Global Communities and society, Transport and infrastructure

20-minute neighbourhoods, USA experiences


Barista Coffee Shop Cafe in Portland Oregon. Credit: IStock

In contrast to the pre-industrial town planning of many European cities, the post-industrial design and expansion of many North American cities has been dominated by the automobile. Push back against this car-dominated approach to urban planning from planners including Jane Jacobs and Clarence Perry, who advocated for more accessible urban design that recognises the importance of neighbourhoods, formed the foundation for the 15 and 20-minute neighbourhood concept that exists today.

While much attention has been focused on 15 and 20-minute neighbourhood plans in European cities, municipalities across North America have also been leading the way on this concept. Portland, for example, was the first city to officially adopt the idea of a 20-minute neighbourhood. In 2015 Portland Climate Action Plan sets out a ‘Complete Neighbourhood’ goal which aims for 80% of residents to be able to easily access all of their basic, non-work needs by foot or bike. The plan uses a city-scale approach to visualise the city’s 20-minute neighbourhood index, using indicators e.g. distance from bike routes, transit services, green spaces and quality of infrastructure. The resulting heat map has helped planners develop targeted interventions and increase neighbourhood infrastructure across the city. In 2020 the city also passed zoning reform with the aim of increasing housing density and tackling the city’s housing shortage.

Another city that is supporting the development of 15-minute neighbourhoods is Houston, Texas. In 2020 the city passed a Walkable Places ordinance which will allow higher-density developments in certain areas with parking shifted from the street to the back of buildings. They also updated Transit Orientated Development rules to enhance pedestrian experience and reduce commuter traffic across the city. These developments are part of Houston’s efforts to move away from car-centric urban planning and towards a more accessible, sustainable approach to urban development.

As well as the development of transport infrastructure and policy to increase housing density, many cities across the US have made efforts to bring services into neighbourhoods (a key aspect of the 15/20-minute neighbourhood approach). In Los Angeles for example food deserts are a huge issue in low-income neighbourhoods where the lack of access to fresh, affordable food has opened the door to fast food outlets and liquor stores. As part of its Green New Deal the City has developed the Healthy Neighbourhood Market Network and Good Food Zone which aims to decentralise service provision in the city and ensure that all low-income residents to live within half a mile of fresh food by 2035. The policies support local market stall and corner-store owners in low-income neighbourhoods through training, guidance and store upgrades.

Another city working to bring services into neighbourhoods is San Francisco which, in 2014, revised its planning code to support the development of more active ground floors. The Ground Floor Code reforms aim to support the creation of more retail and leisure units by increasing the minimum height of ground floor spaces and introducing a requirement for active use to a depth of 25 feet from the street frontage. The reforms have also created more flexible zoning requirements which have helped to diversify neighbourhoods.

Finally, a number of cities are developing multi-purpose public spaces. For example, schools that are used recreational facilities outside of school hours, or libraries being as music or performance venues. In New York the Trust for Public Land runs a project to transform over 200 school playgrounds into community hubs and quality green spaces that can be used by the whole community after school hours. This gives dense urban communities access to green space and opens up opportunities for improving wellbeing and building community cohesion and resilience.

Urban sprawl and the ongoing lack of adequate transport and service infrastructure is a huge challenge for urban communities across the US. However, after over a century of car-focused urban planning, local authorities, communities and partner organisations are pushing back against this trend. From new zoning regulations and investment in transport infrastructure, to re-thinking the use of public space and brining essential services into neighbourhoods, cities are taking steps towards a more sustainable future. Going forward it is vital that local authorities implement policies to prevent Green Gentrification (including rent control and community engagement) and protect lower-income communities from rising prices often associated with sustainable urban development.


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