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Brixton: transitioning to a low-energy future

Updated Monday, 30th November 2009

Brixton is a vibrant and multicultural town in South London. In 2008 it became part of the Transition movement and now boasts 1,000 local members. They aim to lower carbon emissions by promoting a reduced dependency on oil.

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James: I live in Brixton – a vibrant neighbourhood in south London. It’s a bustling multi-cultural hub with a strong Caribbean influence in the middle of a giant metropolis and it’s not the kind of place one would expect to find a Transition Town movement.

I’ve been part of Transition Town Brixton since it was officially “unleashed” in 2008. Since then, the group has grown to involve over a thousand locals in long term changes that will help us lower our carbon emissions and become more resilient to impending peak oil.

I met up with Duncan Law, who founded Transition Town Brixton to find out about how things are progressing in this city-based initiative.

Duncan Law: The aim of the Transition movement is to transition the world to a good, low energy future because if we don’t succeed in doing that, we’re going to have collapse and if we don’t succeed in reducing our carbon output, we’re going to have runaway climate change.

One of the reasons we decided to set up was to be a centre of infection – to actually put this agenda on the map. We watched Totnes quite carefully and their first programme was a big inspiration. We used what other Transition initiatives were doing on their websites as a way of getting inspired and getting information.

James: Brixton has an extremely diverse community – both economically and culturally. These factors combined with its urban setting present complex challenges. It’s clear to all of us involved that our Transition Town is not the same as elsewhere and so we have to work differently.

One of the boldest aspirations is to make Brixton car-free. To find out how this can be achieved, I spoke to Rory McMullan from the Transport group.

Rory McMullan: The majority of people in urban areas – and it is central London, inner London here – don’t actually have cars. Because, as you see on the street behind us, it’s a busy road, so some of the worst air pollution from cars and it also has one of the worst accident rates for kids because there’s so much traffic generated largely from the suburbs who drive into town.

The idea of being a car-free individual is not necessarily fashionable and I think that’s one of our real priorities – is to raise awareness that being car-free can be a choice and it’s not something that should be forced upon you. Using a bus to get around is actually it’s just as quick, it’s cheaper and it’s better for the environment.

We organise things like Urban Green Fairs. We organise car free days or just community events like feasts in the street. The fact that we close the street is very subtle and that’s what we’re trying to do, is slowly change people’s opinions.

Duncan: One of the old wisdoms about the sustainability of cities is that people live closer together so they, their need for personal transport is reduced. They can get to all the things they need, the shops, the entertainment, the train station. But the flipside of that is that all the resources that those people need have to be brought to them.

James: As one way to reduce this need, many of us are starting to grow our own food. Though the carbon reductions are negligible, it is many people’s first step into Transition and gives a strong sense of a simpler and more sustainable life that many of us are seeking.

Food growing has drawn in a lot of people like myself to attend workshops and tours of places such as our local community garden in Brockwell Park. This shows that Transition is an enjoyable experience and that our cities can be relaxed as well as vibrant and greener than you might have imagined.

Local currencies have been set up around the world and by Transition Towns Totnes and Lewes. In Brixton, we are preparing to launch our own. They reduce food miles by encouraging local spending, but some businesses are concerned about dealing in two currencies. Isabelle Delatour is heading the business engagement team, bringing local enterprises on board by explaining the benefits of the Brixton Pound.

Tanya: Am I gaining anything?

Isabelle Delatour: Yeah, I mean, definitely. The businesses have a lot to gain here. One, as one of the businesses that accept the Brixton pound, you’ll be on our website and you’ll be on a map.

Basically we give all the businesses who agree to accept the Brixton Pound the opportunity to place specials on our website that will be emailed out to all our supporters It is a way for businesses to have free marketing and free advertisement to a select group of people who have consciously said ‘I’m interested in the Brixton Pound. I’m interested in using it. I’m interested in supporting it,’ so it’s not just sending it out to anyone. It’s actually people who have taken the time to sign up.

Tanya: And local suppliers, because I use [unclear name], I use Atlantic, and I always pay them in cash so it would be great if I could pay them in Brixton Pounds.

Isabelle: Great, that’s a good point cos what we’re actually encouraging businesses to do is let us know more about their suppliers because like I went over before, the idea is to get some virtual system where you have the businesses, the customers and the suppliers kind of working together so that this can help the money circulate a lot easier.

James: Keeping money circulating within the community strengthens local trade and is a key preparation for a lower carbon future.

In Brixton, the scheme is really taking off with 40 local businesses and over 500 individuals already signed up. Dialogue and debate about the activities of the Transition Town movement are an intrinsic part of the engagement of the wider community.

This is the third time that Transition Town Brixton has attended the Lambeth Country Show with the aim of telling our neighbours about this thing called Transition.

Duncan: There will be 100,000 people in that park over the weekend so lots of good discussions can happen and on previous events like that we’ve had 300 people sign up to be part of our mailing list.

James: If we can convince people of the benefits of a less carbon intensive lifestyle, it will mean a much more pleasant place to live for the next generation. And what I’ve learned from being involved with Transition so far is that all these changes may involve some initial sacrifices but ultimately have a variety of benefits. And what we have to gain can be a better sense of community, a more enjoyable and healthier lifestyle and that we might be doing something that our children will thank us for.

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