Transition initiatives help communities become stronger and happier and they are springing up all over the place. Hilary Jennings and Belinda Sosinowicz describe how Transition Town Tooting is using the arts to improve wellbeing in South East London

A photo of a Transition Town Tooting parade © PHOTO Simon Maggs

Financial uncertainty, climate change and resource scarcity might not seem the most natural focus for a year-long celebration of happiness and wellbeing through the arts. But that’s just what is happening this year in Tooting, South West London, where a local grassroots movement is focusing its attention on the issues that threaten our individual and community resilience.

Transition initiatives are community-led projects that aim to help a city/village/neighbourhood become stronger and happier. They have sprung up in well over a thousand highly diverse communities across the world – from cities in Australia and Brazil to rural communities in Slovenia and islands off the coast of Canada.

Transition communities are launching projects focused on food, transport, energy, education, housing, waste and the arts; they are small-scale, local responses to global challenges. These initiatives, which encourage people to do something active and constructive alongside their neighbours, have led to reports of those involved feeling happier and their communities feeling more robust and better connected.

Research shows that we need a change of priorities, both at the societal level and as individuals, if we are to move towards a less materialistic and lower consumption-based society. The arts have a key role to play in this process – in 1999 the Health Education Authority reported that “evidence suggests that arts projects and initiatives make a unique contribution to building social capital and enhancing well-being and self-esteem” (HEA, 1999). The arts enable us to connect with our imagination and our emotions, to fully experience, to make meaning and to connect – all key aspects underpinning our wellbeing.

Bringing all these elements – transition, the arts, wellbeing – together, Transition Town Tooting Wellbeing Year 2012 is a way to introduce people to ideas of wellbeing and happiness, and a considered and measured way to build local resilience. As a community project, we can also begin to enable societal value shifts, so that people start to think about those ‘bigger than self’ values, which will lend themselves to re-addressing materialistic priorities.

As a basis for the year we have developed 12 Keys to Wellbeing, influenced by pioneering work by nef’s, Action for Happiness, Martin E.P. Seligman, the Mental Wellbeing Impact Assessment Programme and a Agency for Life LTD. Our 12 keys are: Connect, Give, Vitality, Appreciate, Learn, Change, Spring Back (resilience), Talents, Optimism, Positive Emotions, Community Assets and Meaning (and purpose).

We launched a week-long flurry of activity on 12 May, beginning with a day-long interactive walk through Tooting. From the Lido to Upper Tooting Road, passing by the Library, the Bingo Hall and the Islamic Centre, at each of the twelve location one of the Keys was experienced and celebrated. The activity at each location – including dance, crafts, story-telling, clowning and performance – was appropriate to the location. Over the following week we ran various activities, with the help of Encounters artists, including a skill-sharing workshop, craft session and storytelling performance.

A related arts project – the Tooting Transition Shop, led by Encounters – opened on the day of the walk, not selling anything but exchanging memories, ideas, images, questions and experiences about the joys and challenges of living in Tooting. It marries transition and arts concepts with wellbeing theory and evidence, to deliver community based encounters, where people are able to have a dialogue with one another and the space they inhabit.