• Transition Culture;
  • ethics;
  • relational space;
  • progressive urbanism;
  • subpolitics


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Abstract:  This paper explores the contested construction of more relational urban imaginaries within a movement that is simultaneously committed to enhanced systems of care for distant places/others, and intensified regimes of (re)localisation. Transition Culture initiatives explore ‘how to prepare for a carbon constrained, energy lean world’ and stem from a concern for a post peak-oil global future. While the radical political openness of Transition Culture is in keeping with the vision of a more diverse polity imagined by advocates of relational space (for instance Amin, 2004), we argue that this openness is predicated upon an apolitical pragmatism that masks latent tensions between an environmentally benign localism and an ethics of care at-a-distance. If a transitional ethics of space occupies the uncertain ground between a relational and territorial geographical imagination, the Transition Culture movement provides a rich context within which to explore the ethical conundrums that stem from different tactics of place-making.

Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The Transition Culture1 movement has been spreading rapidly through a range of British and Irish villages, towns and cities over recent years. According to a 2009 survey conducted by Seyfang, there were 94 transition communities in the UK and a further 40 worldwide (2009:2)2. The movement is a response to two critical twenty-first century concerns: the approach of peak-oil production and the social consequences of the decline of our petrochemical economy; and the ensuing socio-environmental problems associated with climate change. Inspired by the practices of permaculture, alternative energy generation, organic food production, and the use of open-space technology to facilitate participation (see for instance Owen 1997), the Transition Culture movement is devoted to creating places that are more locally resilient to the threats posed by declining global oil production and climate change. At an ethical level, Transition Culture tends to stand apart from many “progressive” strands of contemporary urbanism on two fronts. First, it suggests that caring-at-a-distance should be based not on establishing new ethically constituted trade relations, cultural exchanges, and political compacts with places, but on reducing the economic dependence of towns and cities on distant communities (cf Malpass et al 2007). Second, and related to the first point, the moral geographies of Transition Culture emphasize the care-of-vulnerable-proximate-others as much as distant others within its codes of place practice. Transition Culture is thus focused on the collective provision of affordable food, healthcare, heat, education and transport that could be jeopardized in a high-cost energy future.

In this paper we explore the formation and operation of Transition Town Aberystwyth (TTA). The size and geography of Aberystwyth means that it constitutes an interesting context through which to explore the place-making processes associated with Transition Culture. Located on the west coast of Wales, but cut off from major urban centres to its east and south by the Cambrian Mountains and long supply routes, Aberystwyth appears to be caught between the twin threats of climate change (particularly in relation to sea level change) and peak oil (in terms of the rising fuel costs incurred supplying the town with its resource needs, and the threats of off-shore drilling for oil in Cardigan Bay). It is not our intention to provide a general account of Transition that can be unproblematically applied to other locales. Rather, we seek to begin a critical dialogue between Transition Culture and geographical conceptions of relational space. Ultimately, we claim that much can be gained from a (supportive) relational critique of Transition Culture.

We frame our relational analysis of Transition Culture in the context of transition urbanism. Transition urbanism may be viewed as one of “multiple urban (ir)rationalities [which] are competing to fill the void” left by the “evaporated” logics of modernist urbanism (Dear and Flusty 1998:50). At a more prosaic level, it refers to the application of Transition Culture principles to centres of relatively continuous population settlement of 5000 people or more. We use the term transition urbanism as opposed to town because it effectively captures the ways in which urban processes (including commuting; the supply of goods; pollution) spread beyond the tight administrative bounds of urban districts to encompass much wider envelopes of urban interdependence. In this context, we claim that there are important practical connections between the desires for Transition and the nature of contemporary urbanization. At one level, as a form of (spatially) extended social interaction and exchange (captured in the urban forms of the suburb; commuting zones; and variegated employment/retail/recreation centres), urbanism has a structured coherence rooted in the pre-peak oil economy. At another level, urbanism is suggestive of a series of political spaces that are devoted to the co-ordinated provision of collective resources (including healthcare, public transport, education, housing, food, water etc), which, while threatened by peak oil and climate change, continue to provide a focus for Transition Culture's attempts to develop low-energy systems of collective provision (see Castells 1977).

We were inspired in our study of TTA by the methodological insights offered by various strands of participatory research (Anderson 2002); auto-ethnography (Roseneil 1993); and scholar activism (Fuller and Askins 2007). Notwithstanding these influences, we primarily positioned ourselves in this research process as what Brown (2007) has described as observant participants. To this end, we came to the Transition Movement primarily as local participants, who happened to be observant in a particular (academic) way: we were not participating in order to observe. We have written about our methodology elsewhere (see Mason and Whitehead 2009),3 and so will not go into greater detail here.

This paper begins by analyzing key Transition texts, seeking out the intellectual antecedents and political philosophies of Transition Culture as well as the political geography it describes. We then consider how such intellectual conceptions translate into the practise of living and working in a Transition town. In the following section we explore the spatial politics of Transition Culture, building on early interpretations of the ethical geographies that underpin Transition practises (see Bailey, Hopkins and Wilson forthcoming; North forthcoming; Trapese Collective 2008). While existing geographical analyses of Transition Cultures focus primarily on the use of the spatial imaginaries of various strands of environmentalism, we focus primarily on its parallels with the spatial practices of progressive urbanisms. Reflecting on international municipalism (Saunier 2002), libertarian municipalism (Bookchin 1989, 1996), and relational urbanism (Massey 2005, 2007), analysis reveals unarticulated spatial problematics in Transition Culture's approach to relationally inspired ethics of space, and in its assessment of the possibilities that exist for the practical remaking of place in a ethical fashion. The penultimate section of this paper considers the manifestation of these spatial tensions as we have experienced them in the development of TTA. Before concluding, we reflect critically on the politics of attempting to forge a new ethical vision of a globally responsible but highly localized urbanism, and on our own struggles to reconcile a commitment to a socio-environmental creed of Transition Culture with our own intellectual commitment to a more relational review of the constitution of place and place politics.

On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The Origins and Antecedents of Transition Culture

At one level, it is possible to trace the formative moments, and overall intent, of the Transition Culture movement to a limited number of individuals, organizations, and geographical locations. Official accounts of Transition Culture tell the story of Rob Hopkins, a teacher, permaculturalist and natural builder who has been instrumental in shaping the movement's mission, and delivering Transitional practices in certain locations (see Brangwyn and Hopkins 2008; Hopkins 2008; Hopkins and Lipman 2009). These accounts describe the transformation of Hopkins’ permaculture course at Kinsale's further education college into a local campaign for sustainable urban development and, following Hopkins’ move to Totnes, the gradual formalization of a coherent movement for urban change in the establishment of Transition Town Totnes (and the Transition Cultures Organization) (Hopkins 2008:122–130, 176–201). While we do not wish to detract from the central role of Rob Hopkins and other key individuals in Kinsale and Totnes in driving the original codification of precisely what Transition Culture is about, in order to understand the nature of the movement it is important to recognize its varied intellectual antecedents.

We contend that the originality of Transition Culture is not to be found in the newness of any of its associated ideas, but in the novel ways it weaves together interconnected strands from a range of philosophical traditions and alternative knowledge networks (see Bailey, Hopkins and Wilson forthcoming). At one level, Transition Culture attempts to unify a series of intellectual and political movements that are reacting against early millennial socio-ecological threats. While often only tacitly acknowledged within “official” literature, Transition Culture is clearly a part of a consolidating set of counter-global networks (Featherstone 2008). Its counter-global credentials work at two levels: in its opposition to the emergence of expanded systems of trade and global economic dependency (see Goldsmith and Mander 2001); and in its resistance towards systems that remove powers of self-determination from local communities (see Linklater 1998).

There are two eschatological threats that undergird the Transition Culture movement's concern with the expanded scale of twenty-first century life. The first is the emerging threat of peak-oil production (see Heinberg 2003; Howe 2003). According to the Transition Culture movement, the ready availability of cheap oil has formed the basis for both the expansion of the global trade economy and the expanded commercialization of land associated with suburbanization. It is thus argued, as oil first becomes more expensive to produce and then starts to run out, that the sustainability of globalization and suburbanization will come under threat.4 Beyond peak philosophies, the second eschatological driver of Transition is climate change. When combined with concerns over peak oil, climate change forms the framework of converging catastrophes within which Transition Culture operates (Kunstler 2005).

Notwithstanding the fact that Transition Culture is clearly a reaction against the perceived—and interconnected—threats of globalization, peak oil, and climate change, as a movement it does not advocate a defeatist millenarian ethos. Indeed, just as it synthesizes concerns as the basis for its motivational structure, it weaves together a series of practically inspired, and ecological imbued responses to humankind's current predicament. A unifying theme, in this context, is the principle of (re)localization, which enables a common set of approaches to the complex problems associated with globalization, peak oil, and climate change. At one level, for example, (re)localization is pursued through principles of community power and the techniques of open space/deliberative democracy, as a basis for envisioning Transition communities that combat the processes of political alienation associated with corporate globalism (Macy 2000; Owen 1993).5 At another level, notions of (re)localization have influenced transitional thinking through a range of eco-pragmatist traditions that emphasize the power of local communities to provide the skills and resources they need for their survival. While broadly inspired by bio-regionalist ideals (see McGinnis 1998; Sale 1982), the eco-pragmatisms of Transition Culture are based on the principles of natural building (Woolley 2006); the techniques of permaculture and forest garden food production (Whitefield 2000); the practices of the eco-village movement (Dawson 2006); the skills sharing strategies of the co-intelligence tradition (Atlee 2003); and the trading systems associated with local exchange trading schemes and credit unions (North 2006).

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the influence of scientific concepts. Transition Culture has taken the ecological science of resilience and utilized it as a basis for thinking about the relationships between human communities and the environmental systems they co-constitute (Hopkins 2008:54–77). According to the Resilience Alliance (2009), “ecological resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient system can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary”. As a scientific bridging concept, notions of resilience have provided an effective way of combining the millenarian concerns of the movement with its localized strategies of response. Strategies of (re)localization thus appear to offer ways of establishing greater diversity in the operation of social economies and of potentially reducing the vulnerability of locales to outside shocks.6 The connection between Transition Cultures and the principles of resilience cast critical light on the precise nature of the relationship between Transitioning and the broader sustainable cities movement (see here Portney 2003; Whitehead 2003). While it is clear that urban-based Transition Cultures are a species of sustainable urbanism, it is also clear that Transition Culture urbanism rejects the socio-economic optimism that has characterized weaker interpretations of sustainable urban development (see Bernstein 2000). Consequently, while many sustainable urban development strategies search for win–win synergies between metropolitan economies and environmental security, resilience represents a far less sanguine interpretation of the urban future.

What is evident from this brief review is that the Transition Culture movement has diverse points of origin.7 What this diversity suggests to us is that rather than conceiving of Transition Culture as a new socio-ecological movement, it is more helpful to describe it as a convergence space for a number of pre-existing concerns and practices (see here Bailey et al. forthcoming; Routledge 2003). While Transition Culture clearly has many original features, when conceived as a convergence space it is easier to recognize the pragmatic way in which the movement has woven together various strands of science, environmental design, psychology, and localization traditions. Crucially, when conceptualized in this way, it is also possible to appreciate how the movement is characterized by myriad perspectives, worldviews, and contradictions. As detailed later in this paper, internal diversity is a source of latent tension in relation to the geographical form and ideals of the movement.

The Political Geography of Transition Culture

While the initial spread of Transition Culture was a spontaneous process based upon interpersonal exchange and informal knowledge sharing, it has gradually become a more organized process. There is a checklist of 15 criteria for groups wishing to adopt the Transition model and be recognized as part of the movement. The criteria include: writing an understanding of peak oil and climate change into group constitutions; four to five people prepared to step into leadership roles as a steering group; at least two of these leaders going on a training course in Totnes; at least one attending a permaculture8 design course; minimal conflicts of interests among the leadership; a potentially strong connection to the local council; recognition that Transition starts in your local community, rather than in your entire county or district; commitments to network with other Transition initiatives; and to strive for inclusivity.

As presented in the Transition Initiatives Primer, Transition geographies are bounded and scaled. “The real heart of transition” is the local initiative “embedded in its own locale where the steering group inspires and organizes the local community” (Brangwyn and Hopkins 2008:15). Such initiatives are “typically with communities of up to 15000 people” (2008:15). The local Transition hub, which establishes and supports local initiatives, is “based within a large congruent/contiguous area with its own identity (e.g. a city)” (2008:15). The “regional coordinating hub” is a “collection of existing initiatives that get together for mutual support and coordination around activities such as sharing resources and representing a united front to various government bodies” (2008:15).

Evoking the principle of thinking globally, acting locally, the Transition Initiatives Primer states: “It's good to know that there are schemes in place that are addressing the challenges of Peak-oil and Climate Change at the global and national levels (Brangwyn and Hopkins 2008:7). The global schemes evoked are the Oil Depletion Protocol, the Kyoto Protocol, and Contraction and Convergence (Christoff 2006). Coordinated international action by nation states is judged concordant with (re)localization even where, arguably, it fails to challenge continued economic growth.

Political Geography in Practice: Living and Working in a Transition Town

Aberystwyth is the largest coastal town in mid-Wales. It has a resident population of approximately 12,000 people, with an additional 8,000 students inhabiting the town for large parts of the year. As home to a university, the National Library of Wales, and offices of the Welsh Assembly Government, the town is a key administrative centre in the region. The population for the county of Ceredigion, in which Aberystwyth is situated, is estimated at 77,200 with a density of only 43 people per square kilometre, compared with an average of 141 for Wales (TICA 2009). Ceredigion is predominantly agricultural, producing lamb, beef and dairy products. The main sources of employment in the county, though, are the wholesale, retail and repair trades, followed by education, health and social work (Office for National Statistics 2004).

The TTA initiative began in April 2007, and by August more than 100 “members” were signed up to an email list. Endeavouring to follow Transition guidelines, we “set up a steering group” onto which we invited progressive town and county councillor, Alun Williams. TTA has crafted a constitution and a group structure. The finance sub-committee is composed of three steering group members, Treasurer Albrecht Fink, Secretary Lotte Reimer, and Chloe Griffiths. Having these recognized “officers”, signatories to the TTA bank account, allows TTA to apply for “formal” funding. In July 2008 we applied for a £1000 setting-up grant from Environment Wales, a Welsh Assembly Government initiated partnership involving a number of voluntary organizations.9

In part, TTA attracted “the usual suspects”, a small number of committed activists from, particularly, Aberystwyth Peace and Justice Network (AP&JN) and Grŵp Beic Aberystwyth (a cycling lobby group). These activists are used to working together and collaborated in the organization of the 2006 Social Forum Cymru in the town.10 TTA “members” are also active in the Green Party, Friends of the Earth, and Fairtrade Aberystwyth, each of which struggles for a scale of local participation necessary to survive. TTA has also attracted a new constituency of participants, however. One way to categorize these new people is to underline that they are not the perennial political activists; they would not, in the main, consider themselves part of the global justice movement. Apart from a new crop of individuals, moreover, TTA has attracted institutional participation from Ymlaen Ceredigion (Ceredigion's LA21 group). Communities First, the Welsh Assembly Government Programme, has been supportive. TTA also forged a tentative link with Aberystwyth University's Environment Committee.

We have formed a number of somewhat transient working groups, who have come up with an array of ideas about food, transport, energy, housing, and skill sharing. In the earliest days, the Transport group, “incorporating” Grŵp Beic, was particularly active, conducting, for example, a citizens’ survey of commuter vehicle occupancy, which featured in the local newspaper. Grŵp Beic had previously contributed to the County Council's Master Plan for Aberystwyth. Subsequently, a number of TTA actions have focussed on food, particularly local production. A garden-share scheme, bringing together gardeners with no gardens and gardens with no gardeners, was launched, partly as a response to a dearth of council allotments. The Skills-share Group facilitated workshops on meditation, home brewing, gardening, bike repair, herbal medicine, tool mending, “Make-N-Mend”, as well as founding a regular and well attended “knitting circle”.

The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Having now established the intellectual and practical antecedents of the Transition Culture movement, and the nature of TTA, in this section we explore emerging grounds of critical engagement with the movement. While we begin by outlining one of the main sources of political critique of Transition Culture, we move on to outline the potential for critical dialogue between the movement and relationally conceived accounts of urban space.

Trapese and the Political Critique of Transition

One of the most systematic critiques of the Transition Culture movement has been developed by the Trapese Collective. From a position that is anti-capitalism, anti-state and anti-hierarchy, the Trapese Collective invoked concepts of social and climate justice to analyse the Transition Culture movement (Trapese Collective 2008). Trapese ask: “a transition to where, and from what? And what models of organizing can help us along the way?” (2008:4). The central argument of The Rocky Road to a Real Transition is that “only when the rules of the game are changed can carbon dioxide concentrations and all the associated problems be truly tackled … it really isn't possible to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions” (2008:10–11). For the Trapese Collective then, “Real transition” means structural change and not just changes in individual or community behaviour. Trapese contends that in its attempts to be all-inclusive and non-confrontation the Transition Culture movement has been depoliticized, and thus lacks a realistic analysis of power. Distinguishing between environmental improvements “in place” and improvements to (global) environmental systems, Trapese claims no causal relationship between the two types of change (2008:33). It argues for recognition that there will be both creation and resistance in any “real transition”, and that the Transition Town notion of “the great re-skilling” should include education about the current economic and political system. Trapese argues that the first and most important step for Transition initiatives should be that they are both (politically) ambitious and “clear about where we want to go”.11 Yet, even by Trapese's own ontology, we argue that this step surely cannot precede people coming together as communities to determine that vision for themselves (for more on the debate between the Transition Culture movement and the Trapese Collective, see Hopkins 2009; Mason 2008; North 2009; Trainer 2009).

Transition Culture and its Spatial Politics

In this section we continue the critical analysis of Transition commenced by the Trapese Collective by exposing the conceptual geographies that appear to underpin the Transition Culture movement. In keeping with its apolitical ethos and practical orientation,12 there is little explicit discussion—formally, at least—within Transition Cultures of the types of ethical and ecologically inspired visions of the organization of space within which the movement is grounded. There is, however, an emerging body of geographical scholarship that has sought to address this lacuna. Bailey, Hopkins and Wilson (forthcoming), for example, deploy techniques of discourse analysis, in order to uncover, explore and critique the modes of spatial representation that characterize the Movement. Finding clear parallels with the spatial imaginaries of various antecedent and peer environmental groups, Bailey and colleagues excavate three key geographical rationales that inform the movement. First, and in keeping with its advocacy of relocalization, Transition Cultures promotes an ethic of spatial constraint in socio-economic life (forthcoming:4). Second, and in some sense as a palliative to the hermetic geographies of spatial constraints, the movement relies on a model of viral networks as a basis for envisioning the geographical spread of its principles to other places and communities (5). Third, Bailey and colleagues suggest that the movement has been guilty of producing a discourse of indiscriminate geographical threat in relation to peak-oil production (8). While the idea that peak oil represents either a direct or indirect threat to established ways of life in all communities in the world obviously provides an important platform on which to promote the spatial spread of the movement, as Bailey and colleagues point out, it belies the complex and highly differentiated impact that peak-oil production (and for that matter climate change) will have on different socio-economic systems and communities (8).13 In a related article, North (forthcoming) draws attention to the spatial politics that informs the varied localization movements that have in turn informed Transitional practices. According to North, the spatial politics of localization is fundamentally about the reordering of economic space.

An important part of the Transition Culture is about the re-evaluation and re-making of urban space and political communities (variously scaled). In this context, we find it surprising that greater attention has not been given to the parallels that exist between Transition Culture's approach to spatial form and relations, and those promoted by progressive urban movements. Building on critiques and fledging geographical analyses of the Transition Culture movement, then, the remainder of this section attempts to do two things. First, it draws a series of critical parallels between Transition Culture and three key interpretations of urban space and politics: Saunier's international municipalism; Bookchin's libertarian municipalism; and Massey's relational urbanism. Second, this section exposes two spatial problematics of Transition Culture, namely: its approach to relationally inspired ethics of space; and its overly optimist analysis of the possibilities that exist for the practical remaking of place in a ethical fashion.

Transition Culture as a Species of International Municipalism

One of the clearest theoretical parallels we have discerned during our involvement with Transition Culture is that between the vision of a Transition Town and international municipalism. Pierre-Yves Saunier argues for a municipal contribution to the social sciences (Saunier 2002:518). Reviewing the idea, putatively favoured by “various late nineteenth century socialist groups building on Proudhon's ideas”, that “municipalities have an indispensable part to play in the structuring of both national and global space”, Saunier acknowledges that “this specific juxtaposition of the local and the international, postulating the municipality as the basic cell in a worldwide organization, draws our attention to the potential global significance of municipalism” (Saunier 2002:523).

Saunier lists four “universalist postulates” that have underpinned and served to promote the development of municipal connections. The first is that the future of the world is essentially an urban one. Hence, municipalities will face common political and technological problems and an exchange of experience that transcends frontiers is a meaningful activity. The second postulate is that “the municipality is the basic cell of any political structure in any human culture or civilization, “A mayor is a mayor, wherever his/her city is located” (2002:521). It is also assumed that “municipalism and municipalities are apolitical. Local government is seen as essentially technical, a pursuit of the common good with no allegiance other than to the “Municipal Party” (2002:522). The fourth postulate is that municipalities are comparable, “they belong to a shared universe of rules and values in which they can compare themselves to, or rival others” (2002:522). Some municipal connections are based upon pre-existing networks, the examples Saunier gives being the socialist international and co-operative movements.14 Presenting numerous examples from European history, Saunier states: “In every town and every country, stories and lessons drawn from experiments elsewhere became a precious resource which could help equally to subvert the status quo or strengthen it” (Saunier 2002:520, emphasis added).

Transition Culture has clear parallels with notions of municipal internationalism. In keeping with the scalar politics of municipal internationalism, Transition Cultures asserts the crucial role urban communities have in shaping their own destinies and contributing to the broader socio-ecological welfare of the planet as a whole. The second clear line of connection is that, while prioritizing urban spaces as arenas for integrated social change, self-mobilizing elements of civil society are cast as the key agents of metropolitan and global change.

It is here that the relational parallels end, however, at least at this moment in time. Currently, the Transition Culture movement is far from being an international movement. The majority of Transition Towns and Initiatives are located in Britain and Ireland with emergent movements in North America, Australia and New Zealand. So, Transition Culture is currently a predominantly Anglo-Celtic phenomenon. Notwithstanding this, the rise of the Transition Network (at a British level) and the fledgling development of the Transition Network Wales, Transition Culture appears to be positioning itself as an international movement for municipal change and exchange. The intense localism associated with Transition Culture may, however, generate problems when it comes to developing effective forms of networked municipalism.

The clearest distinction between the work of Saunier and Transition Culture, though, are their respective approaches to the urban. Whereas Saunier positions the urban scale as a crucial political bulwark against the disempowering processes of State administration and globalization, Transition Culture questions the viability of the urban scale as an arena for socio-economic change. Transition Culture conceives of existing urban spaces, along with their associated administrative structures, as reflections of the logic of geographical development that is based on a ready supply of cheap oil and indifference towards the threats of climate change. In this context, Transition Culture does not assert the political power of municipal centres to change geographical history, but rather the need to re-scale cities in order to develop sustainable socio-ecological relations. Transition Culture consequently seeks to re-scale urban space into networked communities of low-energy living of approximately 15,000 people. In this, it appears to be more a form of international localism than international municipalism. This is not an insignificant point. If Saunier's assertion that municipalities have the strategic power to collectively shape the socio-environmental relations of large aggregates of the global population is correct (arguably even at a level approaching the structural political-economic), it could serve to counter the Trapese Collective's critique of Transition Culture's approach to structural forms of power. Without the power of the municipal scale, however, it may be much more difficult for Transition Cultures to shape the structural contexts of decision-making relating to peak oil and climate change.

Libertarian Municipalism: Revealing the Neglected “Other”

In working actively on the development of a Transition Town we have become aware of the intellectual succour that the Transition Culture movement takes from another vision of the role that municipalities can play in the emergence of more empowering political futures. In Remaking Society, Murray Bookchin argues for the urban as an ethical domain able to accommodate difference. According to Bookchin, cities are a way of life for democracies, “not simply a technique for managing society, and that they should be constructed along ethical and rational lines that meet certain ideals of justice and the good life” (1989:180). In many ways Bookchin's libertarian municipalism deploys a similar scalar vision and politics to Transition Culture. Bookchin advocates a scale of effective democratic participation based on Aristotle's conceptualization of the polis as “large enough so that its citizens could meet most of their material needs, yet not so large that they were unable to gain a familiarity with each other and make policy decisions in open, face-to face discourse” (Bookchin 1989:180).

For Bookchin, libertarian municipalism is a manifestation of social anarchism, which he vigorously differentiates from lifestyle anarchism (see Bookchin 1996).15 Bookchin rejects individualism as a means towards social change, fearing it will lead to reactionary coalitions rather than revolutionary communitarianism. Reporting from COP15 in Copenhagen, Ben Brangwyn, a member of the Transition Network Board of Trustees, echoes Bookchin's social anarchism when he states: “If we wait for the politicians, it'll be too little too late; if we do it as individuals, it'll be too little; but if we do it as communities, it might just be enough, just in time” (Brangwyn 2009). While acknowledging the importance of certain forms of national and international policies and government structures in addressing the complexities of peak oil and climate change, the open democratic style, non-hierarchical form, and flexible institutional structures associated with Transition Culture prefigures eco-anarchist visions of new forms of urban life. As noted by the Trapese Collective, however, Transition Culture currently fails to problematize either the disempowering processes of the state or associated scales of government. Moreover, the relational imperative to accommodate—as opposed to incorporate—“the other”, argued for by Bookchin, is missing in both the practical conception of a “Transition Community” in place, and also in any formal conception of global transition itself. The point of distinction we will return to is that the Transition Culture movement fails to make relational space for the distant other, space that could accommodate the economic necessity of international trade for the well-being of that other, for example.

Transition Culture and the Relational Problematic

While the spatial ambiguities of Transition Culture are suggested in the work of Saunier and Bookchin, it is Massey's path-breaking analysis of relational space that casts them in sharpest contrast. Noting a disjunction between places seen as the product of global flows and a politics that remains territorialized, Massey highlights a “jarring” of geographical imaginations. She identifies “the need to build a ‘local’ politics that thinks beyond the local”, arguing:

against localism but for a politics of place … a politics of place beyond place … If the reproduction of life in a place, from its most spectacular manifestation to its daily mundanities, is dependent upon poverty, say, or the denial of human rights elsewhere, then should (or how should) a “local” politics confront this? (Massey 2007:15).

According to Massey, then, a relational ethics of place is inherently political because it leads us to ask why a place is like it is and how it could be different: questions that can lead to a critique of those who have historically controlled and shaped that place (Massey et al 2009).

It is important, at this point, to appreciate the varied nature of what counts as a relational ethics of place, and the associated diversity that exists in the types of ethical practise that are associated with its realization. At a very simple level a relational ethic of place can be understood as an attempt to assess the virtue of a place in relation to other places. This relational assessment can take three broad forms: an evaluation of the moral acceptability of the actions of a community in relation to the social norms and practices of other places; a discussion of the unobligated sense of responsibility that a place may feel for aiding distant places/people with who they have no direct connection (this is what Dobson has referred to as the Good Samaritan model of geographical care for a common humanity (2003: 28)); and a calibration of the moral obligations that derive from the actual impacts the decisions and actions of one place have on another (for a useful overview in this context, see Allen 2003; Amin 2004; Massey 2005). These different, but often co-existent, modalities of relational ethical assessment can obviously lead to very different forms of place-building practices. Fostering an unobligated sense of care can, for example, be connected with local place-building practices that support multi-ethnic, class and religious interaction at a local scale. Through the instigation of forums of interchange, more open decision-making processes, and public spaces that promote social interaction, it is possible to envisage urban place-building practices that generate a sense of empathy for the proximate others that can be used to build cultures of care for distant strangers (see Amin 2006:1015–1017 and the broader operation of Sanctuary Cities). On the other hand, supporting more obligation-based forms of relational ethics may promote direct cultural exchanges with affected distant communities and deeper local understandings of the nature of a place's trade relations, investment decisions, and environmental impacts (see Malpass et al 2007 on fairtrade urbanism).

It is our contention that despite being clearly influenced by relationally conceived visions of space, there is a cleavage between Transition Culture and what we have described as directly obligated geographical care. This cleavage is a tension grounded upon politico-ethical responses to notions of spatial dependence. For Massey, and many other theorists of relational space, recognition of the interdependencies that exist between different places is a pre-requisite to developing a new ethics of place (Massey 2007:13). For Massey then a relational politics of space consequently involves recognition of the fact that places depend on other places, people, and environments for their daily reproduction. The ethics of place that flows from such a perspective is based upon a critical assessment of the nature of the relations that sustain these dependencies and the effects that they have on other places. Such a relational ethics of place thus involves an assessment of whether the relations that enable a town or city to function are fair or exploitative, and sustainable or unsustainable for the other places that constitute these relations. The politics of relational space arise from such an ethical perspective to the extent that it challenges a town or city to reformulate and reconsider injustices that may be perpetrated within its socio-environmental footprints.

Transition Culture conceptualizes spatial dependencies in very different ways. Spatial dependency is approached within Transition Towns in two main forms. Firstly, and in a local setting, Transition Culture seeks to address the ways in which places have themselves become dependent on the spatial forms of the petropolis (from suburbs to mega-distribution hubs; from the in-between cities of road intersections to the out-of-town mall and edge community): emphasizing how the internal organization and logic of urban communities (including the morning commute, the trip to the supermarket shop, schooling, and health) assumes affordable fuel use. Second, and at a broader spatial scale, the Transition Culture movement seeks to study and articulate spatial interdependencies between places (trade, energy transfers, migration). In constructing inventories of spatial relations, however, the Transition Movement's primary goal is not to use these relations as a basis for ethical reflection and reform. Instead Transition Culture constructs a moral geography within which the very “necessity” of spatial relations is itself approached as an ethical question. The preferred ethical response to a distant socio-economic relation is thus not one of reform (in perhaps the nature of trade relations, the distribution of environmental harm, or the exerting of political influence), but of disconnection. While it is clear that relational views of space may at times suggest the severing of harmful place relations (particularly in relation to the financing of military actions, the support of slavery, or the destruction of pristine wilderness sites), it is also apparent that such geographical perspectives value relations of dependence, and their recognition, as a productive terrain of future ethical reflection, empathy building, and political action (Dobson 2003). While it is also clear that Transition Culture does not wish, nor believe it possible, to sever all the spatial relations that constitute a place, it does seek a strategic dislocation of a vast array of dependencies as an ethical priority.

While the disjuncture between a relational and Transitional ethics of space have, at times, made our involvement in the Transition Movement difficult, we have come to see them as a productive context for discussing the nature of relational space and the ethical practices with which it is associated. At one level, this analysis is concerned with the relative ethical value we give to the absence and presence of spatial relations in a world of peak oil and climate change. At another level, it is also about the ways we consider the ethics of territorial approaches to spatial practice. In this context, it is clear that, while territorial conceptualizations of space often promote a degree of moral abstention at the border's edge, the territorial aspects of Transition Culture appear to be about developing more and varied registers of responsibility in and for place not less.

On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

As geographers schooled in the value of a relational perspective on the constitution of space, our initial involvement in TTA was unquestionably based upon an initial belief that Transition Culture embodied a relational ethic of urban space (see Massey 1994, 2007). At one level the relational ethos of the Transition Culture movement emanated from a clear awareness of the distant relations upon which this place was based. In terms of peak oil, Transition Culture seeks to clearly articulate the varied global relations that are supported by our contemporary petrochemical economy (and the socio-economic costs that could ensue from a disruption to these relations). In terms of climate change, the Transition Culture movement recognizes the environmental relations that connect all places with processes of global ecological change and draws explicit attention to the socio-economic impacts of these transformations on vulnerable distant others (see here Featherstone 2003; Featherstone, Philips and Waters 2008; Routledge 2003; Routledge, Cumbers and Nativel 2007). At another level, the forms of political community promoted within Transition Culture initiatives also appear to reflect the structures of cosmopolitan place-making envisaged within certain relational accounts of place. To these ends, the open democratic style and flexible political structures promoted within Transition Culture encourage the development of an openness to the needs of different ethnic, religious, gender and racial groups within a community (see Amin 2004). Yet, as we have worked towards the formation of a transition community in Aberystwyth, we have started to feel less easy about the relational dynamics and spatial ethics of Transition, and increasingly less certain of the nature of spatial relations and their ethical dynamics. So, it is through the trials and tribulations, as well as the joy and excitement, of our involvement in the formative and performative dynamics of TTA that we, as observant participators, have become keenly aware of the practical challenges facing ethical place-making. Focusing specifically on questions of relational space and politics, we want to reflect on episodes from our story of Transition.

Territorial Ethics: The Network Versus Local Autonomy

As we have discussed, our deepest sense of unease concerning the TTA process has been its ambiguous position with regard to an ethics of spatial relations. At the inaugural meeting of the Welsh Transition Network in Builth Wells the following discussion emerged between a local Welsh transitioner and representatives of the English transition Network:

Network Rep 1: “It is a shame that the notion of Transition Town has really stuck—I guess it's its alliterative beauty. We were actually keen from the start to try and move away from the idea of a town or city and envisaged a kind of fractal system that connected local urban and rural communities into a series of conduits and networks that could support transition.”

Network Rep 2: “The idea of networked communities is vital if we are going to be able to make a real difference at a political level.”

Local Transitioner: “I disagree! This movement needs to remain local, that is where our energy and uniqueness are located … It is amazing how quickly networks and nodes can become centers.”

(Inaugural meeting of Welsh Transition Network, Builth Wells, 17 November 2007, approximation of conversation taken from notes of meeting.)

The hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) tension of relational thinking and organization in a movement dedicated to re-localization appears to have affected the Transition Culture movement in various ways. First, and in relation to the conversation recounted above, there has been the uncertainty over the formation of transpatial networks of towns, sharing ideas, resources, skills (and exercising greater political solidarity) and the threats that any such network could pose to the process of local self-determination in the individual Transition community. It was pointed out to us, for example, by a defender of the local ethos of Transition, that subsidiarity did not mean, “making decisions at the most appropriate spatial scale”, but that “decision-making should be based upon the most locally viable scale”.

Experiences and discussions such as these concerning Transition Towns have led us to critically reflect upon Saunier's pronouncements on the political and socially transformative potential of international municipalisms of various kinds. As we have stated, in keeping with Saunier's prioritization of the municipal scale, the Transition Culture movement perceives of urban communities as appropriate scales at which to start to build responses to and resilience towards peak oil and the threats of climate change. The localism of Transition Culture is not only based upon the low oil/carbon futures that are promised by local production and consumption cultures, however, but on the ultimate power/ability of local communities to address these problems themselves. This is why, confronted with even the relatively weak (civic) relationality encoded within Saunier's international municipalism, a latent resistance to a relational ethic is exposed in Transition Culture. Even if the relations in question take the weightless form of knowledge transfer, ideas, skills, and values they threaten certain aspects of the Transition vision. This threat is premised on the inherent, and very real, danger that the networks of trans-spatial exchange established to encourage and facilitate the spread of Transition Culture become formally institutionalized into a series of obligatory points of passage, certification, and accreditation for those communities aspiring to go into transition. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to see how the sense of who has the power and ability to transform an urban community moves up a scale, and people once again wait to be told how to deal with peak oil and climate change (the State is, in a sense, replaced by a Leviathan of networked municipalities). Notwithstanding this criticism, it is possible that such skeins of trans-geographical interaction, exchange and governance, are precisely the kinds of open political systems upon which the promises of cosmopolitanism can be realized and the political dispossessions associated with territorial forms of power redressed (Whatmore 2002).

Social Justice at a Distance: We Don't Want Your Onions!

Another way that the tension of relational thinking has affected the Transition Culture movement is in connection to issues of social justice at a distance (and particularly what we previously described as directly obligated care). Perhaps the clearest expression of this issue came at the aforementioned meeting in Builth Wells. In addition to representatives of various Transition Towns and communities from across Wales, members of Gold Star Communities—a Welsh charity supporting Millennium Development Goals in Africa—were also present. The Gold Star Communities delegation, including representatives from partner communities in Africa, was there to understand how Transition Cultures could influence local development in Africa (a continent where prices mean that peak oil has already effectively come and gone). As the meeting progressed, however, attention increasingly turned to the impacts that Transition Culture could have on trade relations with Africa. Rather worryingly, for us at least, it was clear that (“luxury” items aside—including coffee and chocolate), Transition Culture meant a fundamental “trimming” of trade relations with Africa. Here the ethical aspects of spatial relations were not judged on their specific form, but on their substantive connections within oil use and climate change. In a breakout discussion group it was noted by one transition activist that while he remained deeply concerned with issues of socio-ecological justice in Africa, we would no longer be “wanting their onions!”

Massey's analysis of the relational dynamics of cities suggests that a relationship between two places can be defined both by material relations that physically connect them and the cessation of such exchanges. It is, however, clear that the ethics of responsibility and care that stem from acknowledging relational ties have most force when actions in one place are seen to actually change the circumstances in another. To these ends, it is clear that Transition Culture's deliberate attempt to reduce the extent to which a place is made in relational interplay erodes the ontological grounds upon which relational geographers attempt to forge a more cosmopolitan ethos of space (while it does not preclude the development of non-obligated senses of distant care to such an extent, we would claim it could also inhibit their development).

Our involvement with TTA has had two consequences for our own understandings of relational space. First, we have become very suspicious of aggregate attempts to sever trade or cultural relations with distant places on the basis of the moral imperatives associated with geo-historical absolutes such as peak oil and climate change. This said, we do believe that Transition Culture reminds us of the importance of thinking through the full socio-ecological consequences of urban spatial relations. While it may not always be possible to reliably assess the varied socio-economic and environmental consequences of all spatial relations, it seems clear that an ethical trade relation cannot be designated a moral good without an understanding of its ecological impacts.

Second, the inherent territoriality of TTA (local food production, sustainable transport, community-based education) has emphasized to us that not all visions of territory are necessarily based upon anti-relational imaginaries or a geographically narrow moral imagination and denuded sense of socio-ecological responsibility (Amin 2004). The very desire of the Transition Culture movement to create more territorially contained and sustainable social economies is predicated on a careful articulation of the relational fabric of a place (from analyses of food miles to surveys of commuting patterns). Epistemologically, then, Transition Culture is not about an ethico-geographical assertion of the local territory as the natural condition of spatial existence and basis for political action; it is more about the pragmatic embracing of varied practises of re-territorialization as a necessary response to impending socio-ecological threats. Furthermore, in its concern with the intimate details of the territorial fabric associated with Aberystwyth's social economy, TTA Aberystwyth has generated a heightened sense of responsibility for a range of public issues, including energy-vulnerable groups, and global environmental systems, among a wide(r) political community.

The Administration of Place and the Sub-Politics of Ethical Place-Making

Another aspect of our involvement with TTA we would like to reflect upon concerns the politics of ethical place-making and remaking. In keeping with many locally grounded, but globally sensitive approaches to place-making, TTA is committed to a radically open and inclusive political structure (see the reflections on community economics in Gibson-Graham et al 2001). This commitment to political difference and the “voice of the other” in TTA is in part based upon a resistance to the often undemocratic, and certainly narrow, political constitution of the agents of global neoliberalism, but also on the evident need to engage with a wide range of skills groups in order to develop the capacities to deal with peak oil and climate change. In working to establish TTA, however, we have noticed how a political commitment to openness and engagement has combined with a commitment to practical solutions to produce a stifling apolitical (and at time post-political) ethos within TTA (see Mouffe 2005; Rancière 2007).

It is important to acknowledge that the desire to develop a distinctive vision, and political positionality, for TTA has been evident among many group members. It is, however, clear that unease with politicizing the movement has resulted in as much internal division as it has facilitated open capacity building and inclusion. Through a focus on action, not political position, TTA has lost members who have become unsure what TTA is trying to change.16 At the same time, it is clear that despite the efforts of some, a notable gap has opened up between TTA and activist groups in the town. Our involvement with TTA has led us to believe that it is crucial to consider the relationships between open democracy and capacity building, which are routinely associated with community-based practices of ethical place-making. It appears to us that a commitment to inclusivity does not necessarily require a post-political framework of all encompassing consensus. It is possible to be committed to a highly antagonistic political vision of place, without necessarily undermining capacity development or excluding those voices that have historically been silenced within the deliberations associated with place-making.

It is thus important to recognize that it has not always been easy to develop an overt politics of resistance in the TTA initiative. In part as a product of the practical, non-partisan nature of TTA, our provisional dialogues with the local and county council, university and businesses have been very positive encounters. Indeed, almost without exception, all groups we have sought to forge partnerships with in the local area have offered support for our work. Not withstanding this situation, we have increasingly noticed that the broad support received by TTA tends to come into question at the level of the technical procedures involved in actually changing and transforming place. Whether it be the health and safety restrictions surrounding our attempts to develop collective plastic gathering and recycling initiatives; the legal problems associated with supporting the development of community hitch-hiking and car pooling stations; or the licensing required to share locally produced organic food with members of the public, the main resistances encountered to place changing practices have been expressed in the faceless realms of technical government and administration that cloak place.17

To provide just one detailed example of the forms of technical/administrative resistance we have encountered, a tentative plan for an “in town without my car day” fell foul of both inflexible regional government bureaucracy and the limitations of local public transport providing companies. Closing roads to traffic in Aberystwyth for the day—or even part thereof—proved impossible unless TTA could pay for the privilege and, even more dauntingly, engage in a lengthy bureaucratic process. Local Councillor and TTA member Alun Williams set out something of the overall procedure in an email:

For a non-trunk road, “There is a fee of £316 for a ‘special event closure’ and 3 week's notice is required. The emergency services and various other bodies have to be consulted. The County Council's Legal Dept then have to consult more widely by putting up legal notices. Barriers would also need to be hired … Unfortunately Great Darkgate Street is a trunk road and is administered by the Trunk Road Agency, not the County Council … 12 week's notice is required (too long for September). The fee may also be different. I'm told they probably would not be prepared to consider a closure during the summer months … Either way it's a fair bit of work. It's not like you pay the money and they do it all for you.”

We do not want to suggest that the various licensing and legislative procedures that surround our towns and cities are necessarily oppressive forces. They have, after all, mainly been developed as part of systems of urban care and collective safety. That said, we note that such procedures are also designed for the perpetuation of modernity rather than any transition to sustainability. Our point is, though, that often it is at the level of the administrative unconscious that political resistance to new ethical visions of place-making get expressed. Such structures of place inertia enable existing political authorities to ostensibly support progressive local initiatives without necessarily enabling them to substantively change the socio-economic fabric of place. Our frustrating experience with the administrative structuring of space has led us to question whether metropolitan districts have the flexibility to fulfil Saunier's vision of urban political leadership and innovation in the future.

The politicization of such forms of benign resistance echoes Ulrich Beck's call for new forms of subpolitical communities and actions, within which the routine, but often overlooked, infrastructures of modernity (from road design and pavement height, to food licensing) become objects of political action for a new range of political actors (Beck 1999). According to Beck, the recourse to subpolitics is necessitated by the realization that the “symbolically rich political institutions” of modern life (in urban terms perhaps the city council, mayor, or regional planning assembly) tend to protect decision-making from real and sustained political contestation (Beck 1999:98). Subpolitics are then best conceived as the “rebellion of real existing individuals” using the latent tensions of sub-policies (ranging from health and safety assessments to varied technical “necessities”) to generate a new politics of the city (1999:103). We propose that an effectively orchestrated subpolitics of urban places could provide a diverse terrain upon which to develop a politics of ethical contestation that is still inclusive and radically open to a range of potential actors. A subpolitics of the urban promises an ethical reassessment of the uncontested spatial logics of a place that it is possible to imagine emanating from anyone's everyday geographical encounters. It is a politics that essentially seeks to expose the infrastructural biases that are built into urban forms: biases that prioritize practices of commercialization and the know-how of technological and political elites, but which are resistant to the establishment of new urban forms. A metropolitan sub-politics could offer an important and varied set of footholds for international municipalisms and relational urbanisms of different kinds from which to instigate a humble, but nonetheless profound, remaking of urban space.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

This paper contributes to an emerging wave of positive, but critical, geographical engagement with the Transition Culture movement. Drawing on our own experience as observant participants within TTA, we have explored the value of analyzing Transition Culture in the light of relationally conceived visions of urban space. In undertaking this task we have illustrated that Transition Culture is not only informed by progressive environmental philosophies of space, but also by enlightened accounts of the constitution and organization of urban geographies. While opening up this space for critical dialogue, however, we have also shown how the inclusive localism of Transition Culture communities is actually inhibiting the ethical profile and place-changing potential of associated initiatives.

When using the term inclusive localism we are referring to the ways in which Transition Culture is simultaneously marked by a commitment to the relocalization of political and economic organization, and an opening-up of local decision-making structures to a new range of actors. At one level, we have seen that the inherent localism of Transition Culture can have two negative consequences. First, at a practical and political level, it tends to diminish the potential for municipal exchange and coalition building that could support the development and growth of the movement (countering Saunier's advocacy of municipal internationalism). Second, it reduces the potential to develop extended registers for care for distant others: a form of care, which ironically inspires many of the goals of the movement (countering Massey's relational ethics of place). At another level, the inclusivity of the Transition Culture movement has encouraged great diversity in its political activities and the potential to foster an ethic of respect for difference and alternative perspectives. The downside to this openness has, in our experience, been the difficulties that Transition groups have in developing oppositional forms of political resistance that can overcome the inertias of place to ethical remaking, and avoid being subsumed within a bland local consensus of inaction.

Our research into Transition Culture has essentially revealed a peculiar paradox between spatial ethics and ethical place-making. In one instance, the movement is characterized by a commitment to localism that could undermine its broad relational sense of care, but tends to support a strong sense of local empowerment and focus in changing the nature of a place. At the same time, however, an ethical commitment of inclusion towards a potentially unlimited local constituency of groups often makes it difficult to develop the oppositional energy that is actually needed to change the nature of a place. In these contexts, we believe that it will be become increasingly important for the Transition Culture movement to take two courses of action in the future. First to attenuate its spirit of localism to ensure that spatial relations with other places are more carefully assessed for their ethical merit, as opposed to being bluntly rejected on the basis of all-encompassing geo-historic imperatives. Second the movement should utilize the sub-political zones of everyday urban resistance as an inclusive realm through which to build oppositional movements for real change in the ethical form and fabric of places.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

First we would like to acknowledge our friends and colleagues who have worked alongside us in the activities associated with Transition Town Aberystwyth. They have encouraged our academic reflections on the project and supported us with suggestions and guidance concerning certain aspects of the paper presented here. We would also like to thank Doreen Massey for her careful reading of an earlier draft of this paper, and for her constructive comments on our interpretations of theories of relational space. We would also like to acknowledge the support offered by seminar audiences in the Geography Departments at Kings College London, Royal Holloway, London, and York University, Toronto, and the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, where we first presented the ideas outlined in this paper. Finally, we would like to thank the three reviewers who commented on a draft of this article.

  • 1

    The rapid development of the Transition movement has been accompanied by an equally rapid shift in terminology. From an early emphasis on “Transition Towns” there has been a shift to “Transition Initiatives”, at least in part to acknowledge the diverse transitions of rural communities and distinct city boroughs. The term Transition Movement retains currency, and the Transition Network has become the constituted organisational hub of that movement. Transition Culture is widely recognised as the name of Transition instigator Rob Hopkins’ internet blog site. We have chosen to talk predominantly of Transition Culture because the term best describes the realm of ethics and relationality, thus serving to differentiate the focus of our study.

  • 2

    We note here the recent spread of Transition Cultures in USA, see Transition United States at:

  • 3

    We reflect in greater depth on the methodological practices and tensions associated with this approach to research in this related paper, Mason and Whitehead (2009). While deploying a broadly defined ethnographic approach to our research, which has included keeping careful notes of meetings and events, and recording personal reflections on the Transition process as a whole, we have not conducted in-depth interviews with participants. We felt that the techniques of ethnography enabled us to effectively maintain our dual role as active participants within TTA and as academic Transitioners. Throughout the ongoing research process we have openly talked about our academic work to Transition Town participants in the local area and sought to use our research as a basis for informing the local transition culture.

  • 4

    In addition to a specific concern with peak oil, it is clear that Transition Culture has also been inspired by a broader set of neo-Malthusian concerns with the coming together of a number of peak production points (including freshwater, food, nuclear energy, coal, gas, inter alia (see Heinberg 2007).

  • 5

    Open space technology is essentially a way of running a strategic meeting. It involves the opening up of a theme of deliberation to whoever wishes to attend the meeting; the careful recording of all expressed opinions; and the development of new ideas and strategies to guide further action (see Hopkins 2008:163). Open space meetings are very flexible and are designed to deliberately encourage social interactions and the development of co-intelligence. They often involve the breaking-up of larger groups into smaller working groups between which people are free to move.

  • 6

    In embracing notions of socio-ecological resilience, it is also evident that Transition Cultures are keen to learn the lesson of socio-ecological collapse and recovery which have been revealed by various strands of archaeology and environmental history (see Homer-Dixon 2003; Ponting 1991).

  • 7

    We have not even mentioned the use made by the Transition Movement of studies of the psychologies of addiction as a basis to transform our current energy intensive lifestyles (DiClemente 2003 in Hopkins 2008:235), or the role that eco-spirituality has played in the consolidations of the movement.

  • 8

    Permaculture first emerged in Australia in the 1970 s. Its basic goal is to develop edible ecosystems that are able to support the nutritional needs of humans, while maintaining the ecological integrity of the growing environment and thus allow other species to flourish.

  • 9

    Much of our initial activities have concentrated on awareness raising. Our first public event was a showing of The End Of Suburbia (Greene 2004) in the Morlan Centre for Faith and Culture on Thursday 14 June 2007. The film attracted an audience of well over a hundred people and was followed by a speaker from Transition Bristol, Sarah Pugh. Albrecht Fink and Lotte Reimer compiled a PowerPoint presentation of the TTA initiative, and the reasoning that underpins the need for it, and presented this to local groups. On 24 November 2007, TTA had a stall in the annual Food Fayre held in Aberystwyth Arts Centre. In conjunction with the stall, we collaborated with the Arts Centre on a free screening of The Power of Community (Morgan 2006). “Food Matters”, an informational event held in the Morlan Centre on 5 April 2008 featured stalls, a public soapbox, and a model cow, which could be milked. A Transition fayre, Penparcau is Green, was also staged in an outlying area of town.

  • 10

    A number remain active in groups and networks other than TTA. For example, apart from the persistent Grŵp Beic, AP&JN and Côr Gobaith, a street “choir of hope”, activists are involved in Mid-Wales Climate Action and thence Rising Tide, the Camp for Climate Action, and Climate Camp Cymru.

  • 11

    For a fascinating discussion on the contested political interpretations of Transitions, and how these interpretations vary between gender, age and social groupings, see Brown et al (2009).

  • 12

    Here we acknowledge Transition Culture's resonance with communitarian theories of community as apolitical, stressing civic virtues, small groups and voluntarism (see for instance Delanty 2003).

  • 13

    Bailey, Hopkins and Wilson claim that the slower uptake of Transition initiatives in less economically developed communities may be a product of their economies being less reliant on oil (forthcoming:5). It is also, of course, possible that due to the high relative costs of oil, or weak supply structures, certain economic communities have already been through a peak-oil scenario and developed adaptive socio-economic systems from which the Transition Culture movement can learn (the case of Cuba, as presented in The Power of Community, Morgan 2006, is an obvious one here).

  • 14

    Town twinning, specifically in post-war Europe, is cited as a municipal contribution to building a new Europe, more municipally connected and so less prone to the fracture of conflicts between nations.

  • 15

    Social anarchism has at its heart community, while lifestyle anarchism's subject is the individual.

  • 16

    In 2010 a Transition(s) reading group, welcoming both transitioners and other active citizens, towns people and students, Aberystwyth residents and “outlanders”, was initiated as a community forum whose driving questions are derived from the Trapese critique: “a transition to where, and from what? And what models of organising can help us along the way?”

  • 17

    We note that the location of protests such as manifestations of the Camp for Climate Actions in the UK are not publicized because of the inevitable prohibitive response from technical government rather than the coercive forces of the state. Similarly, the Big Green Gathering in 2009, a noted networking space for environmental activists, was not prevented by force but by bureaucracy.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: on World Towns and Post Peak-Oil Place-Making
  4. On Transition Culture: Origins and Political Geography
  5. The Spatial Politics of Transition Culture
  6. On the Spatial Tension of Transition Urbanism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References
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