In the last 11 months, the long commute to and from the office has been abandoned. Covid-19 has forced us to live, work and shop local and it is predicted this will result in profound and permanent lifestyles changes. 20-minute neighbourhoods, offering everything residents need from work to shopping, sport and leisure, civic amenities, green spaces and multi-purpose buildings, are becoming a way of life for many from Melbourne to Paris – and could be coming to a street near you.
Scotland’s Programme for Government 2020-21 aims to work with local authorities to take forward ambitions for 20-minute neighbourhoods. Local government is key to delivery, mostly all the improvements necessary will fall under local government remit, from improving cycle infrastructure, walking routes (widening pavements, traffic calming), or rethinking of design and purpose of neighbourhood streets (turning asphalt clad areas into green space).
With the need to maintain social distancing during Covid-19, local authorities responded quickly. Glasgow City Council banned motorised traffic on Kelvin Way beside Kelvingrove Park and installed a pop-up cycle lane along areas of the River Clyde. Going forward, Glasgow City Council wants to reduce traffic dominance, create a pedestrian and cycle-friendly city centre and offer cleaner public transport. Work has already started with the Avenues projects and implementing Connectivity Commission recommendations to prioritise pedestrians. The plan is for the centre to be at the heart of a network of 20-minute neighbourhoods and Glasgow City Council has said that getting more people to live in the city centre is key to the plan.
2020 was the first year Scotland hadn’t recorded illegal levels of air pollution, since legal air quality standards came into force in 2010. Our city centre streets are still boasting illegal air quality standards and Glasgow’s city centre streets hold more than one ranking for most polluted, post-pandemic, if things don’t radically change, they’ll return to previous levels.
Dundee Civic Trust are keen to see 20-minute neighbourhoods in Dundee City, to build resilient communities. Repopulating the city centre is also seen as key and of course improving quality and social housing in the centre. Far from segregating communities, the plan is to strengthen connections between them, leaving no area lacking.
Local movements across the UK are thinking along similar lines. London Living Streets, campaigning for safe and vibrant streets have said there are already a large number of town centres and high streets across London, identifying 200 of them, around which a highly sustainable city can be created, although much like Paris, they’re aiming for 15-minute neighbourhoods not 20. The Healthy Streets Index dataset and interactive map, developed to map the health of London’s streets, is a set of 10 evidence-based aspects of the human experience of being on streets. The Healthy Streets Indicators describe the important factors for ensuring streets are healthy, welcoming and accessible for all people. These include air and noise pollution, street design, traffic dominance, trees, neighbourhood connectivity and access to services and public transport.
There are some challenges on measuring the success of 20-minute neighbourhoods: will the 20-minute radius be based on the walking pace of a healthy, able-bodied adult? What is considered essential infrastructure and amenities to include? Will social and cultural mixing suffer because of people sticking to their area? Existing policy tools in Scotland, for example, the Place Standard may provide a useful basis for policy design and implementation.
Covid-19 has resulted in a reliance on what’s local to us, green spaces that are nearby; can we all use active travel to get around? In some areas having to stay local has exposed the gaps in local infrastructure, far more will have to be done to rid the country of our ‘car is king’ culture. The commitment of national and local government can make 20-minute neighbourhoods a reality. Healthier neighbourhoods with adequate infrastructure and amenities will benefit everybody and minimise social inequalities.
Local authorities will find that they won’t always have to start from scratch, rather improve on existing infrastructure and develop buildings for multi-use. The series of 20-minute neighbourhoods will be connected, via active travel and clean transport.
I currently live in what would be considered a 20-minute neighbourhood in Glasgow’s west end, my commute consists of travelling to the kitchen, I can walk to everything I need within 20-minutes, being an able-bodied young adult, and I have an abundance of green space and parks nearby. I can attest that the 20-minute neighbourhood is a winning formula. However, I live adjacent to one of the most polluted streets in Glasgow and there are currently limited bike lanes to connect me to the city centre or other neighbourhoods, the city centre is around an hour’s walk down some of Glasgow’s most polluted streets. Improved active travel infrastructure and cleaner air is the future I want to see for Glasgow, and all UK towns and cities.