Transition cities: Mission impossible?

Angel statue.

What kind of Transition might be achieved in the City of Angels? Photo: TheGiantVermin via Flickr.

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. — Lewis Carroll

In 2005, while I was writing a novel which envisioned the transformation of Los Angeles (and while Rob Hopkins was putting the final touches on the world’s first Energy Descent Action Plan with students in Kinsale, Ireland), I attended a Permaculture seminar in Santa Barbara, California.  The Permaculture movement asserts that we could consciously design a more sustainable or permanent human culture.

In a breakout session that day, titled “Urban Permaculture,” one of the participants commented, “This is all great for the rural areas, but what do you do about a big city like Los Angeles?”

The instructor threw up his hands and shrugged. It’s impossible.

Someone laughed uncomfortably. Amid a crowd of what should have been SoCal’s most forward thinking, out-of-the-box designers, there were no answers.

People have said it to me directly over the years, in person and in email: It’s impossible. How can you even think about Transition in LA?  It’s just too big.

But within Transition circles we counsel each other to “start where you are.”  Well, where I am is in the middle of LA, the eleventh largest metropolitan area in the world, with 10 to 12 million people. It’s my home town. This is where we started.

Transition in LA

Sensible people say it’s impossible, but impossible things happen every day.

The Transition movement in LA unfolds today via a series of neighborhood initiatives. Our city hub supports seven active local Transition initiatives that hold regular meetings. Others occasionally hold Transition-style gatherings.

On any given week, several Transition-type events are offered within our local network (and countless more by other groups). Two years into this work, our direct email lists reach perhaps 2,000 people, with immediate distribution far beyond that.  Our speaker’s bureau maintains a brisk schedule, each week fielding several requests from other groups.

Local Transition initiatives have spawned time banks, community gardens, rainwater harvesting installations, a backyard food redistribution network, and monthly clinics on alternative health care. More colorful events have included bread baking workshops, 100-mile meals, “Repurposing Old Clothes” workshops, and a Chicken Run Party where participants built a coop together.

Peel back the surface of any of these projects or events and you’ll find far more than a cool, greener thing to do. There’s a conscious effort to create comprehensive solutions to the great challenges that humanity faces today, namely peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction, combined. All on a neighborhood scale.

Back in 2005, when I was driving home from Santa Barbara, if you’d told me that within five years all these things would unfold, I’d have laughed through my pain and declared it was impossible.

It’s too big

The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer. Army Corps of Engineers motto during WWII

The critics are right:  It is “too big.”  So we don’t think about that very much.

In our Transition LA circle we focus upon the task at hand: creating positive change, changing hearts and minds, right within our immediate neighborhoods. Once a month our core team gathers and we dare to take a peek at the bigger picture, perhaps to plan outreach to untapped geography within our city.

But for the most part, we focus on creating a supportive atmosphere for each other and for newcomers who similarly want to transform their own local neighborhoods.  We’re a network of many people doing very positive, very local things.  We remind each other to start small, to create change where you know you can, and to trust that the rest will happen.

It’s impossible to think about transforming the whole of LA, to think about transforming our entire society, western civilization, the globalised economy, our modern world. It’s too big. But what are our alternatives? To give up and do nothing? Inaction in the face of these problems is unconscionable.

There are some people who like to broadcast the doom side of things, supposedly “waking people up” to what’s wrong in the world. But to me, merely sharing grim news – without any solutions – is completely inadequate. At this point in human history, we’ve got to go beyond mere awareness-raising, into taking positive action.

And that’s where the Transition movement comes in.

The second dimension

“Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.” David Ehrenfeld

Joanna Macy speaks of the three dimensions of the Great Turning. Traditional environmentalism is in many cases a manifestation of Macy’s first dimension:  Stopping Action, preventing further destruction, slowing the damage to Earth and its beings.

The Transition approach outlined by Hopkins and now being experimented with and customized around the world, is primarily a movement growing up within Macy’s second dimension: Creating New Structures, or the creation of structural alternatives.  The Transition movement also touches upon Macy’s third dimension, a Shift in Consciousness; a shift in our deeply ingrained values.

One of the reasons I embraced the Transition movement was that it seemed the most viable, most broad-based, deepest-thinking “second dimension” approach available.  There simply aren’t any other organizations I’ve found which are creating new structures with as considered and informed and panoramic a scope.

David Holmgren created the Permaculture Flower, a diagram I have long used in my presentations because it describes the panorama of human experience.  Traditional environmentalism in many cases concerns itself with only one or two petals of this Flower.

Hopkins’ brilliance is that he’s created a way of applying Holmgren’s Permaculture philosophy to each of the petals of the Flower:  to communities, urban issues, politics and economics. The Transition movement is what we can do to move toward a more lasting human culture, beginning not with a clean slate but with what we have now.

The Transition movement takes into account a full and realistic assessment of our power-hungry buildings, our paved cities, our urban demographic, our globalized food system, our crumbling economy. It combines the reality of now with the dream of what can be. It calls into action the collective creativity of local people. And then it creates a plan.

And there it’s pretty unique.  I don’t know of any other organization that’s creating a plan, putting in place new structures to replace the broken ones we have now, in local community after local community, cultivating an effort that’s crafted grassroots by the people. I haven’t heard of other networks that are organized with the intent to so effectively address Macy’s second dimension.

The Transition approach is in its infancy, it’s not perfect, and we have absolutely no guarantees that it will work.  But it’s the best we’ve got.

We’re not alone

A Transition initiative supports the energy to make things happen, and then supports the emergent projects.Transition Network, discussion of pattern language

It’s impossible to think of transforming LA with a 20 person city hub core team or a few thousand emails.  But we have to remember that we’re not alone.

Hundreds of other organizations within this vast city that are also working on facets of the problems. There are organizations working on the global warming, organizations working on clean energy, organizations working on bike transportation, urban agriculture, waste stream, and transforming public education.

Our fledgling local Transition network has a role to play in all this – or perhaps many roles toward one big agenda. The big agenda is, of course, preparing LA residents for the converging crises ahead, namely peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction, combined.

One of our roles is as the banner carrier for the trio of crises. Some organizations are singularly-focused, perhaps promoting solutions to global warming yet without peak oil concepts.  It’s up to us in the Transition movement to always present the crises as a trio.

It’s up to us to point out when a proposed “solution” might work for global warming but isn’t feasible in a time of economic contraction.  It’s up to us, with a considered and calculated approach, to raise the trio of problems in front of governmental planning commissions. It’s up to us to get people thinking about how we’ll address this set of problems simultaneously.

May I ask a question?

We do this by becoming the ones who ask questions.  “How will that work with peak oil?”  “How might you accomplish that through times of economic contraction?”  With a polite and well-placed question, we might be able to plant the seed of an idea, and to engage the creativity of another organization’s team in designing new structures.

Transition LA encouraged the local tree-planting nonprofit to think about how their operations might change in view of peak oil. We encouraged a local environmental justice nonprofit to contemplate how they might continue to function despite economic contraction because we’ll need them on board even more when even greater inequalities surface.

Yet another of our roles is as the facilitator. By creating the space for good things to happen, they will.

Our September 2008 “Life After Oil” conference created the space for the Transition movement to begin to take hold in LA.

It’s important to remember that we don’t have to do it all. We don’t have to host every reskilling class in the greater LA area. The magnitude of the proposal is ludicrous, and there are many qualified individuals and organizations out there who are already doing a fine and capable job. The same can be said of other large metropolitan areas.

Dream weaver

Which brings up another role, that of weaver. We, who understand the trio of challenges and have glimpsed the panorama of solutions required to meet these challenges, are uniquely situated to get people working together.

We could call it “networking,” but in my sense of what’s needed, we need to transcend the old definitions of networking. Rather than introducing people to each other (say, for a business deal), we’re weaving the fiber of new structures.  By creating a new way of people working together we’re weaving the very cloth that the future will be made of.

You could say it’s a pretty impossible task, but we’re working on it. If we can do it in LA, it can be done anywhere.

— Joanne Poyourow

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    Joanne, you are a brave courageous, energetic woman who deserves praise and encouragement. You are staying in place and trying to make a solution in a place with long odds. My perspective is from a military background and among the lessons we learned early was not to try to defend an indefensible position. Make it defensible or move your position to one that is. I lived a few years in N and S CA and I hope you at least are able to think perhaps just a wee bit in these terms. You know your assets and liabilities better than anyone else and the people resources are the most important. There are portions of CA that are certainly ideal as Transition towns but much of that sprawling region is almost certainly not. It will certainly undergo a transition, but it may not be a felicitous one. Kudos and cuidado!

    • Ken says

      I know that there are a lot of organisations working on parts of the puzzle. The very existence of the South LA farm means we have a pool of agricultural workers to pull from – what we now need is some political honesty.

  2. says

    Fort Collins, CO is a city of 135,000. We are in the beginning stage of deciding to join the Transition movement. We have a city government which has been positive on sustainability, a very strong bicycle friendly community, local business support of bicycle culture, an environment worth protecting, and we have Colorado State University. Yet, among those 135k folks we have climate destabilization deniers and others who think there is a UN plot to take over city government. Wish us luck.

  3. Deborah says

    Hi Joanne –
    this is Deborah from the Italian transition network – I have been asked to assemble a bunch of files/articles/opinions on what is going on in terms of transition cities, meaning metropolis, for the local movement in Rome. I’d like to ask you if you/the editors would be ok with having this article re-published in Italy/Italian on our blogs and media – it’s all volunteer work so unfortunately no money involved (of course you’ll appear as author though!) Please contact me,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *