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Saving the planet one neighbourhood at a time

With the news that Canada is not on target to reach its climate change goals, it's easy to feel the battle is all but lost when it comes saving the planet from environmental disaster.
But a growing movement is focussed on what actually is possible—manageable lifestyle changes, increased community connection and local initiatives to reduce household and community carbon footprints. And it's doing so by nurturing a village mentality amidst GTA's urban sprawl.
Transition Toronto (TTo) is a volunteer-run grassroots initiative that provides a forum for innovative ideas, advice on how make small but practical changes at home, in neighbourhoods and communities.
"Rather than complaining about all the things that are wrong and bad and doomed, it's about looking at solutions, what we can actually do by being proactive," says TTo co-founder Martina Rowley. "It's better than putting your hands in your pockets while waiting for the government to do something in 10 years' time."
Founded in 2009, TTo is modelled after Transition Towns, a movement which began in Ireland which has gone global. Though building community connections, movement suggestions that people can help each other be more self-sufficient in producing their own food, building and maintaining their own homes and otherwise reducing their dependence on large-scale industrial production. Now there's a worldwide network, which TTo officially joined this spring. Following The Transition Handbook, the aim is "to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they adopt and adapt the transition model on their journey to urgently rebuild resilience and drastically reduce CO2 emissions."
Sounds ambitious. And the original model was built for villages and towns where neighbours already tended to know each other. But worldwide the Transition movement has found an enthusiastic base not just in towns and villages, but in cities and city neighbourhoods including in London, Vancouver and Los Angeles. Rowley came on board after co-founder Alex Knox of Post Carbon Toronto, an organization with common goals, made a presentation that asked the question: Could this work in Toronto? They decided it could.
"When you're looking at a place with several million inhabitants, there are different challenges. It's hard to engage city folks. People are more anonymous and spread out. But it can work as long as you break it down into neighbourhoods," says Rowley. So far, there are five Toronto groups, including The Beach, West End, Harbord Village, East End and a craft group on the Danforth. They have attracted more than 500 members and have reached thousands through their workshops, panels, film nights and other events.
"What sets Toronto Transition apart from other environmental organizations is its holistic approach," says Rowley. Where other organizations look at one or two pieces of the climate change puzzle, TTo gives it a 360 degree look; food, transportation, energy costs, personal concerns. "It allows participants to pick the area they are personally most passionate about, knowing that they're still part of the bigger process, and all the while feeling they are contributing in a valuable way."
Email is the main bond among members; members contribute to forums where they exchange information, plan educational and fun events and champion causes. Members take the initiative on projects they feel most passionate about, and encourage others to join them. Knowledge of TTo and its individual community groups is spread mostly by word of mouth, but also through social media.
Rowley is no stranger to mobilizing communities around green issues. Growing up in a small German village, reusing and recycling was an integral part of her family's lifestyle.  She realized she was an environmentalist after a stint working in the UK. When she moved to Toronto, like many new Canadians, she first lived in Thorncliffe Park, but found it isolating. She moved to The Beach—one of Toronto's most village-like neighbourhoods. When Toronto's Live Green office launched its community animator program in 2009, she took one of the positions, though last year she was a casualty of city cuts.
"That job was essentially very similar to what I'm doing at TTo," she says, "trying to engage people in community greening initiatives. Through that role I made a ton of contacts across the city, I got a very good handle on the most important and most active environmental community groups, as well as registered nonprofits that are active in the city. So, it's helped me build a foundation that I can now use to spread the word on Transition."
One convert, now recently appointed to the steering committee, is Joy Jolie. Her commitment to the West End chapter came after a major health crisis.
"I'd always been involved in volunteering and in environmental issues, but I now had a sense of urgency. I really wanted to make a difference, not just for my friends and family, but for our community," says Jolie, who runs a small computer training business called SparQ Learning Solutions when she's not volunteering for TTo. ""Volunteering can sometimes take over and it can be hard to strike a balance, but it's very important to me."
Partnering with other like-minded organizations is crucial since TTo is not a registered nonprofit, therefore ineligible for funding. Piggybacking on the activities and events of others helps keep down the costs, while their own events are funded by small admission fees. Presenters, often TTo members, donate their time and skills. After a few years, they now have enough of a budget that they can seed community groups, keep up with administrative costs and keep their website online without having to dig into their own pockets. Jolie lends a hand at Toronto Dollar , a community currency initiative which encourages people to spend locally and support local businesses, and the Mint Film Festival, a monthly documentary film night.
Many of Transition's initiatives are about doing things for yourself, without relying on an increasingly unreliable global economy. That could mean everything from growing and bottling your own food, repairing or altering clothes rather than throwing them out, installing renewable energy sources on your property or building your own home renovation projects rather than buying industrially produced solutions. Interestingly, Rowley has noticed that, unlike other environmental organizations she's been a part of, which are often dominated by women, the TTo membership has an approximately 50/50 gender split.
"Men want to get their hands into something," she says. "It's what TTo calls re-skilling—learning basic carpentry or bike maintenance. Practical knowledge that is immediately useful."
Rowley works hard at walking the walk. "It's become my lifestyle. In the past five years especially, I've become much more careful. I eat organic food, I use organic beauty care." She admits there is stress, as well as satisfaction. "It means you turn over everything twice before you buy something new and look at whether it's essential; is it healthy, is it local?"
But in the long run, erring on the side of knowing you're doing whatever you can, at home, in your community and city is probably the healthier stress to have.
Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer, TV producer and essayist for TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She keeps a blog.

Photos 2-5 by Martina Rowley. Photo 2 is a photo of the Q&A after a March 2011 screening of
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Photo 3 is of a spring 2012 workshop series based on Chris Martenson's DVD series The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy and Environment. Photo 4 is of a January 2011 session on permaculture open space technology.
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