Translating Transition: From Small Town To Mega-City

March 31, 2012
Joanne Poyourow
Transition Network Blog


"How can you possibly do this in L.A.?" people familiar with the Transition model often ask me. Even people who live here find the idea quite daunting. One local Permaculture teacher, when asked "What about LA?", literally threw up his hands in a gesture that said "It's hopeless."

sidewalk garden

Los Angeles is a mega-city. At 11 million people, we're somewhere between 8th and 15th on the list of the world's largest. We're one of the biggest population centers that have dared to actively work with the Transition model. Just for the record: it isn't categorically "hopeless."

Totnes is about .068% our size and sounds like it's quite a bit different from my "hometown." Here the concrete sidewalks of one municipality merge smoothly into the next (L.A. county is 4,083 square miles / 10,570 km2 and 88 incorporated cities). "Local" fruits and vegetables at my neighborhood farmers' market travel 125 miles to get here. Our municipal water supply journeys even further.

When I was first reading Rob Hopkins' blog, well prior to the publication of the Transition Handbook, I realized that ideas which originated in Totnes would have to be significantly adapted in order to work here. Hopkins' phrase "scaling up" tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth (kind of like Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me" documentary about the fast food industry). With our local core team I make light of the situation -- we joke about "translating from the British."

This "translation" process has meant different things at different times. Sometimes it's simply the petrol versus gasoline thing, or the different forms of government. Other times it is very much about scale and the sheer magnitude of things. Recently I have been realizing that scale drives timeline, and that our timeline here in L.A. is and will continue to evolve quite differently from the remarkably rapid pace of tiny Totnes.

Climate Translations

A few years back, Hopkins and Totnes went nuts over nut trees. Here in L.A. we don't get sufficient chill hours to produce most nuts, but we can grow fruit. Many Southern California households -- even non-food-growing ones -- have their own lemon tree as a matter of course. Inspiring people to add tangerines and oranges has been easy.

Our Westchester group leveraged this fruit-growing bonanza into several projects. For several years, they have coordinated a group purchase of fruit trees, bringing in low-chill apricots, peaches, plums, and specially-bred apples at discounted cost. They also began a form of harvest-sharing program: from homes which have mature fruit trees they began collecting the excess fruit, offering harvesting services to seniors. Fruit is shared between volunteers with the bulk of it distributed to needy families via the local food pantry. The program has been quite popular, even among non-progressively-minded neighbors, and gained a lot of mainstreem media attention when it got started.

In another "climate translation," while the Totnes folks never seem to worry about water, for us water is among the tops of the issues we must consider for post-peak sustainability. Thus "translating" means that our Energy Descent Action Plan will include a key section which Totnes didn't need in theirs.

Translating "Localization"

building a chicken coopOne of the first issues the infant Transition L.A. wrestled with was how to "localize" 4,083 square miles and 11 million people. Even our initial group of passionate Transitioners were hardly neighbors, living in farflung places throughout the greater L.A. area. Based on some comments Sophy Banks made about "belonging," we made an early policy decision that set the course for our area.

We realized that each member of our initiating group would eventually be part of a different neighborhood group. That we had come together to take the Transition training, and we needed each others' support in the early times when we were alone and getting started. But that eventually, each neighborhood in L.A. would need some sort of local group. Thus from the very start, "Transition Los Angeles" meant a city hub with lots of local groups.

But how to create those groups? People in L.A. have a cavalier attitude about distance. They think nothing of hopping in the car and driving to go to a meeting or take a class or see a film. Attendees to our events came for the topics, not necessarily based on some intangible idea of "localization." At Transition L.A. we decided to create the events at sites where people felt a sense of Belonging -- regardless of how far they drove to get there.

Our earliest sites included two churches, a yoga center, and two community gardens as gathering places. At each of the long-term locations, "securing meeting space" has been a matter of building a solid working partnership with the site. Our NELA Transition group (NorthEast LA) is renovating the landscaping for the church site that has been allowing them meeting space. In Inglewood and Rancho Palos Verdes, the initiating Transition member was simultaneously a church member (making them prime for "Transition Congregations," an idea being explored by Tina Clarke of North Carolina).

As our local groups got established, became active, and began publicizing their gatherings, they began to attract truly-local attendees for more traditional "localization." As of this writing, Transition L.A. consists of a city hub and eight active local groups/sites.

Translating for Scale

In a "town" of 11 million, we're not the only game in town. There are plenty of organizations doing their facet of what will eventually become The Great Turning. There are slow food groups, school garden groups, alternative health circles, tree-planting organizations, green business networks, homesteading bloggers, major Green festivals, and plenty of other sites that host authors, speakers, and films. "Transition" in this town isn't so much about pioneering activities, but instead a massive act of networking. (more about networking here )

bike workshopTLA's uniqueness is that we are focused on the triple issues of peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction. And we are proactive, focused on putting in place the solutions, the tools needed for resilience. Thus networking sometimes means sharing projects: Transition Culver City recently worked with a coalition of groups which sponsored a large bicycle ride in their neighborhood. Transition Mar Vista/Venice has provided sites for another group's Green Garden Showcase event.

While Transition San Fernando Valley and Transition Whittier started the time banks in their neighborhoods, NELA Transition, Transition Mar Vista/Venice, and Transition Culver City have piggybacked on local time banks in their areas which were started by other groups. Transition Mar Vista/Venice participates in a produce exchange program which was started by someone outside the Transition circle. We are people united around a concept: the great "why" we are doing this. The understanding that these practices aren't some affluent optional "green" choice. Rather they are survival, they are the future. We educate, we get people to consider multiple issues, and we broaden horizons.

As Transition L.A. looks toward creating our Energy Descent Plan, we will have to address another "translation of scale": Do we create one Plan for all 4,083 acres, all 11 million people? Or does each local group publish a separate Plan? In our meetings last August we began to consider a dual approach: some sectors (water) might dictate a region-wide response, while for other sectors (business, food) the answers will be very local.

Translating the Timeline

The initiating group for Transition L.A. began in autumn 2005, just about the time that Rob and Naresh were beginning in Totnes. Thus TLA is nearly as old as TTT; it simply had a different name back then. Yet Totnes has gone on to publish their EDAP, they have gotten local government on board, they have spawned an energy company and a business consulting arm, and an astounding list of accomplishments.

repruposing clothesAs initiator of Transition L.A., I'm realizing we have spent 3 years doing something that TTT never had to do: building local groups to get myriad different neighborhoods going. Where TTT grew a steering group that was their base for getting down to business, TLA has had to set up and coordinate complete local initiatives throughout this massive city in order to develop any meaningful base. That means more decisionmakers, more people involved, many more meetings, and a much slower timeline before results begin to show. If one takes a look at the expected timeline of a Transition Initiative, we're like a CD caught in a loop: playing the opening line again and again and again. And we have many more repetitions yet to go.

It takes more time to spread the unique Transition message to 11 million ears. And it will take even longer to create the bridges into all the niche communities. On the Transition L.A. core team, we don't allow ourselves to look at this massive discrepancy of scale very often; even for us it can get depressing. We do, however, coach each other to be patient. To allow the process to unfold as it needs to. To embrace the reality that some groups will take steps forward and then regress. That it may take a long period of "mulling in place," even for an actively-meeting core group, before things pop and get easier.

Yes, it is challenging, and right now as I write this we are perhaps "in the thick of it." But when people ask if it is impossible to transition L.A., my answer always comes back to: what else would we do, quit and do nothing?

Translating Success

transition a lawn mapIn a blog post several years back, Hopkins celebrated the percentage of Totnes citizens who had heard of TTT. At the time, in my local neighborhood perhaps a slightly smaller percentage of local citizens had heard of our initiating group -- but our "local neighborhood" is 49,000 people.

By sheer numbers, our success in name recognition is pretty amazing: The numbers of "green groups" who are collaborating with us. The numbers of schools that know about our garden(s). Simply getting one of our events posted in the massive mainstream L.A. Times. Recognition from an L.A. city councilmember (who has nearly as many constituents as a UK MOP). We celebrated when our South Bay L.A. group got their name onto a banner stretched across the main highway through their part of town. Within the context of who we are, and the place we are working, these are dramatic markers of success for an organization so young in the middle of a city so vast.

Joanne Poyourow is initiator and part of the core team at the Transition Los Angeles city hub. She blogs at Transition U.S. and Energy Bulletin. She has designed and helped build two community food gardens and is currently working on her third book, Economic Resilience: What We Can Do in our Local Communities.

Photos: Transition Mar Vista/Venice converts a lawn to food gardenChicken Hutch Building event at Transition Culver CityTransition Whittier bicycle eventTransition San Fernando Valley repurposing old clothes ; "Transition a Lawn" project of NELA Transition 

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