Tāne Feary is an eco-activist who lives on Waiheke Island, Tāmaki Makarau / Auckland.
This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To subscribe to Fightback’s magazine, click here.
This article introduces the Transition Towns movement and looks at eco-villages, exploring some possibilities for the future. The focus is on cities, and our increasingly urban existence.
The Transition Towns concept originated in Totnes, UK. Since the first project in 2006, Transition Initiatives have spread to multiple countries and countless regions around the world: Oamaru, Grey Lynn, Sydney, United States and the list goes on. These projects can be carried out on a small or large scale, and include villages, regions, islands, towns or cities.
Transition Towns are set up to address two challenges: peak oil and climate change. Modern Industrial capitalism uses vast amounts of fossil fuels; oil is the lifeblood of the modern industrial economy. Peak oil is not new. But it is not an issue that gets a lot of attention. NZ had oil shocks in the 70s, when we had carless days; but we are not prepared for a future of carless cities.
What would happen if the oil stopped flowing? No food in supermarkets, no cars, no flights. No gas to cook dinner. Power? Shops? Airports? Petrol stations? What else?
Transition Towns has been working on the local scale. But work is also being done on a larger scale – for example, Sweden has declared it will be a fossil fuel-free nation. Fossil fuel-free cities are also being discussed. The Transition Towns concept may not have translated to places like China, but other approaches are being tried.
Ecological civilization is a term that is not new, but is now getting backing at senior levels. Growth is no longer the only mantra in China. Eco-cities are also being developed in China, such as Tianjin Eco-city.
Peak oil is an issue for cities. Smog is an issue. Food security is an issue. Most cities import a lot of food. Clean water is a must. Extracting fossil fuels can be very destructive, and then there is the issue of waste. Put simply, cities face a lot of challenges. Some cities have been in decline. Detroit is not unique.
More extraction. More burning of fossil fuels. More mines. More Standing Rocks, more vulnerable island nations. More of the same will yield more of the same results. What does a different approach look like? Transition Towns explores what a transition away from fossil fuels looks like. Permaculture is another concept that offers answers. Permaculture is a term that was devised and developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. (See the website link at the bottom of the article to learn more about permaculture in NZ). Permaculture doesn’t need to be a rural activity. Urban farming is a modern form of permaculture.
In New Zealand, a village was designed with transition values in mind. Will it work? This particular village in the South Island has so far fallen into debt and has been highly problematic. Many of the commune projects from the “back to the land” phase some people went through in NZ no longer exist. Many people in NZ, however, maintain connections to the land. Community gardens are thriving in NZ. Setting them up is easy, but keeping them going requires another set of skills. “Back to the land” was followed by back to the city. People shift to the cities to find jobs. This is not unique to NZ.
Perhaps what was lacking most in many of these recent and not so recent experiments was community. Many people don’t have farming backgrounds. Other skills were also lacking. That explains some of the mistakes made when people attempted to set up communities in the countryside. Isolation was also an issue. This can be avoided by placing farms in cities. Golf courses could be put to other uses. Lawns or grass verges can be replaced with productive gardens. Placing food production closer to dense populations reduces travel time. Gardens in schools is another way permaculture can be applied in cities. Roof top gardens, vertical gardens… a design rethink opens up vast possibilities. Wellington City has a small productive urban farm placed right next door to its hospital.
Cities are growing. Emissions are growing. More people, more cars. More smog, more pollution. Some blame people, population, migration. I don’t see immigration as a problem. The struggle for a just transition away from fossil fuels includes the struggle against borders which lock people into appalling conditions – increasingly, as a result of climate change. As climate change worsens, migration will increase. If we are to live in cities in large numbers, we need to learn to live well. Cities need to create less waste and generate more energy. Tomorrows cities don’t have to use vast amounts of resources and fill up endless landfills, exploiting and despoiling. Cities don’t have to be coal powered. The eco-city approach offers ways to reduce energy use and create more closed systems inside the cities. When this happens, the city is not a drain on the countryside or a health hazard for its residents.
In New Zealand, a lot of food is imported and exported. New Zealand traditionally had a lot of farms and exported a lot of dairy products. It still does. This is being done by irrigation and intensive farming. Factory farming.
The current mantra is: The more stock the better. Large volumes, large profits. The downside is large volumes of effluent. Of course, our cities also produce large volumes of effluent. On the small scale, composting is a solution when it comes to food waste. Large scale solutions also need to exist, since large scale problems exist. The conservative government of New Zealand has been trying to push a model that is focused on short term profits: cut down forests, export logs. Blow up mountains, export coal. Pollute rivers, export milk powder. Then there is the motorway mania. Air quality suffers, water quality suffers, and over time – quality of life too.
Some cities are starting to address the issue of food security. Urban farming and community gardening is taking off. Old vacant parking lots of unused land can be put to new uses. Detroit, the poster city for urban decline, is also the poster city for urban farming. Mass migration to the countryside is not on the cards. Urban renewal is a more realistic response to challenges facing urban populations. Eco-villages don’t have to be located far from population clusters. What would an eco-village in the heart of a city look like? Closer to home lessons can also be learned from Christchurch Garden City. A city with a thriving grassroots spirit; a city with a future.
An ecocentric approach as opposed to a capitalistic development model is one that explores permaculture land management and design, Eco-city urbanism and expands on the Transition Towns concept. Can cities have fresh air? Quiet spaces, clean water and clean air? What kind of city do you want to live in?
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