Bill Sharp, Director, Transition Centre, © June 24, 2020
Transition Centre was formed in 2009. It is a registered Pennsylvania nonprofit organization (not tax exempt). It’s roots, however, go back to 2002 when we first focused on resilient communities. Transition Centre begin to form in 2005 following the dramatic increase in the cost of petroleum products after Hurricane Katrina. The first week of September, immediately following the devastation of the US petroleum infrastructure in the Caribbean (which flooded much of New Orleans), followed by reduced OPEC production, saw the tripling of the cost of petroleum and petroleum products such as gasoline and heating oil. The peak cost of a barrel of oil in 2008 coincided with the global economic collapse called the Great Recession. Our resource dependency became painfully obvious. The supply chain is fragile and non-renewable resources being depleted at an alarming rate. This became the focus of our program.
About this time a relocalization movement was gaining ground once again. The basic rationale is that we need to address problems at the level that we can. Is that global, national, state or province, or local? Local is comprehensive. Local is home. How do we make our home communities more viable, more secure and resilient.
We produced our first localized sustainability plan early in 2008: Central Pennsylvania Local Economy (CPALE). The mission of CPALE was:
To promote rebuilding local economies through jobs in sustainable agriculture, small manufacturing, skilled crafts and services, using a business model that seeks to keep as much wealth as possible circulating within an economically viable local region.
The Vision Statement included:
A network of small, increasingly fully functional, autonomous and self-reliant communities that can produce the essentials of life and establish the political and economic foundation for a sustainable society with a high quality of life.
The CPALE project conducted a regional survey including our home county (Centre County) and the six contiguous counties. We developed our master list of 22 basic human needs for a sustainable community. This list was derived from a survey of the objectives of sustainability plans across the country. It remains our core framework.
In 2008 became affiliated with the Relocalization Network – some 100 or more groups in the US and Canada. That year The Transition Handbook was published. The book described the foundation of the Transition Towns (TT) movement started in the UK in 2006. TT was designed as a grassroots community response to the rising cost and inevitable depletion of fossil fuels. It also addressed the potential impact of climate change. After the recession of 2008 it became increasingly focused on the instability of the global economy. Towards the end of 2008 the Relocalization Network became the Transition Towns US, a nation hub organization. We formed a local group to study The Transition Handbook.
The objective of the Transition Towns model is to create resilience, that is, adaptability, at the local level. The Handbook provided an effective agenda for organizing local communities to develop a unified program to insure a more secure future.
Our first major public presentation of the Transition Towns (TT) model was made at a meeting of the Spring Creek Watershed Association (SCWA) in 2009. The Association was a leading local sustainability group. The Association was considering the Corvallis Natural Step model for their proposed sustainability organization but wanted to look at Transition Towns. The advantage of the grassroots Transition Town model was evident. The Transition Centre Director subsequently became chair of the SCWC (see below).
Transition Centre (TC) was founded by Bob Flatley and Bill Sharp (Transition Centre Director) as an unofficial Transition Hub for central Pennsylvania in 2009. It was registered as a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation. We developed a web site and a blog to promote the Transition model.
As a hub, we began to set up meetings and presentations locally and with other regional communities and organizations. In February 2010 Transition Centre organized a presentation on the Transition Towns model at the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (which was then headquartered in a neighboring community). Seventy-five people attended. Three of our group attended two-day Training for Transition and in April 2010 Transition Town State College and Transition Town Bald Eagle Valley became official initiatives.
We chose to closely follow the program of The Transition Handbook and Transition in Action. Transition in Action was the first comprehensive Transition Towns plan, defined as an Energy Descent Action Plan, or EDAP, by TT founder Rob Hopkins, and produced by his Transition Towns founding community at Totnes, UK. We too wanted a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach. Our objective was to develop a sustainability master plan.
We followed the twelve-step process outlined by Hopkins with modifications appropriate for our community. For example, we didn’t need to form work groups or projects as they were plentiful in our region.
We conducted a detailed assessment of local resources – natural, economic, organizational and human. We very early realized that our community had incredible assets, but they were poorly organized. Our strategy became to create a virtual organization. We have pursued what we labeled a community ecosystem. We constructed a “Resource List.” Resources include government entities, nonprofits, higher education, conservation, environmental and sustainability groups, other community groups, and business interests. Organizations and groups on the list are all located, or have a significant footprint, in our community. The List was posted on our web site. It can be sorted by primary and secondary characteristics. There are eight categories of organizations and 64 topics they address. The List currently has over 600 entries. We have continued to network people and organizations over the years.
As an initial practical project, we promoted home and community gardens. There was one public community garden when we started. There are now more than a dozen. We helped create a new one in 2017 and doubled its size in 2018 on land provided by a neighborhood church. This garden requires a tenth of our produce be given to food banks. A community garden association was formed.
One of the strongest early partnerships we formed was with the New Leaf Initiative, formed the year after our TT initiative. We nominated it as one of the Transition Towns’ 25 Enterprises that Build Resilience. New Leaf was recognized as one of the premier community building organizations in the area. Its founders were committed to sustainability. Now other local organizations, including the university have adopted that model.
One distinction in our development is engagement with local government. That was step nine on Rob Hopkins’ list. We were fortunate to have participation by representatives of government entities from the beginning, not as authorities but as members of the sustainability community. (I and several others subsequently served in public office at the local and regional level). Transition Centre is explicitly non-partisan. We adopted the policy of not engaging in protest or advocacy. We have rather worked to develop collaboration around common interests.
We also developed close connections with Pennsylvania State University. Penn State formed its own Sustainability Institute about the same time TC was formed.
Interfaith Power and Light
In 2010 the Transition Centre Director was invited to become a founding board member of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light (a faith-based climate change organization with affiliates then in 40 states). IPL embraces participants of all faiths and creeds. The TC Director was made officer at large and thus a member of the Executive Committee. The Transition Town model was presented as a community building program to faith communities. Many presentations were made in local communities and at conferences, workshops and sustainability events and festivals across the state.
Ralph Borsodi and his School of Living
From the beginning there has been a link between Transition Centre and the founding principles of Ralph Borsodi’s School of Living. This connection goes back some years to a project named Cove Institute (name inspired by an ocean cove where several related meetings were held). In 2002 the Cove Institute was envisioned as a “resilient learning community.” We subsequently learned that Borsodi had that vision many years ago and had developed a significant program. That legacy, unfortunately, had been largely lost. The Transition Centre co-founders decided to restore that legacy and bring it up to date.
The original School of Living was founded in 1934 by Ralph Borsodi. Borsodi had become a pioneer homesteader in 1920 and published his classic Flight From the City in 1933. He had been a consulting economist with Wall Street clients. He wrote thoughtful critiques about the fallacies of the emerging urban-industrial commercial economy.
Borsodi was a leader in a movement that flourish in the first half of the twentieth century. It was called New Agrarianism. It had a Jeffersonian vision. Borsodi believed that the family farm or homestead was the ideal social institution. Through it the family and its members could achieve a high degree of economic and personal independence. He also pursed the idea of local collaborative communities to provide a more solid civil foundation. Borsodi also pioneered land trusts and local currency.
Borsodi, beginning a century ago, laid much of the foundation of what we have come to call the sustainability movement. He developed a model homestead, homestead communities and was a pioneer in organic gardening, appropriate technology, land trust and local currency. Above all, Borsodi was a founder of a comprehensive, problem-centered framework integral learning.
The School of Living was developed to provide the knowledge and skills needed to achieve these objectives. Above all, however, Borsodi pursued the Jeffersonian ideal of an educated citizenry who could conduct their own affairs. He advocated developing the highest potential of every person.
Related to personal and leadership development, in 2018 the Transition Centre Director published Self-Reliance: Achieving Personal Resiliency and Independence (link). This is the first of a series of workbooks that merges the Cove and Borsodi systems into a common framework. It moves from a personal to a social focus and then to agency (effective leadership for complex settings).
The Transition Centre Director also wrote a new introduction in 2019, on the 90th anniversary of its initial publication, of Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization. (Available at this link.)
In celebration of the Borsodi family moving to their homestead near Suffern, New York, Transition Centre published a new blog site: Ralf Borsodi – Creating a Confident Future (link) . That blog started with key chapters from an upcoming book with that title.
High on our list of sustainability needs is the reduction of our fossil fuels dependency. In 2012 we published two comprehensive articles on energy (to a large national audience). These articles were posted on the Transition Centre blog site (link and link)
In 2013, in response to growing concern about shale gas development, we organized a well-attended public conference. We had world-renowned climate scientist Richard Alley and a noted Penn State shale gas expert to present both sides of the issue. Seventy people attended. Responding to demand, a second conference was held in which we invited our two speakers and added two renewable energy experts to form a panel. The local Public Issues Forum sponsored a third forum, based on our program. It was a well-attended day-long event promoted county-wide. A booklet was produced, drafted by Transition Centre, about the issues involved in the shale industry. Contested then, recently the shale gas industry has acknowledged our thesis that renewable energy is becoming more cost effective and that shale gas is a transitional technology.
In 2014 - 2015 we participated in a six-month program to explore community solar sponsored by Penn State. That program brought community leaders together in a facilitated dialog. Subsequently, Transition Centre prepared a draft for ten percent residential photovoltaic. The solar alternative has gained momentum locally. In the past year or so, 4.5 megawatts of solar, one of the most extensive developments in the state, has been installed in our region, another 3.5 megawatts in development and a 20 megawatt utility-scaled system proposed. We have a large number of wind turbines on nearby ridges to take advantage of reliable wind flows over the region.
We were invited into a Mid-Atlantic regional group in January 2012. It consisted of Transition Town members mostly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. That group continued to grow and in November 2013 the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) was incorporated. The Transition Centre Director was a founding member of the MATH Board. It had participants from states ranging from Connecticut to Virginia. The original regional group, interested parties not on the board, was designated the MATH Council.
MATH started with the mission of reconnecting and revitalizing the some two-dozen Transition Towns (and many other mulling groups) in the Mid-Atlantic states. We sought to break the sense of isolation that had settled on the TT movement nationwide. Lacking effective regional associations, a great many Transition Initiatives and groups dropped out of the network.
As a result of heavily impacted Hurricane Sandy on the Mid-Atlantic coast, we worked on disaster recovery. Transition Centre took the lead on developing a three-day emergency preparedness handbook which has been made available to Transition US (The Transition Centre Director had served in a state-level emergency management command post). A chapter for a two-week plan for emergency manage was proposed for Transition Streets by Transition Centre.
The MATH board, for a variety of organization reasons, disbanded after a few years. The MATH Council renamed itself Mid-Atlantic State Transitions (MAST) and continues to meet by phone monthly. Several of its members have become leaders of the Transition US movement.
Transition Centre continued to focus on regional issues in the Northeast. We became increasingly aware of a class of communities variously labeled as shrinking, forgotten or distress. On a personal note, my hometown hit the list as the number one fastest shrinking city in the US. It has also been listed as one of the most dangerous places to live in the US. One of our TC collaborators and IPL board members lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, currently ranked the number two US fastest shrinking city.
The case for these communities as made in a 2007 Harvard study, The Voice of Forgotten Cities. The study identified 150 smaller cities, mostly in Pennsylvania, New York and other northeastern states, that have been left behind by globalization and essentially forgotten. They are rust belt or brownfield places with vacant factories and commercial buildings, vacant residential lots, high unemployment, high crime rates, and high poverty rates. Following the 2008 Great Recession, more communities were put on the list as economically “distressed.” Forbes constructed its own list of “Miserable Cities.” As of Winter 2020, one-third of American counties and 40% of American small towns were listed as “shrinking.” The COVID-19 pandemic will likely add significantly to this list.
These trends motivated the continued evolution of the Transition Centre mission. Our sustainability master plan (below) was designed in part to provide a template for redeveloping such places. Since governments have been unable to stem the decline of these communities, we proposed the grassroots Transition model but found that it needed significant development. In 2018, the University of Pittsburg invited Transition Centre to prepare a presentation on Resilient Communities addressed to shrinking communities. The final report was posted by two national organizations. “Building a Resilient Community” can be found on the Transition Centre blog site.
Sustainability Master Plan
The primary objective of our Transition program was to develop a sustainability master plan for our community as proposed in The Transition Handbook and Transition in Action. It appears we are one of a handful, out of nearly 170 US Transition Towns, to seriously attempt such a plan. And arguably the most comprehensive of them.
For two years after founding our two Transition initiatives, we worked on awareness building and networking. The shale gas events gave us the momentum to move into preparing our sustainability planning program. That plan was published as the Centre [County] Sustainability Master Plan (CSMP) in August 2014. While Penn State has a comprehensive sustainability strategy (that has been highly effective), the Transition Centre plan is the most comprehensive regional approach off campus.
Some 200 people participated in the development of the plan over a two-year period. There were a number of public meetings and planning sessions. We participated in other conferences and workshops, often making presentations. We developed our comprehensive resource assessment. Preparation included extensive research into sustainable communities and sustainability planning across the country. We carefully assessed why sustainability planning efforts often fell short of expectations. There was a growing literature available.
Our plan was developed as a template. It was constructed around our list of basic human needs cited earlier. Instead of a twenty-year projection of development as proposed by Transition in Action, we devised a policy called “Vision 10 – 10: Ten Percent in Ten Years.” In short, our premise is that ten percent of a problem can be more readily visualized and addressed than the whole thing. Once ten percent is achieved, the framework for expansion is well in place.
The CSMP was being revised and updated as the Transition Centre Resilient Communities Blueprint when the pandemic occurred. This update continues as the 2020 Crisis unfolds.
Ten Percent Local Food
In 2012 we published an article on the “Local Food Revolution.”
In 2015 we formally launched Ten Percent Local Food at a local sustainability festival. Our region is promising. We are at the center of that large valley with rich farmland and many small farms. It is Amish country.
Ten Percent Local Food has objectives including food security, health, and preservation of farmland. We also proposed a local food enterprise incubator and demonstration site with a high production micro-farm. A homesteading model, with a local demonstration homestead, is also proposed. One of the benefits of ten percent local food for us would be $400,000 per 1,000 population in revenue that would stay in the community. We have continued awareness raising and networking with the objective of forming a local collaborative. That idea has steadily developed through the efforts of a number of organizations and community leaders. We have subsequently moved to a more comprehensive foodshed strategy model (below).
In the Spring of 2015, Penn State invited several Transition Towns leaders to participate in an intensive three-day workshop to develop a proposal for “Addressing the Climate Crisis through Value Transformation.” The workshop included participants from Norway, Scotland and South Africa. Transition Centre presented Transition Town principles and the Centre Sustainability Master Plan. This intense workshop produced a proposal for a significant level of funding from an international agency to promote transformational change. It provided an intense focus on sustainability values and the role of college and university education in promoting climate change action. While not funded, this exercise enhanced our approach to leadership and organization in the community.
Our comprehensive plan was more descriptive than prescriptive. The reason why is that we found our community well advanced as an evolving sustainability culture.
We carefully studied leading sustainable communities. We identified over 30 such communities and studied several of them closely. Such cultures represent a sense of an established way of life – the way things should be. Organizations, activities and markets have been established that are easily assessible.
Such cultures are a product of time, several decades in fact. The communities we studied had begun to seriously organize for sustainability in the 1970s. The foundations for our community’s sustainability culture was laid in the 1980s. Our resource list indicated a rich field and clear signs of development. We decided to continue to network, connect and observe to promote our emerging culture.
Over the years, as this document suggest, a lot has happened in our community. Perhaps one of the most significant indicators is that six of the platinum and gold level certified sustainable municipalities in Pennsylvania are those that were loosely defined as Transition Towns State College communities. This is a tenth of those so certified in Pennsylvania. These communities are all members of the Centre Region Council of Governments (COG). They also represent the region defined as Transition Town State College. COG, at about the time Transition Centre was working on our comprehensive plan, added a sustainability chapter to its comprehensive plan and more recently hired a sustainability coordinator. Under COG and local community leadership a long list of sustainability projects have been completed and more in progress.
Again, Transition Centre’s primary goal is building connections and a sense of community. It should be clear that we do have a very rich field of participants both within academia and in the community. Nonetheless, we were seeing the need to raise the bar as economic and environmental issues steadily mounted.
The COVID Recession has had a shattering impact on local cultures. Crisis draws people into community and provides an incentive to rebuild them.
As noted, Transition Centre formed a partnership with the Watershed Community at our beginning. One of the most successful projects we had was a leadership role in updated our watershed-wide plan started in 2016. This was a natural complement to our CSMP.
Our watershed is a unique natural feature that defines our community. In short, 135,000 people depend on a supply of water that comes from the sky above (no river runs through it) and stored in the ground below in a relative rare karst geology. In 1996 a program was organized to define the future of the watershed. An international panel was brought in for a week of study and meetings. The issue was growth verses preservation of the natural setting and its resources.
The Spring Creek Watershed Commission was formed as a result. The Watershed Commission is a formally chartered intergovernmental agency (rather unique in form) with representatives from the twelve municipalities in the watershed, including the six certified COG municipalities. There are also several dozen other entities including government, nonprofit and educational, with interest in land and water resources in this watershed.
A separate body, the Spring Creek Watershed Association, is also a produce of that initial event. The Association was formed as a volunteer group composed mostly of representatives of stakeholder organizations and interested individuals in the watershed. As the Chair of the Spring Creek Watershed Association, the Transition Centre Director organized the 20th anniversary celebration of our Watershed community.
The Celebration committee documented the accomplishments of member communities and organizations over these 20 years. We documented roughly 100 major achievement to secure a sustainable future. In short, we have extensive studies of land use, an extensive network of stakeholders, a rare collaboration between local governments and other organizations and an enviable record of accomplishments. These accomplishments include large tracks (hundreds of acres) of urban farmland being preserved by leading conservation groups in the area. Local municipalities have provided support and significant funding. Land and water, of course, being foundations for the local food movement.
We organized a celebration lunch and a presentation keynoted by a current and two former county commissioners who had organized the Commission. The event was recorded by our local public affairs television channel.
The major outcome of the Celebration program was the launch of a new phase of planning for a watershed-wide integrated water management plan. The approach consisted of enlisting public, private, nonprofit and higher educational parties to developing a common vision for a sustainable future as defined by this rather unique watershed system. A new web site was developed (link).
As a Watershed Commission member and Watershed Association chair, the Transition Centre Director took a lead role in this process. Our steering group organized public forums, formed a work group, held numerous meetings and developed a new plan. I summarized the findings and drafted the final (approved) report in late 2019. That report can be found on the web site link just above. In 2020 we move forward to developing the organization to complete a comprehensive working plan for the watershed. It proposes a fifty-year vision. While that program is on hold, it did provide some important infrastructure for working through the 2020 Crisis.
The Road to a Sustainable Future
In 2017, the focus of Transition Centre turned to the problem of organizational capacity. We developed a new theme: “The Road to a Sustainable Future.”
The genesis of “The Road to a Sustainable Future” was in part the growing evidence that efforts to mitigate climate change were losing ground. Perhaps of greater importance was the realization that a growing list of sustainability organizations, and particularly new initiatives, were struggling to form or thrive. Without leadership and organization, and particularly lacking synergetic networking between like-minded parties; individuals, groups and organizations are experiencing frustration, loosing affiliations, and fading away. Some do well, many do not. Our research during the planning process defined the problems and best practices. This program probed the assumptions of the sustainability movement relative to recent trends in environment and economy. Read more at this link.
Transition Centre and the Centre Sustainability Master Plan continued to evolve. Our focus became increasingly on a regenerative economy, community as ecosystem, personal development, leadership and organization. It is increasingly clear that our time is extraordinarily challenging. We need to take a lesson from Einstein: You can’t solve these problems with the thinking that created them. We have the tools, but they are too little known. Transition Centre is working to makes these tools more widely available and understood.
In 2018 Transition Centre reorganized under the banner of Resilient Communities. The Transition Centre web site was completely rebuilt. In addition to the web pages, there are links to the Centre Sustainability Master Plan and the four TC blog sites on the home page and other information. A Resilient Communities interactive blog site is being developed.
That year we asked the question: “What comes after sustainability?” With the growing anxiety among climate scientist and public leaders about the prospects of mitigation, resource depletion, continued population growth, economic instability and related political unrest, there is a growing concern of taking this to another level. This vision includes a post-industrial scenario. Rather than manage, we must adapt and do so with foresight and deliberate action. We must be innovative. This requires an economic and entrepreneurial approach. It must be self-financing. This requires leadership; a form of leadership that mandates a capacity to see whole systems, to deal with complexity, and to take ambiguity as a given.
Continuing our theme of local food, Transition Centre again raised the bar and launched its Foodshed Strategy program. A foodshed is the area from which a community draws its food resources. Today it is global. The average distance our food travels from farm to plate is 1,500 miles. Under a localization scenario it is more regionalized. Rising cost of energy and other scare resources suggest more efficient localized food (and other goods) production. As noted, Transition Center has made an economic argument for localization of food.
We are conducting extensive research into a diverse range of foodshed systems and planning efforts. Arguably the best model we found was the Vermont Farm to Plate program (link). Our case study represents our approach to analysis and presentation – reducing a large volume of information into a summary format. Our objective is to develop a range of foodshed strategies for the diverse array of conditions found across the country, both urban and rural, land-based and aquatic, dry lands, high density agriculture, hydroponics and aquaponics and markets.
After six years, since we published our Centre Sustainability Master Plan, we began to update it. What changes have occurred? What evidence do we find of an emerging sustainability culture? And, of far greater importance, how do we make the transition to the level of activity, of energy and focus, needed to achieve resiliency? The document has been retitled “Transition Centre Resiliency Master Plan.” It is a “blueprint” and not a plan per se. It is comprehensive, systematic and holistic. Using that blueprint we propose that communities can build their own organizations, develop plans and transform their local economy and build a more equitable society.
Transition Centre, as an organization, has evolved over a decade, with roots going back another decade and more. It is today an independent nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting resilient communities. We have a diverse range of tools. Our approach is comprehensive, practical and businesslike. You can find these at www.transitioncentre.org.
This document was first drafted and given limited distribution in January 2020. “Moving Forward” was our plan. We planned public meetings and a Vision 2050 campaign. In March 2020 with the COVID – 19 pandemic and ensuing recession, everything changed. From a 2050 vision we have shifted to an immediate response.
Our response consists of a reboot – back to basics. The principles remain the same, we have our blueprint and we have local resources. It requires a new steering group with representatives from leading sectors of the community.
Our community is one of hundreds of small college/university towns in the US. These institutions closed with Spring break. The great majority made a quick and effective shift to online instruction. It was still a hard impact on them. Student populations were already on the decline and small colleges closing across the country. Colleges and universities are already beginning to see potential 10 – 15% drop in enrollment.
College-town economies are founded on rent and retail to students, athletic events and related services. A decline in enrollments would be difficult. A non-return in Fall would be devastating. The list of shrinking cities would grow considerably.
We are no longer looking at things that would be nice to have, not even things mandated by environmental issues. This crisis will test the mettle of this society and its people. There are a lot of variables in this 2020 Crisis. There are a lot of contingencies. There are a lot of new normals. This will clearly be a test of the Transition/Resiliency model. But then that is what Nature made us to do.
The revised Transition Centre Resiliency Blueprint is intended to provide a foundation for recovery and transformation.
 Book review of Transition in Action: https://transitioncentre.blogspot.com/2012/02/transition-in-action-totnes-and.html