In recent years the shift to working from home, catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, has sparked a renewed interest in the role of neighbourhoods in social and economic resilience. The need for accessible, sustainable neighbourhoods that meet net zero targets alongside physical and mental wellbeing is being recognised across the planet and has necessitated conversations about approaches like the 20-minute neighbourhood.
Linked to the notion of a smart city and inspired by the work of pioneering urban planner Jane Jacobs, the 20-minute neighbourhood approach aims to decentralise cities and to guide the development of lively, low-carbon, safe communities. In essence the 20-minute approach centres on the principle that residents would have access to the essential services they need – workplaces, schools, affordable food shops, public transport, healthcare and green space – within a 20-minute radius of their home.
From Ottawa to Bogota, Edinburgh to Paris, this approach has been adapted to suit different contexts and as a result there exists not only 20-minute strategies but 15 and even 10-minute neighbourhoods with the difference being the radius in which essential services are located.
Tackling net zero through the 20-minute neighbourhood
There is increasing pressure on urban centres to rapidly cut emissions and to implement a just transition to net zero.
Over the last few years many city administrations have responded to this challenge by declaring a climate emergency and setting net zero targets. While the pandemic presented significant difficulties for local authorities, the twin challenges of the pandemic and the climate crisis have forced people to re-think the way we live and the 20-minute approach has caught the imaginations of those looking to not only recover from COVID, but to also tackle the climate crisis.
In theory a 20-minute neighbourhood would reduce car use as people would be able to access essential services on foot or by bike. This means ensuring there is a diverse mix of affordable services across urban areas, improving green space and developing safe active travel infrastructure. It also speaks to the changing culture of work and may necessitate the development of facilities such as neighbourhood co-working hubs and fast broadband connections. For many cities the 20-minute neighbourhood is particularly relevant for suburban areas that have been designed around car ownership and in the development of new neighbourhoods as cities expand.
The 20-minute approach brings together a host of different policy areas that must be addressed if we are to reach net zero. By looking at this challenge holistically, the 20-minute approach recognises the importance of collaboration between different disciplines and sectors. In doing so it offers not only an avenue for policy development but a fresh opportunity to re-think current governance strategies within local authorities.
Hidden challenges of the 20-minute approach
While the 20-minute neighbourhood idea offers exciting opportunities to local authorities, its simple exterior hides a number of practical challenges. Some key questions thrown up in the implementation of this approach include:
Whose 20-minute neighbourhood?
People move around cities at different paces and while one person might be able to reach a destination in 20-minutes many others might not. Similarly, everybody has a slightly different idea about where the boundaries of their neighbourhood lie and so the subjectivity of the term ‘neighbourhood’ creates a challenge when planning services.
How do you avoid Green Gentrification?
While improving services, accessibility and green space is certainly a positive thing, some commentators have raised concerns about the dangers of triggering displacement through Green Gentrification.
How much can local authorities’ control?
The UK has an incredibly centralised system of government. As a result, local authorities often find themselves with limited powers and resources when it comes to catalysing change.
What does this approach look like beyond the city?
Thus far, conversations about the 20-minute neighbourhood have been dominated by cities. However, as more and more national governments translate this approach into policy, we need to start thinking about what it might look like for in dense urban neighbourhoods.
Although the 20-minute neighbourhood approach is fairly new, many of these challenges are familiar ones to local authorities across the world. To a certain extent the solutions to these hurdles will be hugely place-specific however, it is possible to pull out a broad set of points to consider.
The first is that issues of equity, spatial inclusion and affordability must be prioritised throughout the implementation of this strategy. Secondly, while the ‘20-minute’ label is a useful tag-line, focusing too much on the timed-aspect of this approach may result in a rigid approach that overlooks important questions of accessibility and inclusion. Lastly, it’s important to take a holistic approach to this concept, one that involves not only different departments and disciplines from the local authority but actors from the private and third sectors.
The COVID pandemic has brought into focus the importance of local neighbourhoods and in many places the challenges associated with the 20-minute approach feed into a national conversation about the power (or lack thereof) of local authorities to support low-carbon, sustainable communities.
Case studies from across the world
Below is a snapshot of what a few cities are doing to address net zero through the 20-minute approach.