Transition Towns

Climate Friendly Communities

More and more neighborhoods are making the transition to a climate-friendly community.

The coastal town of Lincoln City, Oregon, has a lot to lose if nothing is done about climate change. The town sits 11 feet above sea level, and unchecked climate change could erode its beaches or flood the town.

Residents are taking matters into their own hands. “We could ignore it, let the federal government deal with it,” Mayor Lori Hollingsworth says. “We’re not willing to do that.” Last year, Lincoln City committed to becoming carbon neutral, through renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon offsets.

Communities like Lincoln City have long been ahead of Congress and the White House on climate commitments. Cities first began committing to Kyoto Protocol goals in 2005, through the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Now, more than 1,000 cities in the United States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signed on.

The community climate movement goes beyond government initiatives; it’s a cultural shift involving people from tiny rural towns to major metropolitan areas.

The Heart of Climate Action

The fast-growing college town of Berea, Kentucky, is one of scores of U.S. communities that have become Transition Towns and formed a diffuse, grassroots network, led by individuals who are working to transform their own communities. While Berea is seeing its subdivisions expand and farmland disappear, one group of residents is making plans to help their community end its reliance on fossil fuels. 

Berea locals have a goal they’re calling “50 x 25.” By 2025, they aim to have the town using 50 percent less energy, deriving 50 percent of the energy it does use from local sources, procuring 50 percent of its food from farms and processors within 100 miles of town, and generating 50 percent of its gross domestic product from locally owned, independent businesses.

The Transition Town Berea group holds monthly reskilling workshops to help locals acquire the know-how to grow their own food, weatherize their houses and install solar panels. Their projects help neighbors replant lawns with edibles and build raised vegetable beds. They’ve also auctioned rain barrels painted by local artists and organized a 100-Mile Potluck to celebrate local food and farmers.

Building a Future from the Ground Up

The Transition Towns movement in the United States is less than two years old, but it came from the seeds of earlier re-localization efforts and other community climate groups and nonprofits.

A lecture on climate change may not appeal to everyone, but advocates find they can interest people in things like gardening, says Richard Olson, director of the Berea College Sustainability and Environmental Studies program. “We talk to them about heirloom seeds and what their grandparents grew and if they’d like to learn canning. We get them involved without even mentioning transition or sustainability.”

Interest in climate-readiness is spreading: Austin, Texas, has an ambitious plan to make city facilities, vehicles and all other operations carbon-neutral by 2020. Louisville, Colorado, now has a car share program. Charlottesville, Virginia, is creating a trail system for walking and biking to connect schools, parks and other public spaces.

Greensburg, Kansas, a city of fewer than 2,000, was leveled by a tornado in May 2007. Residents have decided to rebuild as green as they can, requiring all city buildings to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED platinum rating for top-level environmentally friendly construction. They’ve also formed the group Greensburg GreenTown to increase public education about green living, make resources available at the library and distribute educational materials through online and telephone classes and events.

Green building initiatives also are spreading, thanks in part to Architecture 2030, a nonprofit based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which calls for an immediate 50 percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption in new buildings and renovations, and sets a goal of carbon-neutral design by 2030. The U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted the program in 2006.

These communities hope they can lead the way toward the big changes we’ll need, both nationally and internationally, to respond to climate change. “Working at the community level to build resilience is the strategy that has the most chance of success,” observes Olson. “It’s not going to take until our grandchildren’s generation to see if we’ve succeeded. I think in 10 years we’ll see if we’re going to have a chance.”

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Tara Lohan is a contributing writer to YES! Magazine, a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the book, Water Consciousness.

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