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Transition Twin Cities groups work to make small-scale reductions in carbon dependence

Courtesy of Transition Longfellow
“…Transition Longfellow has a lot of master gardeners and our neighborhood is very interested in gardening,” Leslie MacKenzie explained.

The latest headline from NASA: “The planet is warming at a pace not experienced within the past 1,000 years, making it “very unlikely” that the world will stay within a crucial temperature limit.”

Bleak news arrives on a regular basis, the drumbeat of the inevitable tide. And for anyone who scratches the surface, proposed solutions — the Paris Agreement or even Minneapolis’ sustainability indicators — seem overwhelmed by the relentless scope of the problem. Caring about climate change can be depressing.

But for years, groups throughout the Twin Cities have been working to make reductions in carbon dependence. The local “Transition Towns” movement evolved from concerns about energy scarcity a decade ago, and today it’s one of the few local efforts that seem to take seriously the scale of the climate change problem, one local household or neighborhood at a time.

The Transition Towns movement, globally and locally

About a week ago, the New York Times published a story that caught my eye about Ashton Hayes, a small English village that voluntarily reduced its carbon footprint by 25 percent through community organizing and collective decision-making. That a village in England should have meaningful success should come as no surprise, because English villages are also the home of the “Transition Towns” movement, which emerged from the “peak oil” conversations around the turn of the century, when gas prices were reaching record highs and many people predicted returns to ’70s-era shortages.

Over the years, the framing of the Transition movement has shifted. Increased use of nonconventional energy like Canadian tar sands or fracking, combined with lagging global demand, means the conversation has changed from one of scarcity to a more historically familiar environmental tenor. These days, in the Twin Cites, the goal is less about prepping for an economic or energy crisis and more about reducing energy use in general.

“The nature of the discussion has changed,” Susan Woehrle, a Minneapolis playwright who runs the Transition Towns Phillips Facebook group, told me this week. “ The concept of Transition Towns is to solve community problems. But that doesn’t have to just be energy problems; it can work for all kinds of other things.”

Home gardens and resilient food in Longfellow

“Often it starts with small practical things you’re doing in your home, and then it starts to grow and make an impact, especially by making it visible,” Leslie MacKenzie told me.

The Longfellow neighborhood, south of Lake Street and along the Mississippi, is easily Minneapolis’ most active Transition Twin Cities group. It’s gotten so large that MacKenzie has begun branching out, trying to engage other communities across the metro in conversation. One reason the group has taken off is that it began with a strong asset base of people who loved gardening.

“Our group Transition Longfellow has a lot of master gardeners and our neighborhood is very interested in gardening,” MacKenzie explained.

Over the past few years, Transition Longfellow has run “skill shares” teaching people gardening or food preparation techniques. One of the most successful efforts is a “garden mob” called “chard your yard,” where community members install raised garden beds in people’s yards for a small fee.
 Those garden successes led to a broader diversity of energy-reduction tactics.

“For several years, we did a program looking at types of behavior change a person might want to make to reduce their energy,” MacKenzie said. “They would have a month to try that change, and see how it felt to identify what was standing in their way — and then get back together and brainstorm what they might want to do to make that more successful.” 

One of the programs was focused on the laundry room, things like reducing wasted water, using less hot water, or using less toxic laundry soap. Another was a challenge called “how low can you go,” to see if people could find ways to reduce wintertime home heating, as Leslie MacKenzie describes, to “learn how to heat the person, not the space.” 

Rethinking transportation in St. Anthony Park

The other thriving Twin Cities’ transition community is in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood at the far northwest corner of the city. The group evolved from a 2002 effort trying to stop the war in Iraq, and now they’re focused on reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

“Internationally in the Transition Towns movement, each town comes up with its own ‘energy descent plan,’ ” said Pat Thompson, who is helping with the St. Anthony group. “From a marketing standpoint, it’s a horrible phrase. But basically you figure out how you’re going to stop using fossil fuels.”

About a year ago, the St. Anthony Park group won a grant from a small local foundation to write a neighborhood transition plan aimed at reducing energy use for the whole area. After a long community input process, drafts of the first three chapters (of 13 in total) have just been completed, focusing on transportation, resilience, and home energy use.

Compared to city planning documents, the group’s transportation plan offers far more ambitious targets toward reducing carbon emissions. For example, it sets a goal that 40 percent of the neighborhood should be car-free by 2040, and the neighborhood should have tabled crosswalks, car-lite greenway streets, and re-routed buses that would make transit more central to the community. Thompson hopes the draft plan will help people connect the dots between looming global problems and local action. 

“If you have this plan that’s more tied together and some small question comes up, how does that fit into the larger question?” Thompson said. “What you should do is the thing that takes us toward using less energy. And then I really think there are virtuous cycles that will happen. If you have fewer people using cars, you get more businesses nearby that you can walk to, and it spirals in a good direction.” 

Climate politics in Powderhorn

Not every neighborhood group proves equally resilient, and the small-scale nature of the Transition movement means that efforts become context-dependent. For example, Minneapolis’ centrally located Phillips neighborhood’s transition group takes place mostly on Susan Woehrle’s Facebook page.

“Basically, I took over the Facebook group,” Woehrle said. “I don’t actually know who set it up, but they long ago abandoned the group, and so every time I saw a Transition-related article, I posted it. Community gardening and asset mapping and stuff like that.”

Woehrle joined up years ago, when it involved just a handful of friends discussing the “transition town” concept. But in Phillips, the conversation quickly turned to urban farming, and then began to focus more on regional farming practices than action in the neighborhood itself.

Woehrle points to the fact that Phillips is one of the poorer neighborhoods in Minneapolis. In places like the UK, with national health care and a less porous social safety net, it’s easier to have conversations about long-term planning. 

“It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: When the bottom parts of your pyramid are taken care of, it’s easier to think about things like zero waste or energy,” Woehrle told me. “In America, the bottom of your pyramid isn’t taken care of. People are still scared of getting shot, not having enough food, not having access to high quality health care, so it’s harder to mobilize and get communities to think about the future, to think about global calamities when you’ve got daily calamities.”

Right now the Phillips Transition community is largely on autopilot, but Woehrle is hoping to help embrace areas more relevant to the neighborhood. She points to local groups like Minnehaha Free Space, Food not Bombs, and Sisters Camelot as doing similar work around social justice, access to food, and environmental health.

“What I do like is the idea of changing the Transition model to adapt to our community, so that we’re mobilizing for things like the $15 minimum wage, so everyone has enough money to think about things like energy,” Woehrle said. “Transition Towns is so far out of their daily lived experience, it seems like a bizarre concept that only a rich person could bother with.”

Hope in the face of the global

Because of its borderless, geologic nature, it’s easy to get discouraged about climate change. The painfully slow progress toward reducing fossil fuel energy, reducing driving, or limiting our regional consumption footprints can be discouraging for anyone paying attention.

That’s why the plans and the actions of Transition Twin Cities offer rare inspiration. Reducing Minnesota’s carbon footprint is going to take far larger strides, and these are some of the only examples of local politics that seem to take climate change seriously, declaring ambitious goals and tactics toward CO2 reduction.

“Transition Twin Cities is kind of an antidote to depression, because you’re not doing these things alone,” Leslie MacKenzie said. “You have a community interested in these issues. You may be in a family where no one believes in climate change, or in a workplace where people don’t talk about it. But here you have other people that believe the same things, who are taking action personally or together as a group, to start to have an impact. That can feel very empowering.”

Even as the peak oil conversation has receded to the background, the local Transition movement seems to be catching on. Instead of prepping for an economic doomsday, local groups are adopting the motto “keep it in the ground,” and beginning to make carbon reduction changes on their own. The next time you get depressed about climate change, maybe you’ll have someone to talk to.

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