The Transition Movement is a global network of local towns, villages and suburbs that are pursuing a community-level response to the issues of oil depletion and climate change.
In the Alsace region of north-east France, not far from the border with Germany, is a small town (commune in France) that has been attracting international attention for its many groundbreaking sustainability projects. Ungersheim is a photogenic tourist magnet with some half-timbered and chalet-style houses. Its skyline is dominated by an onion-domed church, and a tall brick agricultural silo that looks like a mediaeval tower.
For decades, the local economy had been dominated by potash mining, but by the early 2000s all of the mines had shut down. Around this time, the mayor, a former miner named Jean-Claude Mensch, drew up a wish list of 21 actions for engineering a local sustainable transformation, and successfully persuaded the community to get on board.
Joining the Transition Movement
A few years later, the commune heard about the Transition Movement, a global network of local towns, villages and suburbs pursuing a community-level response to the issues of oil depletion and climate change. After launching in the UK in 2006, it has expanded to more than 2000 localities, of which a remarkably high 150 are in France. Ungersheim quickly recognised the strong connection between Transition projects and its own eco-evolution, and joined the network.
Many of the town’s ambitious sustainability goals involve energy, and in particular an aggressive push towards renewables. Mensch is aiming for Ungersheim to be entirely autonomous in energy for both heating and electricity by 2023. Most impressive is Helioparc 68, a solar farm that at 5.3 megawatts is the region’s largest. Helioparc was built by the municipal authorities on a former mining waste disposal site, and the space under its slanted solar roofs houses light industrial units.
In other energy-related actions:
- A 540-kilowatt (kW) wood-fired biomass boiler links about seven municipal buildings in a heat distribution network.
- A separate 120kW solar photovoltaic installation heats the swimming pool.
- The local primary school has a 40kW solar power system.
- Electricity costs associated with street lighting have been reduced by 40% by switching to LED technology.
- One vehicle operated by the authorities is a 4.5-tonne electric truck.
- Local children enjoy being transported to the primary school in a horse-drawn covered wagon. Horsepower is also used for garbage collection, some public transport, and on the land to help produce food.
- A local activist group is calling for the closure of the nearby Fessenheim nuclear power station.
Another important area is food sovereignty. An eight-hectare organic market garden employs 30 young people. This supplies 250 weekly baskets of produce, and every day an on-site kitchen produces 500 meals for primary school children who eat 100% organic meals and snacks during their school day. This local food economy extends to a cannery for preserving surplus produce, and there are future plans for a malting plant and a brewery.
Onto the eco-village
A further project involves a co-housing eco-village, situated on the edge of the village on land owned by the commune. Ungersheim had been inspired by the pioneering BedZED housing project in South London that was designed to operate on a zero-emissions basis. This led the town to run a competition for the design of a zero-carbon development, incorporating a checklist of other sustainability criteria. Straw bale is being used for the walls, local timber is sourced for the frames, and the houses are being built to Passive House standards (a very strict energy efficiency standard for temperate climates where heating energy requirements are typically 90% lower than a comparable dwelling).
Other initiatives have involved a ban on pesticides and herbicides from public areas, and a ‘biodiversity atlas’ covering the commune. As a Fair Trade Town, it supports the sale and purchase of certified fair-trade commodities. It has even gone so far as to launch a note-based local currency in four denominations that is known as the ‘radish’, and which is accepted by a number of businesses.
To stimulate local investment in eco projects, and to serve as a hub, the Multicarte Cooperative was set up in 2013. One of its policies is for profitable projects to be used to subsidise others that are less economically viable. Financial savings from the sustainable energy projects in particular have translated into rate discounts for locals.
From England to France and to Australia
Ungersheim’s example has inspired six nearby towns and villages to join the Transition Movement. Its sustainability journey led the film-maker Marie-Monique Robin to make the documentary Qu’est qu’on attend? (What are we waiting for?), which involved revisiting the community at intervals throughout the space of a year, and which was released in late 2016.
As Transition is a group activity, it is less of a challenge in modestly-sized communities such as Ungersheim where the population is less individualistic and materialistic, where the priority is the long-term greater good. In Australia, there are numerous Transition initiatives scattered around the country that are actively pursuing similar, probably less ambitious, plans and which can be tracked down via the Transition Network website.
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