We’ve just returned from Christel’s housewarming around the corner. Gorgeous food brought by loving friends, kisses and congratulations travelling from cheek to cheek, tours going up the back stairs, kids and entropy de-decorating the front room. It christens her new home, but contributes to my own feelings of being at home, too.
I discovered Gary Snyder while at university and carried around in my back pocket a copy of Earth Household for at least a year, dipping into it whenever I had a bit of time. It was Snyder, and Robinson Jeffers, too, who opened and prepared me to connect more deeply with the place I inhabited. Turtle Island, California, the Golden State. Those are the names that successive cultures called the place. But none of those names capture my experience of the way the blue sky sparkles at the coast, or the way the live oak smell when they bake in the summer heat, or the grasses, or the spectacle of eagles locked in a death spiral of love. Landscapes, flora, fauna, fog spilling over the Coast Range, city lights glimmering on the bay – millions of such memories and shadows of memories weave us together, me and this place.
Over the last ten years, my feelings of connection and rootedness deepened. I shifted my work to become more aligned with the urgency of the times and in greater harmony with the natural world, and so developed relationships and practices that weaved me closer in. What would it be like to leave?
In Totnes two years ago, house hunting and on a training course, our cohort went for a walk along the River Dart. The topic of connection to place came up – Jeremy, a Brit, a climber, world traveller, permaculturalist, and naturalist, now living in the French Alps, pointing out the beauty and miracle of life surrounding us, offered clear and pragmatic counsel. “If you’re connected to the earth, surely you can find that connection and rootedness you feel now, anywhere.”
A few weeks ago, Emily taught me a new word – indigenate. I like it better than placemaking. Placemaking deriving from a cultural critique is full of good intentions, but as argot it smells of conceit and privilege, as if it’s a thing to be done only by the qualified practitioner. Leave it to the professional class of designers, architects, and planners to appropriate yet another universal human cultural skill and make it exclusively their own.
I prefer indigenate for its honesty. We are a species of colonisers, let that part be clear. This is not an apology but brutal historical fact. We came out of Africa to populate every corner of habitable earth. The indigenous of these isles, those who followed the retreating glaciers north, apparently came from what we now call Spain. Centuries later, their descendents, among others, travelled the globe in ships, spreading language, culture, disease, and genocide, among other things. The north american culture from which I sprang is settlement culture and with that knowledge must come humility and respect for the dark history upon which it is built. We are all colonisers and colonised.
What is it, then, to make oneself at home, within a community of living beings, as if one belonged? If it requires a word, I prefer indigenate. And where to start? As all good things must, with one’s self at home.
One of the first things Jane did when we moved in was to organise pancake races on the street behind our house on Pancake Day. I had only just landed, but she was keen and made up little invitations that she and Georgia pushed through mail slots. On the day, we went out into an empty street – it wasn’t even our street – with some pans and a stack of crepes. Then a neighbour came out from behind door #7. Then another behind door #5. Pretty soon there was a gaggle of us, and we were running and flipping up and down the street, kids and grown ups, too. We met our neighbours and now we’re friends, saying hello on the street, doing other fun things together. I don’t know what it was like before, but now it’s as if we belong here, too.
We’re planning to refurbish the sturdy garage in our back garden, which faces that street behind our house. Later this year, it will become a cosy studio/office/workshop/retreat/guest house where we hope to host many friends and neighbours for dinner parties, co-working, skill shares, movie nights. Maybe we’ll also host a tool and book library, and install a bulletin board outside. A neighbourhood hub, of sorts, to contribute to the neighbourhood culture blooming around Bridgetown Stores, Amanda’s 8 Bakes, the four or five Transition Streets groups, Muddy Mums, and so on. We’re inspired by the idea of “resilience circles” and the work of City Repair. We will eventually practice some guerrilla art in the street.
Transition Streets is on its way to accomplishing much the same thing all over town. It has reached over 500 households across the Totnes area, all of whom have started little communities of their own, discussing lifestyle changes and improving the energy efficiency of their homes. But the groups that have gone through their workbooks ages ago are still together, as friends and in community, helping one another with projects or walking the dog or whatever. But lately, there’s been much more serious talk among some of these longstanding groups to begin developing what’s next – resilience circles, perhaps, sharing tools and other assets, developing time banks. There’s a plan afoot to create a community interest company with some government funding to purchase a fleet of electric bikes for these groups to adopt, care for, and use.
Totnes on the Move is a community-led planning group organised by Devon County Council to consider projects like the electric bike scheme. They have a pot of money to invest in sustainable transport improvements in the town. Words like placemaking get used often, as do shared space, traffic calming, people first, integrated bicycle strategy, and such like. Several projects are being considered, all of which were shared with the wider community on Saturday at an event at the Methodist Church. There seemed to be huge enthusiasm for all sorts of improvements to reduce car traffic and increase bicycle use.
A word murmured only after looking over one’s shoulder and softly, is pedestrianisation. The Totnes High Street is narrow, traffic choked, and unsafe, with delivery vans coming over the pavement to get around whomever or whatever might be blocking the speedy completion of their appointed rounds. It’s the most unpleasant thing about this otherwise pleasant little town. But a cabal of merchants have kept the subject a taboo for thirty years and will shout down anyone who dares advance a proposal in this direction.
This highlights the fact that much of what comes under the banner of placemaking is really remediation, fixing the blunders of designers, architects, and planners that have come before. This is where some of the professional practice of placemaking intersects with Transition. We recognise the structural issues that must be addressed – community and place is about people, but the material facts of physical infrastructure play an important role in cultural expression and behaviour, too. A recent study in the US showed that increasing bicycle infrastructure also increases bike ridership. And we know that public transit ridership is diminished when it is dismantled in favour of automobile traffic.
The fact that some Transitioners have gotten involved with the Totnes on the Move project is a good thing. A good thing, too, is involvement with the longer term Neighourhood-led Planning project made possible by the Localism Bill. Having a strong Transition voice represented in local government planning related groups is essential to ensuring that whatever sort of planning goes forward contributes to resilience, community connection, and regeneration of local ecology. And the Atmos project, what would be a community-led and owned brownfield redevelopment, would also demonstrate a new model for how local communities can take charge of executing such plans.
Whether expressed through formal planning fora or redevelopment efforts, or through nut tree planting or community gardens or incredible edibles, Transition is essentially a process and a call to re-envision a new place for ourselves in the world. It’s something we must all do for ourselves, too.
Images: Pt. Sur, California; Pancake racing crew, Brooklands; Totnes on the Move; Totnes High Street