The ‘Transition Towns’ movement is a global initiative whose aim is to help communities become more sustainable and manage a transition to a world where oil is no longer the dominant source of energy. Concepts of resilience lie at the heart of this approach, ensuring that communities operate sustainably, become increasingly self-reliant and are able to adapt to change. However, the founder of the Transitions movement, Rob Hopkins, maintains that the movement’s approach can offer a new, more ambitious, perspective on resilience.
The Cabinet Office’s Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience defines resilience as, “the capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure and identity” and it is with this definition that Hopkins takes issue. It is certainly true that if you were asked to paint a picture of your dream-town, village or city, you may well envision something more ambitious than one that has the ability to ‘sustain an acceptable level of function’.
Hopkins argues that the Transition approach demonstrates that community resilience can extend beyond this. In the Hopkins’ book The Transition Companion he insists that: “making a community more resilient if viewed as an opportunity for an economic and social renaissance, for a new culture of enterprise and re-skilling, should lead to a healthier and happier community while reducing its vulnerability to risk and uncertainty”. His interpretation recasts the concept of resilience as an opportunity to create more vibrant, flourishing and entrepreneurial local economies.
The Transition Towns movement provides plenty of examples in support of Hopkins’ claim. He points to the local ‘food hubs’ (which create links between local producers and consumers) and community-owned energy systems, which have not only increased resilience to food shortages and energy price rises but act to bind communities together and encourage interaction between citizens.
As well as building social capital resilience initiatives can also help to boost local economies. Brixton, in south London, for example, has its own local currency, the ‘Brixton Pound’ which can only be used within the local community. Spending Brixton Pounds in local shops ensures that they, in turn, must then source a portion of their stocks from local sources, building connections between local businesses and suppliers. Because Brixton pounds can only circulate locally each pound spent in a local store is worth up to £1.85 to the local economy.
As Hopkins suggests, initiatives that build resilience can be a platform for creating more vibrant communities. However, it is also important to remember that ‘resilience’ and ‘community vibrancy’ are not concepts that are inextricably bound together; it cannot be said that an action that builds one will increase the other, although evidence suggests that often this appears to be the case. Nevertheless, it is possible to hypothesise situations where this might not hold true. There are plenty of examples of systems that are thriving, or at least appear to be, whilst not being at all resilient, look at the City of London or Wall St and you’ll find examples on every corner. Similarly, fostering resilience and offsetting risk costs money and time and will not always allow maximum returns on investments in the short to medium-term.
The message for policymakers is that creating communities that are simultaneously resilience and thriving is essential, but focusing on either aspect in isolation is not a robust strategy to achieve this goal. This will mean taking some difficult decisions. Mechanisms that reward measures that strengthen resilience to help foster an appreciation for risk and for the continually changing environments in which we all operate are badly needed. It must be clear for all to see why investing in resilience makes sense and creates the foundations on which thriving communities, businesses and a host of other systems can be built. After all, while sustaining ‘an acceptable level of function, structure and identity’ may not be our highest ambition for community development, it must surely still remain at its core.
Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee. In 2009 he was part of the UK youth delegation to the Copenhagen climate talks. He holds a BA in Geography and an MSc in Environmental Governance from the University of Manchester.