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What is Transition Town law?

March 8, 2010

Last week I read this announcement of the launch of Transition Canada – a national network to facilitate transition towns in Canada.  I haven’t been able to find much further information about this new organization, but there have been discussions about creating it over the past month or two at least. 

The launch of Transition Canada has got me thinking again about a topic that I first really thought about after I attended a meeting organized by Transition Victoria a few months back  – what is the role of law, and of an environmental law organization, in the Transition Town movement?

For those not familiar with it, the Transition Town movement is the latest movement to transform communities into more environmentally sound, and more liveable, places. Focussed on peak oil and climate change, Transition Towns seek to plot a course to low fossil fuel use at a local community level.  If you’ve got an hour, it’s worth watching the excellent video, In Transition.  If you only have 5 minutes, this much shorter talk by Transition movement founder, Rob Hopkins, is worth a look. 

In BC transition groups have sprung up recently in Victoria, Vancouver, Nelson, Salt Spring Island, Powell River, the Cowichan Valley and if you wait 5 minutes probably elsewhere (there was apparently a transition town workshop in Vernon last weekend).

Case for Smart Growth_cover_thumbnail.jpgWest Coast Environmental Law has been advocating for more liveable and sustainable communities for years.  Our Green Communities Program helped found Smartgrowth BC and our Smartgrowth Bylaws Guide is the go-to place for information in British Columbia on municipal bylaws that will promote sustainable communities communities.  Like Transition Towns, the Smartgrowth approach presents a positive vision focussed on developing communities that are energy efficient and liveable. 

But while West Coast Environmental Law already works to promote sustainable communities, in some ways the Transitions Town movement seems to be different from our Smartgrowth work:

  • The Transition Town movement, at least at this moment in its history, seems more grassroots than the Smartgrowth movement, and less focussed on town planning and infrastructure. 
  • Transition Town advocates focus on setting up voluntary alternative infrastructure, networks and systems that will function post-peak oil, while Smartgrowth focuses on laws and plans that promote infrastructure that will survive post-peak oil.  So while a Smartgrowth advocate might address food security by pressing for government policies that encourage farming on agricultural land, the Transition Town advocate would probably go about getting access to a parcel of farm land so that it could be communally farmed. 
  • Because the focus of the Transition Town is on meeting human needs in a low carbon future, the focus of the movement ranges far beyond traditional environmental concerns.  For example, the meeting I went to, in addition to discussing energy efficiency, also dealt with food security, economic systems, homelessness, and healthcare, all in the context of a low fuel economy.  While Smartgrowth also addresses human needs alongside environmental needs, the emphasis on appropriate land use gives that movement a focus. 

In a lot of ways the Smartgrowth and Transition Town movements should work together.  I don’t see how a community could truly transition away from fossil fuel use, as the Transition Town movement advocates, without prioritizing the types of walkable, multi-use development advocated for by the Smartgrowth philosophy. 

It’s tempting, as a lawyer, to presume that Smartgrowth-inspired government policies will have the bigger impact, in that they will affect new infrastructure across an entire region.  However, a Transition Town advocate would probably point out that their projects may do more to transform the culture and mobilize public opinion than mere changes to government policies. 

What, if anything, could West Coast Environmental Law do to support a Transition Town movement?  I have a few thoughts, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, advice and comments. 

  • Legal advice may be required to set up new organizations and infrastructure.  An example which could easily have arisen from the Transition Town movement (but did not, so far as I know) is the Gabriola Commons Society.  Lawyers hired through West Coast Environmental Law’s Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund allowed the society to develop legal infrastructure for a community commons that is used for growing food, recreation and other community uses.  West Coast could provide further support by identifying the legal structures and rules that should be in place to encourage the voluntary strategies favoured by the Transition Town movement. 
  • In some cases there are legal barriers to the types of solutions that the Transition Town movement wants to see implemented.  West Coast could help to identify those barriers and propose solutions that would fix them. 
  • West Coast might be able to help the Transition Town movement, if and when it wants to engage with local government, by helping translate transition goals into legal language.  Despite Transition Town’s focus on building parallel infrastructure, infrastructure being built by, or authorized by, local government will last for decades, and any transition strategy that doesn’t look for ways to build cities that are appropriate for a post-peak oil society is doomed to failure. 
  • West Coast might be able to help act as a bridge between the Transition Town and Smartgrowth movements.  To some degree it looks as if the two movements are not talking to each other very much.  If you google “Smart Growth” you get over 30 million hits.  If you search for "transition town" you can find slightly more than 10 million hits.  But if you look for sites which mention both concepts, you get slightly more than two thousand hits.  If Transition Town activists were to press their local governments for smart bylaws, as well as creating local currencies and the like, what a difference it could make. 

Personally I find the Transition Town movement quite exciting.  It’s got huge energy, is very positive and is doing great work.  It’s important that lawyers play a role that is appropriate to the movement.  I worry that if lawyers are not involved the Transition Town movement may result in infrastructure and systems that will not survive both the passage of time and clashes with mainstream culture.  But I also worry that focussing too much on the law could sap the creative energy of the Transition Town movement.  There is a difficult balance to be found here. 

Another question is whether West Coast Environmental Law could focus our work enough to provide a valuable contribution.  West Coast does not currently have the capacity to work on the full range of issues that Transition Towns work on, and as an environmental organization we should probably focus on those issues most directly tied to the environment, such as energy efficiency, transportation or even food security (addressed in the past by West Coast’s Growing Green project).  As an environmental organization it seems less appropriate for West Coast to focus our limited resources on health care or homelessness in a post-peak oil world, important though these issues are. 

What do you think of the Transition Town movement and what, if anything, is the role for lawyers (and especially environmental lawyers)? 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage