The British town that would save the world

Totnes gate

Well preserved architecture makes Totnes a popular tourist destination. Photo: Lawrie Cate via Flickr.

Perhaps the Devon town of Totnes could have settled into a complacent prosperity, coasting on the twin assets of well preserved historic architecture and a vibrant local arts-and-crafts scene that have helped drive up property values and attract wealthy newcomers.

But instead, the quaint town of 8,000 on the river Dart in southwestern England that serves as home to Transition movement co-founders Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn has quickly become one of the most promising models for local communities around the world to prepare for peak oil and climate change, as a profile published on Sunday in the UK Observer makes clear.

Tourism and big thinkers

Totnes had two key things going for it even before Rob Hopkins moved there from Ireland in 2005, where he taught permaculture in the town of Kinsale and helped develop key concepts that laid the groundwork for Transition.

First, residents of the 1,100-year-old town claim Totnes has more historic buildings listed per capita than any other town in Britain. Landmarks include a Norman castle from the time of William the Conqueror and numerous examples of Tudor architecture, including the Eastgate featured in the town’s tourism logo.

Second, for nearly a century Totnes has been a thriving center of bohemian culture, boasting advanced thinkers four decades before anyone had heard the word “hippie.”

In 1925, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst bought the rundown Dartington Hall estate near town. Inspired by the radical school set up in Bengal by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore for whom Leonard served as personal secretary, the Elmhirsts renovated the estate to house a college of rural arts featuring a cider press, saw mill and textile mill. By the end of World War II, Totnes had become a regional crafts center.

But in the 1980s, hippies gave way to yuppies in a property boom that sent real estate prices way up, with a four-bedroom Georgian villa going for nearly $1 million just a few years ago.

Yuppies “turned a working town into toytown,” Alan Langmaid, curator of the town’s history museum, told the UK Telegraph in 2007. “Now we want to try to get back to the roots of our community. We want to make the town self-sufficient. We would like it to be as it was 50 years ago without the squalor or the poverty.”

From yuppie-town to tomorrow-town

Thus, the stage was set for Hopkins and friends to start the world’s first Transition Town, followed shortly by the movement of the same name that has grown to more than 350 official groups worldwide since its founding in 2006. As writer Lucy Siegle put it in the Observer profile,

The Transition movement works on the basis that if we wait for government to act on issues such as climate change we’ll be waiting until hell freezes over; and if we only act as individuals, that’s too little. So it’s working together as communities where the real change will happen. In offices on that steep high street, squeezed between the pet shop and a travel agency, Transition Town Totnes was formed, swiftly followed by the Transition Network, to support the growth of the movement outside Totnes.

As the rapid growth of the Transition movement has demonstrated, you don’t need to live in a town founded in the tenth century AD or have Rob Hopkins as your neighbor to start a Transition initiative in your area.

But it probably doesn’t hurt to have, like Totnes, a base level of either local prosperity or outside funding to pay for Transition projects, such as the 74 solar panels that Totnes put on its civic hall. It also can’t hurt to have a population basically friendly to not only clean energy but also to local food and even more speculative projects such as a local currency.

Totnes has its own Pound, which Transition Network co-founder Ben Brangwyn explains as a way to keep wealth inside the community.

“Think of a leaky bucket,” Brangwyn told the Observer. “Any time we spend money with a business that’s got more links outside the community than in it, we leak money from the local economy. What local currency does is allow that wealth to bounce around in that bucket.”

The accomplishments of Transition, such as publishing one of the world’s first comprehensive Energy Descent Action Plans in 2010, may not yet be immediately visible if you visit Totnes.

But re-localizers everywhere have high hopes that Transition Town One will continue to lead the way towards a way of living with peak oil and climate change that’s realistic while at the same time, optimistic. As Rob Hopkins told the Observer’s Siegle,

It doesn’t mean putting a big fence up around Totnes and not letting anything in or out. It doesn’t mean Totnes will be making its own laptops and frying pans. But it means in terms of food, building materials, a lot more of that can be done locally. Which in turn makes the place much more resilient to shocks from the outside.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Jb says

    An 1100 year old towne built on a river with only 8,000 residents sounds charming. Now, let’s all move there! Seriously though, I like the idea of re-localization in historic towns / cities. These were often founded for good reasons: water transportation, trade routes, strategic importance, etc. In addition, they were built and thrived without liquid fuels.

    I don’t understand how we re-localize large urban areas in cold climates such as the northeastern US. The scale of the issue is daunting. Perhaps we will see mass migration out of these areas once people can no longer afford the heating bill to stay there.

    • says

      Jb — Some larger cities have gone into Transition, either with various initiatives in a single city (eg, London) or an umbrella initiative for the whole city (eg, Los Angeles). I’m curious to see how these will do. I know cities have many challenges in a world past peak oil, but I think if done right, cities with walkable streets, good transit systems and plenty of urban gardens (like Portland, OR) could have a fighting chance. They’ll do better than most sprawling, car-dependent suburbs, I suspect. But since I live in a smaller town myself, I obviously agree with you that more human-scale communities have many advantages.

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