in costume-drama or in the tourist routes; we're not looking for a return to the past, but for a new future. Looking for a new England.

I'm afraid I don't know the answer to the development question, but as a nation, we have to do something otherwise we will continue to get the development we deserve in our inaction, rather than the development we dream of.


Thursday 14 June 2012

Little Boxes on the Hillside

Last night we drove through the new ticky-tacky estates in Stowmarket on the way to What if . . .the sea keeps rising. This being England these 3000 houses are not coloured blue, green, red and yellow. They are a kind of uniform pinky brown and crushed up against each other, as if there is no room to breathe or stretch a limb. And in spite of the architectural differences of size and shape, they all look just the same. We groaned a collective groan and said we couldn't imagine living there, and this being England, were glad when we entered the historic streets of the old market town.

John suggested on Monday there might be positive sides to development, and if you are talking about building houses that have efficient heating systems and promoting cycle paths, you could force yourself to look on the bright side. But that would be to skip what you felt about them in the first place. No developments evince joy in people. No one celebrates when green fields are torn up, trees are felled, creatures are driven out of their homes, and the little boxes chew up the green hills and shut out the view. No one likes it when Lego land encroaches on the familiar neighbourhoods, brings traffic and supermarkets and alienation in its wake. Although people do go and live in these places, nevertheless.

So this post is not about the whys and wherefores about planning. It's about the stuff that's left out: the feelings of people and the people who are not afraid to voice them.

When I first joined in with a community action it was in Oxford in a group called Canal 21, part of Agenda 21, that was originally created at the first Rio Summit. A huge development was taking place in North Oxford and ripping up areas of wasteland, green fields and canalside and placing a lot of stress on the local neighbourhood. People were dispirited and it felt as if there was nothing anyone could do. The developers were in league with the City Council and so far any individual protest had been vilified or ignored. However, as the planning applications were drawn up, the group began talking with everyone who lived in the area, and holding meetings and communicating with other groups, from the allotment holders to the historical societies and started a campaign. We knew we couldn't stop the bulldozers coming in, but we knew we could make it very difficult for them, as well as fight for ecological moorings for the boating community along the canal. We could lessen the blow, make demands and generally bring the issue out into the open.

It was the era of the 1990s road protests and many of the people I knew at that time were veterans of Newbury. Most of them suffered from burn-out, a consequence of battling against a "growth-at-all costs" mindset, with its ingrained worship of property and belief that human developments - from industrial to domestic - are always more important than the earth they are founded upon.

This is an ancient belief in the supremacy of human civilisation and those who are in its driving seat. When you are looking at the kinds of new estates planned around Norwich, alongside the NDR, you are looking directly at that cultural bias. As Denise Carlo of the Norwich Transport Action Group wrote in The End of the Road recently:
Over the past decade, the twin crises of climate change and peak oil have deepened, but they have not altered the tarmac laying ambitions of Norfolk’s elite. . . Norfolk’s preoccupation with road building and hard infrastructure generally is emblematic of the unsustainable global system. Reliance on major infrastructure for transport, telecommunications, energy, water and waste as a means of stimulating and supporting economic activity, underpins the global carbon-generating economic growth and consumption model.
This belief system, coupled with the desire to manage and control and profit, creates a massive driving force. In this driving force, considerations such as rising evictions due to the economic crisis, the privatisation of public spaces, empty buildings and homelessness are not considered. Nor is the effect of activism that challenges these beliefs, such as the current Digger camp outside Windsor and the evicted Occupy camp on Hampstead Heath.

One thing I learned from negotiating with the developers: you are always in the way of their will.

In the 14th century barn at the Museum of East Anglian Life at question time, the audience veered into tangents and it was hard to look at climate change and its effect on the land squarely and collectively. The conversation travelled all over the place. Tidal power, Why doesn't Transition doesn' t talk to the people in Asda? fantasies and tirades and the possible beginning of a new initiative in Stowmarket. And I think it was looking at the final slide on the wall, of Laurence Edward's Creek Men at Orford quay, when I remembered Jeppe Graugaard and what he was saying at our last Dark Mountain meeting.

We were sitting in Ava's wild garden in NR2, full of columbines and yarrow, a blackbird was singing high in the Scot's pine and Jeppe was talking about beauty . . . how it's fundamental, and could be a guiding force in everything we do, And that's really what I wanted to say about Development, by which we mean this week, the proposed housing estates and the roads around Norwich. Some modern buildings are beautiful, and some are sustainable, and some are built with the planet in mind, with respect to resources, water, plants, people. But very very very few. Amongst the hubbub of voices talking about Transition and sea level rise, I felt I was looking for a connecting thread that would make sense of everything and provide a lead for this piece. And suddenly I heard a bird singing outside in the pine tree, and I remembered.

The fact is the earth is beautiful in its all forms and what we do to the earth is not. This is not because we are not capable of creating beauty or being beautiful ourselves, but because the forces that are driving us are ugly and destructive. The earth is round and fluid and diverse and we live in little boxes made of ticky-tacky and all look just the same. While we discuss plans and scenarios and tell ourselves we have to accept it one way or another, whether we like it or not, we're not looking at beauty or the forces that drive us, culturally and unconsciously. We're not looking at how ugliness and those kinds of defeating thought crush our hearts and restrict our imaginations and prevent our reconnection and alignment with the planet. We're not listening to our hearts and seeing there are other ways of looking and acting and being that might lead us to different conclusions. And that, ultimately, this is not our world to be playing with . . .

(to be continued in The Festival of Transtion week on Monday)

The Windsor Diggers poster; Occupy Homes action in Washington DC: tar sands refineries, Canada; The Creek Men by Laurence Edwards, awaiting their voyage to Snape.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

A birthday bash, anyone?

It's my birthday today. Dev- elopment of some kind ( I hope), although what I write about today is hardly a subject for celebration. Perhaps, though, if those with the decision-making power paused for reflection, one of those famous decisions the media call a 'U-turn' could happen?

The Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NDR) has been a hot topic for over a decade now, and, after a lot of horse-trading and amendments, it is now listed by the Department of Transport on the official list of major new roads to be built. It may well be 5 years off yet, and has yet to get planning permission, but already a casual look around the areas to the north and north-east of the City will show a surprising number of houses for sale near to the proposed route.

Probably the most shocking aspects to the proposal is the cost. If you add all the pots of money together - government, County Council, and the GNDP ( Greater Norwich Development Partnership) you get about £112 million, and you can probably safely add another 40% or so to that in reality, which is the average 'overspend' on major road schemes over the last 20 years. The County Council right now are carefully putting money aside from it's revenue budget ( estimated at around £2.5M) into what can only be described as a slush fund to build up extra reserves for the road. All this at a time when frontline services are being systematically reduced to 'save money'.

In September 2005, early on in my role as a County Councillor, this topic was so hot and so big, a special dedicated Full Council meeting was arranged over and above the regular meetings, to hear all Councillors views on the subject, and crucially, to take a vote. Of the 69 Councillors present that day, only 2 voted against the proposal - myself and my colleague, Andrew Boswell. What was also remarkable was the lack of expression or understanding of the bigger picture. Faced with a large business lobby - for many of whom the word 'infrastructure' means 'roads' - and an assumed continued growth in road traffic, this development appeared to all those present an unquestionable step to make. For the full minutes to this meeting, and a brief summary of the speech I made, look here:

So will the road ever be built? Privately, there are key planners and newer politicians around now who are saying that there are doubts. Let's hope so. There is still a long way to go, but maybe there will be true celebration - much as there has been in the past over the relinquishing of plans for new roads - when we see the area to the north-east of Norwich remain unblighted by this unnecessary road.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

DIY Planning Authority and other answers to rogue development

Development gets a bad rap these days.  And when you consider what utterly atrocious development has happened in the last sixty or so years, I'm not at all surprised.  Ever since the second world war, development has been out to get us, destroying community left right and centre, aptly demonstrated in this documentary from the BBC.

Who decided that it was a good idea to stack houses on top of each other, resulting in accommodation with no gardens and plenty of dingy semi-private corridors for people to pee in? (Answers will be given at the end of the blog post) What made people decide that spreading out communities over vast areas only traversable by car would help them live better lives? That's what has happened, and now we don't seem to be able to stop.

Unite D'habitation, Marseilles

There seems to be some automatic assumption on the part of modern planners that we need more vast housing estates and more "executive apartments" (which really just means tower blocks that are faced with brick rather than concrete) that flies in the face of all evidence.

If you're reading this, them I'm sure you're already aware of some of this evidence - how commuter car use is destroying the planet, how local shops are being driven (excuse the pun) out of town by chain supermarkets, how deprived areas fall into a spiral of decline because they desperately lack access to green space, community facilities and other opportunities to thrive.

It's fair to say that there are a lot of factors which got us into the position that we are now in: the blame rests on many many shoulders.

But lets not dwell on that.  The question is how do we get out of this mess?  How do we stop runaway development destroying our towns and smothering our villages?

There is an answer!

I love this inspiring flashy video, but of course it does beg the question, "how?"

Well, I'd be quite happy if the rest of my career was to be spent answering that question, but for the moment I'll give just a few thoughts of current relevance.

New legislation is your friend

The first draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (the national policy that governs how planning authorities devise local plans and make planning decisions) was widely criticised in that anything that could be justified in terms of economic growth would be given instant planning permission.  The published version, however, was cleaned up, and is much much better, but it still relies on one thing, and that is for you to be its friend.

The new legislation explicitly gives support to "the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate", and has many other clauses that support the need for "ensuring the vitality of town centres", "promoting sustainable transport" and "promoting healthy communities" to name but a few, but all these mean nothing if they are ignored, and no one is held accountable to upholding them. At 50 pages, its very manageable, but if you don't feel like reading government legislation today, you might still want to urge your local councillor to read it, so that they can put pressure on the planning department to make sure these clauses are taken seriously.

Be the planning authority

Under the National Planning Policy Framework, "parishes and neighbourhood forums can use neighbourhood planning to set planning policies through neighbourhood plans to determine decisions on planning applications; and grant planning permission through Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders for specific development which complies with the order" (Clause 183).  This means that you can actually set planning policy, as long as you work with your neighbourhood to do so.

Work with developers

Developer Beyond Green operated
consultations in Broadland last year
to get early opinions on what people
want in their local area.
As John said yesterday, talking to developer's is often seen as bedding with the devil, but I totally disagree with this notion.  Developers generally want to make great places as much as you want to live in them, but are limited by bureaucracy and procedure.  If developers can save money in fighting planning appeals and redesign by providing what the community want first time, they will be happy and you will be happy, so make sure they know what you want.  Encourage developers who consult communities early in the process by going to consultations, and giving them constructive ideas about what you'd like to see in your local area.

So in conclusion...

Not all development is bad, but I'm afraid some of the responsibility for creating the good development in your area lies on your shoulders. When you work as a team with your local community, the force of the law is behind you, but yes, it might take some work!

Answers: Le corbusier was responsible for the popularisation of housing blocks: he thought that buildings ought to work more like machines. The American Dream (and all the advertising that was pumped into post-war America) was responsible for the explosion in suburbia.

Images: Le Corbusier's Unite D'habitation in Marseilles; a text cloud from the NPPF; .

Monday 11 June 2012

Development - for better or worse

Lady Julian Bridge
A lot of people are soon going to get a nasty shock when they learn the latest results from the process that is looking at sites for the 30,000 new homes to be built mainly to the south of Norwich. The process has been going on for years and the gears turn exceedingly slow but another cog has now engaged. Many people are about to find that their views of green fields are going to be replaced by a building site in the next 5 years or so.

Research Park
People involved in Transition generally react with horror at the thought of yet more concrete and the roads that come with it. So do we bury our heads in the sand or try to make the best of it? Certainly there are opportunities to break the current mould and it would not be hard to improve on what has happened in the past - but do we as a society have the courage to take radical steps?

I have spent quite a lot of time over the last year talking to developers – which has led some people to condemn me for conversing with the Devil. The planners that I have talked to have often been young, currently cycling to work in London and keen to provide a living environment that they would find attractive to live in themselves. As more than one developer has pointed out – they do need people to want to buy the houses! However it seems to me that the most vocal part of society is mainly concerned with damage limitation and restricting the area of development to the minimum. Whilst I can understand this, there is a danger that facilities such as cycle paths, allotments and playing fields will be squeezed out. I’ve read planning proposals that seek to prove that the small number of shops to be provided at one new site won’t threaten existing shops – in other words people will get in their cars and drive 3 miles to a supermarket that is serviced by roads hostile to bikes in order to buy a pint of milk! This seems totally wrong to me – people should have all the facilities that they need within walking distance.

Plans for Hethersett
I feel that we are at a crossroads and that our descendants will either praise our vision or curse us for saddling them with something that is as much fun to live in as a 1960’s tower block. Jon, Simeon, Charlotte and Chris will be giving us their views during the week.

PS Check out the NDR exhibitiion set up by the Norfolk County Council (and action by Norwich Transport Action Group) at the Forum today, 9am-6pm.

Pics from the GNDP website and South Norfolk Council

Saturday 9 June 2012

On Community Gardens and Sweet Cicely - a Conversation with Jeremy Bartlett

Last week I paid a visit to Jeremy Bartlett, who over the past few years has co- ordinated the planting up of Grapes Hill Community Garden in Norwich. Jeremy is part of the Norfolk Master Gardeners group, who help local people and communities set up food growing projects. He also designed the Grapes Hill garden website.

I first met Jeremy online through his monthly update for the garden on the Transition Norwich News website which I help edit. Then on an early November morning last year when Rob Hopkins was in Norwich we took him to visit Grapes Hill, and in the briefest of exchanges I discovered Jeremy loved sages.

"You would love chia (Salvia hispanica)," I told him. "It's an annual sage. The seeds are an edible resilience food in Mexico. Mine are just coming into bloom with incredible blue flowers. Would you like some for next year?"

We arranged to swap seeds and cuttings in the spring. And for Transition Norwich's Low Carbon Cookbook group to have a small display of ancient and modern superfoods at the Grapes Hill garden. These would be the aforesaid chia, along with goji berry and amaranth.

The goji berry plants were given to me by Jo at Edible Landscapes London in January and rooted very successfully and the chia was grown by Jeremy from seeds I sent him. I'd hoped to add Amaranth but I've had poor results this year from the seeds. So I took a few other plants and went for tea on Monday afternoon.

We spent two hours in a full-on conversation about everything from the tall fernlike sweet cicely plants in his Norwich garden to the activity of furanocoumarins in plants like hogweeds and parsnips, its effects on human skin and how these effects vary at different times of the year.

I also asked him about how he became involved with the garden at Grapes Hill and in what way.

"I came in at the planting stage after the steering group had received funding for the garden in 2010. Many residents of Grapes Hill don't have gardens. They knew they wanted one but didn't know what they wanted in it. A lot of people were keen on the idea of an edible garden. This was great, but I felt it shouldn't be just edible. There needed to be some wildlife and human interest in there as well. Edimentals as Stephen Barstow calls them - where the garden is edible and ornamental.

"So I chose the plants and liaised with the suppliers and have led most of the fortnightly task meetings for the last two years. I'm looking to delegate more to the community now as the garden is pretty well established. And I've recently taken on a similar role at the Belvedere Centre's garden in Belvoir Street, which is requiring a lot of time and attention."

I asked Jeremy what types of plants he chose for the garden.

"I wanted to include all different types of plants. So there are native British wildflowers and also buddleia. And sages, of course. Many of the plants I chose deliberately for their long pollinating period to attract all different kinds of insects. And also to highlight how many different uses they have, how many different things they do."

The aim of the garden then is multifold. To be friendly to wildlife, attractive to people and visually enjoyable to be in, as well as provide a social space and have a strong edible element.

The garden is also partly educational, Jeremy told me, to show people what food plants look like. There are varieties of Norfolk apple trees, and also some more ordinary types such as Bramley, Cox and Discovery. And this year some of the residents have started to rent out their own small plots there to grow food plants.

I had to go on to another meeting. We swapped some tomatoes, peppers and tobaccos and Jeremy said that the Sweet Cicely in his garden had developed large taproots over ten or twelve years, so not to worry about my ones, which were only two years old and much smaller. In time they would also be splendid.

Before I left I asked Jeremy if he had any tips for people new to growing plants.

"A good gardener observes and pays attention, sees how the plants are doing, how much water they need. It's about love and attention really."

For the latest update on Grapes Hill community garden see here

Pics: Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) in Jeremy's garden, May 2012; "What was that about furanocoumarins?" talking with Jeremy, May 2012