The Transition Streets Challenge

GINNY Smyth-Hanlon has always considered herself ‘‘green’’ at heart.

Like many, she likes to live by sound environmental principles but sometimes the demands of everyday life get in the way.

Earlier this year the permaculture enthusiast would have said she knew most of her neighbours well enough to say hello, or to have a quick chat.

But that was before she heard about the Transition Streets Challenge, via Transition Newcastle, a few months ago.

After letterboxing The Terrace on The Hill to gauge interest, she is now at the centre of her street’s journey to reduce its carbon footprint and become more energy-efficient.

“I didn’t know how it would go or whether people would be interested,’’ Smyth-Hanlon said. ‘‘I just said it was on and found out they were really interested. There are probably eight families involved now, but more people are asking.”

The sustainability program, which has an emphasis on community-building, began in 2009 in the Totnes and Dartington districts in the United Kingdom.

In two years the UK program has grown from two groups of neighbours to 56 groups. About 80per cent of participants have made their homes warmer and less damp, they are eating more healthily, doing more exercise and have learnt new DIY skills.

The program’s success at tapping into a grassroots push to become more energy- and water-efficient has resulted in it becoming a global phenomenon.

Hear from some of those involved in Transition Streets about why they're participating and what it's all about.

The first Australian program was run in Byron Bay last year, and now five Newcastle streets are about to follow.

Residents in The Terrace, The Hill, will be joined by those in Laman Street, Cooks Hill; Watson Street, Islington; Union Street, Tighes Hill; and three streets adjoining Kings Road, Tighes Hill; on the six-month journey that begins today. (Read their aims and motivations in separate stories on this page.)

Each street will meet weekly or fortnightly and work a through a workbook made up of seven sessions.

Topics include spending less on energy and water, eating well, avoiding waste, composting and transport.

Data from each step will be gathered to allow participants to measure their progress and create a before and after snapshot of their household.

In addition to saving money on household bills, participants have the opportunity to learn new skills from workshops on topics such as raising chickens, bee-keeping, bicycle maintenance and worm farming.

The groups have been meeting over recent weeks to discuss how they can get the most out of the challenge.

“We’ve got quite a diverse mix in the street. We’ve got families, we’ve got young professionals and students,” Laman Street co-ordinator Jo McGregor said.

“Everyone has a different perspective. It makes it quite interesting and challenging to bring everyone together.”

The diverse demographic has thrown up an equally varied palette of ideas to becoming more sustainable.

“There were all sorts of ideas that came up like a community garden, group composting, a rooftop garden, growing native trees, looking after the current fig trees, looking at how we can put the leaves in the gutters to a good purpose,” McGregor said.

In Watson Street, Islington, solar power has become a hot topic.

“There might be an opportunity to order solar in bulk [something that several UK groups have successfully achieved],” group co-ordinator Grit Kaeding said.

“There’s also interest in street beautification because we have quite a nice little street,” she said.

But while improving sustainability is the overall goal, improving social connectivity and community resilience are also priorities.

“Tighes Hill has a lot of very community-conscious people,’’ Kings Road group member Ramona MacFarlane said. “We already have a community garden and a cafe, so I think anything that involves the community appeals to the type of people who live here.”

There is also a sense of impatience and frustration among many who believe governments should be doing more to support energy- and resource-efficiency.

“I think there a lot of people who are just looking for ways to feel like their lives are heading in the right direction,” Union Street, Tighes Hill, co-ordinator Charlotte McCabe said.

“For me, I don’t feel like the government is taking us there and I’m sick and tired of waiting for the right kind of incentives to be put in place. I just feel like, let’s get together and do it ourselves.”

It’s unlikely that the Transition Streets Challenge would have been as popular a decade or two ago.

While most of us think we care about the environment, it often comes a distant second or third against cost or convenience.

But like it or not, transition is happening all around us.

Phrases like “peak oil” and “carbon tax” now slip into everyday conversations with alarming regularity.

In the Hunter this week, aluminium manufacturer Hydro announced it was looking to close its energy-intensive Kurri smelter due, in part, to increasing production costs.

Transition Streets UK founder and permaculture teacher Robert Hopkins said the program aimed to create a process at a key tipping point in civilisation.

“We are trying to design a process which feels historic and feels positive that reaches out far beyond the usual suspects,’’ Hopkins said.

‘‘We need to involve people who are thinking about business, economics and all different aspects of our communities. If they all see something in Transition then we will have something that feels like a much deeper and richer cultural shift, which is what we need.’’

Each of the 290 households from the 28 streets in the UK program saved an average of £600 ($964) a year.

Each household also stopped an estimated 1.2tonnes of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.

If the UK experience is an indication, Transition Streets Newcastle will continue to grow and become more diverse.

The region already has a proud tradition of community-based environmental programs and participation rates in sustainability initiatives such as Earth Hour. Don’t be surprised if your street is invited to make the transition.

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