Identifying and Overcoming Local Barriers to Transition: A Summary of the 2014 TUS Survey

By Philip Barnes, Transition Town Media

The 2014 annual TUS survey of Transition Initiatives was conducted from May 30th to July 17th.  I would first like to personally say thank you to everyone who took the time to fill it out.  Responding to a survey is never a pleasurable experience.  I mean, it is hard to imagine someone saying, “Hey, I can’t wait to fill out that awesome survey that was emailed to me!”  So thank you.  Not only is your response incredibly valuable for my ongoing dissertation research that looks at the relationship between local governments/planners and the Transition Movement, but the response is beneficial to TUS because they now have a clearer picture of where initiatives are placing their energy and resources, and consequently where they can offer their own support for your efforts.  Speaking of TUS, I also need to extend a sincere thank you to them for affording me the opportunity to piggyback on their survey.

In all, there were fifty five responses.  Sometimes, we received more than one response from a single TI, presumably because several individuals within the same initiative filled out the survey independently of each other.  The more the better!  Factoring in the doubling up of responses, the survey captured the sentiment of forty seven unique groups from across the US and Canada.

Just to remind everyone what information was collected through the survey, I included questions that asked about the presence of local policies that are acting as barriers to attaining your initiative’s goals, about the extent of collaboration between your group and local government, if your group advocated for and influenced local policy change, if anyone in your group participates directly through local government, and what types of reskilling/skill sharing has happened in your community.  A summary of the reskilling/skill sharing results will be offered in a future blog post but for now I want to communicate to you what I learned about the interactions between TIs and local policies and governments.

There are indeed restrictions on certain types of Transition-y practices – which I will describe in greater detail below – but I don’t just want to criticize what local governments are doing.  Rather, I would like to bring the conversation full circle by highlighting the things that groups are doing, or can do, to proactively encourage positive policy changes through local government and hence facilitate relocalization, resilience building, and community development.  All groups face unique circumstances that are specific to their particular community, so some of the results that I present here may not be applicable where you are.  However, I suspect that there are commonalities and that you will identify with the challenges and opportunities experienced by other TIs.

First off, it is clear that there are a variety of local government policies, ordinances, regulations, and laws that effectively prevent TIs from fully realizing their goals and objectives.  In terms of local food production, a number of respondents stated that their municipality, town, or city places an outright ban on the raising of backyard chickens.  Others reported similar restrictions against beekeeping, agricultural and gardening practices in residential areas, and the planting of edibles, such as fruit and nut trees, on public property and easements.  As for the consumption of local food, a number of people noted that they tried to serve locally grown and prepared produce at public events only to find out that food service and safety laws were too burdensome. 

“I’d sure love to supply you with eggs and good company, but that darn city ordinance says I can’t live here.” Photo credit: Davee under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0

Local building codes and zoning ordinances seemed to be major obstacles to achieving a low-impact lifestyle.  One respondent wrote that their local code places an absolute limit on the minimum amount of habitable floor space in homes which makes it impossible to get small dwellings, such as Tiny Houses, approved for construction.  There are also requirements for minimum plumbing and waste treatment standards which forces homeowners to install standard flush toilets instead of choosing composting toilets.  One respondent noted that greywater systems that recycle and reuse non-potable water were prohibited in their locality and another wrote that their municipality’s zoning code prevents co-housing practices.  Finally, there were a couple of people who cited a severe lack of bicycle and pedestrian-friendly transportation infrastructure coupled with local planners and governments taking an unflinching automobile-centered approach to development.

Given these regulatory barriers, the question then turns to what can TIs do about it.  One option is to simply ignore the law or else find loopholes.  I know a town where animal husbandry is technically banned in residential zones but some people keep backyard chickens without getting fined because they refer to their feathered friends as “pets”.   Another option, if you’re not willing to break the law or jump through hoops, is to advocate for an outright policy change.  And that’s exactly the approach a number of TIs are taking.  Changing laws, ordinances, and regulations is not the easiest thing to do – as any advocate will tell you – but having a good, amicable, working relationship with local government can certainly smooth out a sometimes bumpy process.  Encouragingly, many Transition groups are developing a spirit of collaboration with their local government through various methods such as inviting officials to meetings, serving on public service groups such as task forces (more on that in a second), and jointly hosting events such as sustainability festivals, village building convergences, and water conservation workshops.  Additionally, a number of TIs have become managers and implementers of existing policies.  For example, Woodstock NY Transition administers local composting efforts and Sustainable Fairfax (Fairfax, CA) administers waste reduction efforts.  All of those actions, while extremely valuable in their own right because they help to advance localization and resilience building goals, strengthen the relationship between an initiative and local government.  That friendly working relationship can come in handy when requests are made to change local policies.

What types of policy changes are TIs looking to achieve?  They come in all shapes and sizes.  The Charlottesville-Albemarle initiative (Charlottesville and Albemarle, VA) successfully advocated against their local water board’s proposal to add chloramine to the drinking water supply.  Carbon filtration was eventually used instead.  There were a few respondents who wrote about their initiative’s attempts to localize their community’s energy supply.  In two separate cases, initiatives sought help from their local governing body to municipalize their area’s electric utility and put it into public stewardship.  In another case, Sustainable Berea (Berea, KY) helped petition their existing municipally-owned utility to install a large 246-panel solar array in their town, portions of which were then leased to community residents who wished to green their electricity supply.  Members of Transition Sebastopol (Sebastopol, CA) and other TIs in Sonoma County, CA supported local efforts to develop of a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) scheme in their area.  A CCA is, in essence, a publicly-owned utility that affords communities participating in the system the right to collectively negotiate rates and the percentage of renewable and sustainable energy supplies in the overall energy mix they receive.  In terms of revising some of the aforementioned local ordinances that act as barriers to Transition’s goals, Transition Sarasota (Sarasota, FL) teamed up with a local backyard chicken advocacy group to successfully overturn the ban on raising chickens.  And Transition Culver City (Culver, CA) is working with their local council to rewrite the regulations governing parkways, particularly the space between the curb and the sidewalk.  They are trying to insert language that would allow them to plant edibles, install small structures like free libraries, and make curb cuts to allow for direct infiltration of water into the ground rather than having it run off into the sewer system.

It is also clear from the survey that many TIs advocated for positive policy change by directly engaging in local planning efforts.  Transitioners attended public meetings, participated in focus groups, filled out surveys, and consulted on long-term planning efforts such as urban agriculture plans, local comprehensive plans, regional development plans, and climate action plans.  In fact, some TIs are taking it upon themselves to become the planners.  Transition Fidalgo & Friends (Anacortes, WA) wrote an astonishingly beautiful and impressive 25-year sustainability plan for their community and Transition Town Montpelier (Montpelier, VT) produced an Energy Descent Action Plan for their region which includes various policy scenarios for achieving energy reduction targets.

A recurring theme in the responses is that some Transitioners – and in some cases whole initiatives – are working to enhance civic engagement by voluntarily participating in public service bodies.  For example, individual Transition members are serving on local peak oil task forces, climate action committees and coalitions, transportation commissions, planning commissions, water boards, environmental task forces, shade tree commissions, environmental advisory councils, sustainability committees, citizen’s advisory councils for regional development projects, composting working groups, complete streets coalitions, energy conservation commissions, community services commissions, transit working groups, and food policy councils.  That’s an incredibly wide yet relevant range of public service to influence and advance localization and resilient practices in your communities.

One final area of interest highlighted in the survey is the level of direct involvement that some Transitioners have with their local government, meaning that individuals from a number of initiatives actually stood as candidates in local elections and won.  Of the forty seven TIs that responded to the survey, nine of them currently have a member of their group occupying a seat on their city, town, village, borough, or township council.  In addition, there are currently three mayors and one state-level senator who participate in their local initiative.  In spotlighting these survey responses, I do not mean to suggest that these local governments automatically become vehicles through which the initiative’s goals are carried out and implemented.  This is certainly not the case, as only one council seat or mayoral position carries with it a limited amount of authority and power to pull policy levers.  What this does mean, however, is that Transition’s values and ethics are likely beginning to exert a small amount of pressure and influence local policy shifts from inside government, thus complementing the external work done through advocacy and public service.

So what does all this mean?  Everyone will have a particular interpretation of these survey results and apply a different level of significance to them.  For my part, I believe that what the survey results demonstrate is that TIs, through the dedicated work of committed individuals, recognize the countless institutional barriers and challenges to actually executing the unavoidable and non-negotiable transition we all anticipate.  And rather than passively sitting back and hoping that local governments, councils, and administrators will do the right thing, or even worse becoming cynical that these governing bodies are a complete waste of time and effort, TIs are proactively overcoming those barriers by advancing localization and resilience-building practices externally through policy advocacy, implementation, and consulting as well as internally through elected office.  I acknowledge that each local government in each community will have a different operational dynamic, meaning that some run smoothly while others are rather dysfunctional.  The latter case is an extremely unfortunate reality that some TIs are undoubtedly faced with.  But the survey results do cast a bright light on the existing potential for advancing institutional frameworks that promote localized and resilient communities.  This should be celebrated and encouraged.

For anyone looking to become more involved in the policy change process, I recommend Alexis Rowell’s book Communities, Councils and a Low-Carbon Future: What We Can Do if Governments Won’t. Although it was written and published in the United Kingdom and is not 100% transferable to the North American context, it will still serve as a great resource for Transitioners and TIs.  Finally, given that many TIs and individuals are directly involved in the policy change process, I suggest that we create an online forum where people can share their stories, experiences, and best practices, maybe something like a local government and policy Google Group.  It is important that we learn from each other.  City councilmember from initiative X may have a question that a township administrator from initiative Y can answer.  In the meantime, keep an eye out for an upcoming TUS-sponsored TeleSalon where those of you actively seeking policy changes can come together and share stories, resources, and experiences. 

Thanks again to everyone who filled out the survey, and best of luck with your continued efforts!

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