Putting Permaculture Back into Transition

Ros Bedlow
Friday, 1st July 2016

Ros Bedlow explains why people involved in Transition Towns need to be learning about permaculture, which is where Transition originated from.

It was during the summer of 2012 that a group of people discovered they had, separately, been mulling over the idea of developing a course that would bring together permaculture and Transition. Such a course would:

a) Introduce people involved in Transition Towns to Permaculture

b) Explore ways of applying Permaculture ethics, principles and design methods to Transition Initiatives themselves.

At an Open Space* session at the International Transition Conference in London in September of that year, we were joined by others interested in the topic. When most people taking part in discussions moved on to other groups for the second session of Open Space, we stayed put. A brainstorm and much scribbling on a large sheet of paper produced the framework of a two-day course.

What put this idea into our heads?

There are clear links between Permaculture and Transition. Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, is a Permaculture teacher. The Transition concept was born when, in 2005, he and his students in Kinsale in Ireland put together a detailed vision for a localised, low carbon town in 2021: the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan. What they created was a permaculture design of a sustainable town, a process that is the basis of the whole Transition concept.

In the Transition Handbook, Rob names Permaculture as being ‘one of the principal foundations of the Transition concept’, and states that:

The reason that people with a permaculture background tend to ‘get’ the Transition concept ahead of most other people is that it is based on permaculture design principles.

When a group of people register their Transition Initiative with the Transition Network, it is recommended that at least one person in the core group should attend, or have attended, a Permaculture Design course. However, as the Initiative grows and more groups evolve, those with a permaculture background may well move on. Those now working to put together projects or working groups and organise events may no longer have ‘Permaculture eyes’, and may be unaware of that conceptual link.

We felt it would be beneficial to try and bring permaculture to the forefront of the minds of people involved in Transition.

Six people, all trainers or teachers involved in both Permaculture and Transition, put the course together: Stefan Geyer, Klaudia van Gool, Marina O’Connell, Ann Owen, Samantha Woods and Ros Bedlow. After many conference calls and much multi-coloured editing on Dropbox, the course was ready for piloting in June 2013.

The course has been approved by both the Transition Network and the Permaculture Association. From Andy Goldring, Chief Executive of the Permaculture Association:

"I'm delighted to see that the new Permaculture for Transition Course is ready to go. Permaculture and transition are such wonderful complementary networks and it’s vital that we continue to work closely together. Both have much to learn from the other and lots to give too. This course will really help increase awareness of how permaculture design can inform transition projects at both practical and strategic levels."

It was decided that the first course would be run in London. For various reasons including problems finding a suitable venue, potential trainers having too many commitments, and probably procrastination, 18 months went by before the course was finally piloted as an open course by Samantha Woods and Ros Bedlow in January 2015, at Treadwell in South London, with 10 participants.

**Since then it has been tweaked, run again in South London, retweaked, and run for a third time in Llandrindod Wells in Powys, as part of a package of courses offered to local Transitioners under a Lottery funded project. 

The two day course covers:

– The ethics and principles of permaculture and how they can be applied to community groups and projects. 

Example: Observe and Interact

Just as you would thoroughly survey a site before designing a garden, you would also gather as much relevant information as possible before launching a Transition project. This might include contacting and talking to local groups, researching venues for gatherings or events, finding out what is already happening in terms of the activity you have in mind. What equipment is available, what skills? Who is interested, who will take an active role? The more thoroughly this groundwork is done, the more likely it is that the project will be appropriate to that community, and that it will run smoothly.

– Design process and a selection of design tools

As we do with the principles, we use land based projects and ecosystems as a reference, because they are easier to visualise. We then apply the design framework (SADIM) to a community project, discussing what activities might take place at each stage of the process. We consider zones in the context of our personal involvement in Transition – what do we spend the most time on, and is that the way we want it?

An eco system is resilient partly as a result of its complexity and the web of beneficial relationships within that system. We look at potential connections between the organisations and people taking part in a Transition project, and how the project could be strengthened by developing those relationships.

– Peoplecare within a Transition group

We practice using tools to ensure that people in our group are valued and have their voices heard.

– Problem-solving using permaculture

We have found that the ethics and principles of permaculture can be used to help pre-empt and solve some of the problems that arise in Transition groups. Participants are asked to bring to the group problems they have encountered, and we discuss ways in which applying permaculture principles could help.

Participants have brought an impressive variety of ‘issues’. One of these was the problem that results from the loss or departure of the person regarded as the key or co-ordinator of the Transition Initiative. One suggestion for avoiding this problem was based on the principle: Each function is supported by multiple elements. If the role of co-ordinator (of an Initiative or a project) is carried by several people, resilience is built into the system, which will not collapse if one person is unable to continue.

– A design exercise

In small groups, participants are asked to discuss how they would approach the initial stages of a permaculture design for a Transition project, and to present their ideas to the larger group.

Evaluation so far

The course has been well received and feedback has been positive.

Really liked applying principles to problem solving, enjoyed the ethics exercise. Treadwell Dec 2015

Laughing together, learning together, sharing together. Treadwell Dec 2015

People would have liked to spend more time on several topics:

Case studies on permaculture applied to non-gardening situations.

Connecting with different projects, forming new partnerships. attracting funding and getting new initiatives started and off the ground. Other resources, contacts and courses.

We feel there is scope for a longer course, even a PDC on Permaculture for Transition. We’re busy observing and interacting.

Two requests

  1. We still lack concrete examples of how transition groups have used permaculture. We would love to hear from any readers who have case studies they are prepared to share with us. 

  2. We would like to run the course again. Please get in touch if you would like to help organise or host a course in the future. It can be offered as an open course, or to members of a specific Transition Initiative.

* Group discussion where participants set the agenda by proposing topics. People join the group they are interested in, and are free to move on at any time. The convenor of the group remains in place and takes notes.

** Treadwell is a semi-detached house in Streatham Hill, South London. The house is in Tredwell Close, and the owner, Mich Thill, named the house Treadwell to reflect his wish to tread lightly and with sensitivity on the earth, and to enable others to do the same. Mich has just completed his Diploma in Applied Permaculture, and several of his designs were centred on Treadwell.

His vision is to:

‘Create a flourishing example for living according to our values in an urban environment’. (From Mich’s Diploma portfolio)

With food growing on the terrace, the recent installation of a compost toilet, and the plans for rainwater harvesting, Mich is turning his vision into reality. 

The house is more than an example of sustainable living, however. It is also a venue for courses and workshops, and headquarters of Social Landscapes, a social enterprise ‘dedicated to generating urban cultures in which people and planet prosper’.


Further resources

Is transition the Trojan horse for permaculture?

Is transition a more effective post-oil recipe than permaculture?

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