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Idea #1: Slow Towns

Local, relaxed, sustainable. Europe is leading the way. Is BC next?

Nick Smith 22 Dec

Nick Smith is a writer and teacher, whose Tyee reader-funded series on Teaching that Inspires ran in September.

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New ideas for the new year.

[Editor's note: Back by popular demand, The Tyee again is offering its readers a series of New Ideas for the New Year. We're publishing a new one starting today through Jan. 2. They're intended to get everyone's problem-solving, creative thinking going for 2009. Later in January we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for the new year, and publish a selection.]

Ludlow, a traditional market town in the south of England, sidles close to the Welsh border. An 11th-century castle stands sentinel over it, reminding inhabitants of the area's Norman past.

During the course of a half-hour phone conversation with Graeme Kidd, who served as Ludlow's mayor for three years, I came to learn how Ludlow became the first officially recognized "slow town" or "Citta Slow" in the U.K.

Back in the mid-'90s, Kidd was invited to a meeting at a local pub, where community folks gathered to decide how to take on Tesco, a chain store with sights on Ludlow. As the discussion grew more heated, according to Kidd, "We drank some more beer, and got more and more creative."

He tells me that they decided to "play to the town's strengths" by fighting back with food and drink that were produced using "local products and traditional skills."

The food festival that the clan of locals started in 1995 soon grew into the "biggest and best of its kind in the U.K.," according to Kidd, effectively doubling the population of this community of 10,000 for three days each September.

It also helped vault Ludlow into the Citta Slow movement, a growing collection of towns -- recognizable by a snail logo -- dedicated to relaxation, sustainability, quality of life, community and preservation of tradition.

As Kidd tells me, the designation is "not a marketing tool," but a new way to think about civic planning that recognizes "the quality of life for people who live in your town and for the people who visit."

A tasty lifestyle

That Ludlow's transformation began with food is highly appropriate -- the trend towards slow towns grew out of Italy's nearly two-decade-old slow-food movement.

Those who embraced the Italian philosophy realized it was about much more than what they were having for lunch. It was about how they chose to live their lives.

Hence Citta Slow, a more ambitious movement that hit the ground in Italy circa 1999 ("Citta," Italian for "town" and "Slow" for "slow food"), and now boasts about 100 adherents across Europe, Asia and Australia.

Citta Slow applicants must adhere to a set of criteria to qualify. These address the unique qualities of the town, the sustainability of its infrastructure, the preservation of its history and the maintenance of local ways of doing things.

Cowichan Bay gets it

Are B.C.'s towns up to the challenge?

Mara Jernigan, who runs Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan Valley, tells me that her hometown of Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island "doesn't want to be a cookie cutter community where you find the same stuff you find anywhere."

It was Jernigan, also president of Slow Food Canada, who signed the application that might turn Cowichan Bay into North America's first official slow town.

Along with others in her community, Jernigan was concerned that new development was poised to erase the history of this special place. Her group decided that a map was needed to document the area's unique character, so it enlisted the skills of UVic environmental studies professor Briony Penn, a mapmaker who specializes in artistic reliefs that reflect regional attributes.

Jernigan explains that in order to communicate the meaning of a place, "a map has to show context, not just borders."

"If you have a different kind of map, people can say 'Hey, isn't that where the herons lay their eggs and hatch their young?'"

The finished product, which now hangs in the True Grain Bakery, the hub of the town, will allow people to begin to understand the depth of history of Cowichan Bay and the surrounding area, especially as regards food production. It might also help the community achieve Citta Slow designation.

Slowing down Gibsons

Gibsons, where I call home, is neither a market town, nor an agricultural area. Yet, its Sustainable Transportation Task Force, which I recently joined, has begun tossing around the notion of Citta Slow as a way to improve the liveability of the lower portion of town.

We are looking at slowing down traffic, encouraging street culture, promoting artisanal producers and meeting the sustainability goals set out in the Official Community Plan (OCP). According task force spokesperson Jody Schick, "There is a lot of will in Gibsons with people who have been involved in the OCP. The challenge is getting the boots on the ground and applying that vision statement into action."

Schick sees our group engaging with the public so that artists and musicians can reclaim the town's common spaces allowing children to play outside their fenced yards.

These conversations have given me a new understanding. Citta Slow can never be defined by any one issue, whether it is food production, traffic or development.

As the Citta Slow organization puts it, the movement is about countering the "proliferation of uniformity" wrought on civilization by a homogenizing global culture of capitalism. This is the soul for which, in this day, every town needs to fight.

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