The practical challenges to creating ’20-minute neighbourhoods’

THE so-called ’20-minute neighbourhood’ has become one of the more fashionable responses to climate change, and I don’t mean to use the word, ‘fashionable’, in a pejorative sense.

I use it in the sense of a feeling that its time is now, worthy of being widely adopted.

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, even went so far as to give it star billing (here), when announcing her government’s 2020-21 business programme.

In simple terms, the ’20-minute neighbourhood’ is about providing all of life’s essentials (food, education, work, recreation, etc) within a short radius of one’s home; insodoing making the car largely unnecessary, at least for many of us.

But how to achieve such a lofty ambition, especially when so much of Scotland comprises neighbourhoods that are anything but ’20-minute’? 

And when the prevailing volume house-building model is about houses, car parking and roads, but barely a shop between them? Or even a common garden, to allow for a degree of food self-sufficiency?

The questions are various.

To what extent might a neighbourhood, currently devoid of any cultural or community assets, welcome their introduction, if it is to be accompanied by the risk of increased living costs that is often typical of what is commonly called ‘gentrification’?

And what is required to convince operators of GP practices, dental practices, greengrocer’s, etc, to ‘set up’ shop when, until now, they have been unconvinced whether the numbers stack up?

The role of planning surely becomes crucial, and their political paymasters. To what extent is critical mass encouraged, either via intensification of existing neighbourhoods or when a planning application is made?

What evidence exists today of local authorities – and their planning departments – actively shaping our neighbourhoods (already built or being proposed) so that they become ’20-minute’? Do the levers of planning – or local government finance – enable such transformation?

And if there is evidence, is it so ‘light-touch’ that no-one is going to notice, to raise any objection, but also little more than a ‘drop in the ocean’?

It can be easy to become pessimistic.

Ahead of Scotland’s hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in November, might now be the perfect time to launch a dedicated government or third sector organisation that pro-actively tackles the practical challenges to creating ’20-minute neighbourhoods’?

By ‘pro-active’: actually rolling up its sleeves, throwing a bit of weight around, and getting things done; insodoing providing a transparent record of its achievements (and disappointments) as it goes along?

That means an organisation with a not inconsiderable amount of authority and autonomy, to adjudicate on planning applications (and whether they pass the test), and potentially with the financial means to commission its own developments (intensification or new-build).

So, an organisation likely to require tens of millions of pounds of no doubt government funding, and a realistic place at the ‘top table’, to begin to fulfil even the most modest of ambitions.

As a possible starting point, a series of mapping exercises, to determine what might be achieved within existing neighbourhoods. That would only cost a few thousand pounds.

The rhetoric of the ’20-minute’ neighbourhood is compelling, but the practice much less easy to deliver.

Who exactly is going to deliver and how?

Mike Wilson is a member of the PlaceDesignScotland team

Pictured: Stenhouse, in Edinburgh, ripe for intensification, and the installation of ‘cultural and community’ assets? Picture credit: PlaceDesignScotland.

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