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International lessons from Melbourne’s 20-Minute Neighbourhoods



The idea of the 20-minute neighbourhood in its current form has been represented in the current refresh of Plan Melbourne the State Government’s Metropolitan Strategy to guide Melbourne’s growth and change. As an idea, the 20-minute neighbourhood is about living locally, “Creating accessible, safe and attractive local areas where people can access most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip”.

Employment and economic activity in Melbourne, like most Australian capital cities, is largely concentrated in central cities while housing and population growth is predominantly in expansive new suburbs in growth areas on the fringe. Melbourne’s greenfield growth areas, are anticipated to house 30 percent of Melbourne’s new population yet these areas face unique challenges in relation to liveability, including their distance from major employment centres, lack of public and active transport options and limited local retail and services.

The recently released draft Guidelines for Precinct Structure Planning in Melbourne’s Greenfields recognise that “Liveable Neighbourhoods Require Deliberate Effort”. The guidelines align with the 20-minute neighbourhood, noting that with uncertainty around the longer term impacts of Covid-19 on how we live and work the 20-minute neighbourhood as a robust framework that is adaptive and enabling in the face of change. It is noted that precinct structure plans need to adapt to support increasing densities and intensity of activity, while also providing for high amenity and social inclusion.

The diagram below shows the various elements that make up 20-minute neighbourhoods. The idea itself came out of research by the Heart Foundation (Victoria) which identified the hallmarks of a 20-minute neighbourhood. While walkability is a key feature of the 20-minute neighbourhood, it is much more than that. It is about increased neighbourhood density and integrating a mix of uses within these neighbourhoods. The addition of mixed uses serves the dual function of access to retail, services and providing local employment.

Source: Plan Melbourne, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning

Almost overnight Covid-19 changed how we work, travel and participate in our local communities. The ability to ‘live locally’ is more important than ever. As people work from home their retail activity also shifts to their local area. This presents a challenge for central business districts, something that has been discussed in a number of recent LGiU briefings.

This shift to working from home and re-orientation to local centres has sparked a renewed interest in the role of local centres in local economies. It is from this that the idea of the 20-minute neighbourhood has been identified as a key area of focus for governments, organisations and communities across the world. With this in mind, the following briefing will explore what is meant by a 20-minute neighbourhood before highlighting a number of case studies and coming back to reflect on the original 20-minute city plan in Melbourne.

What is the 20-minute neighbourhood?

In recent months the idea of a 20-minute neighbourhood has swept across the world, but what does this concept mean in practice?

Linked to the notion of a smart city and inspired by the work of pioneering urban planner Jane Jacobs, the 20-minute neighbourhood is an urban planning strategy that focuses on the decentralisation of cities by bringing amenities into neighbourhoods. This strategy centres on the principle that residents would have access to the services they need, such as workplaces, schools, shops, healthcare and leisure facilities within a 20-minute radius from their home. It is important to note at this point that this strategy has been adapted across the world and as a result there exist not only 20-minute city plans but 15 and even 10-minute neighbourhoods with the difference being the radius in which essential services are located. As a recent LGIU briefing pointed out, this approach means investing beyond urban centres and it is an idea that could be extended to the decentralisation of workplaces, cultural amenities and other assets to the local centres of suburbs and towns in a process described as ‘turning cities inside out’.

For many, this strategy represents a new wave of feminist urban planning initiatives that push back against traditional male-dominated urban design to create more liveable and accessible spaces. The ‘walkability’ of these neighbourhoods is a key part of this idea alongside improving cycling and public transport links. For this reason, the idea of a 20-minute neighbourhood links directly with local strategies designed to improve active travel, reduce air pollution, address inequality and develop ecological public health, which have gained a new lease of life following the local and national lockdowns of 2020.

While developing more accessible, healthier neighbourhoods will undoubtedly benefit everybody, as the LGIU has highlighted, this is particularly important in addressing social inequalities including issues of poverty, health and gender. Many of these issues were brought into stark relief during the national lockdowns enforced by countries across the world earlier this year. While for some communities lockdowns led to positive outcomes -a fall in air pollution, increased levels of active travel, more time with family and better connection with neighbours-, in others it exacerbated stark structural inequality such as digital poverty, caring responsibilities, a lack of green space , social isolation, health inequalities which increased vulnerability to Covid, inadequate housing, vulnerable working conditions and a lack of affordable local services.

The convergence of a global pandemic and climate crisis means that many of the challenges presented by Covid-19 aren’t going to disappear if/when a vaccine is developed. With this in mind many governments are looking for strategies that are able to address the challenges of Covid and form part of a more sustainable, fairer future and for many people the 20-minute neighbourhood could form a key part of this future.

Case studies from across Europe and the UK

The idea of a compact, accessible neighbourhood has captured the world’s attention and the pandemic has catalysed the implementation of this strategy in towns and cities across the world. The following section will highlight just a few of these case studies and explore how this concept is being adapted to the needs of different localities.

  • Paris

In recent years Paris has seen a radical overhaul of the city’s mobility culture with major arteries now closed to private cars, tree planning schemes and the development of a new plan to create bike lanes on every street. Now, in the wake of Covid-19, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has turned her attention to the 15-minute city. This plan directly challenges the structural separation between residential, retail, manufacturing and office districts which has become part of planning orthodoxy over the past century. By mixing as many uses as possible within the same space planners in the city are working to bring all life’s essentials to each neighbourhood and create a more integrated urban fabric.

The accessibility and sustainability which have become key elements of Paris’s vision are inspired by the work of European cities such as Copenhagen and Utrecht which have been pioneers of pedestrianisation and ‘hyper proximity’ for decades.

  • London & Leeds

Some larger cities already possess much of the pre-industrial infrastructure to become 20-minute cities. With more than 600 high streets 90% of Londoners already live within 10 minutes of a local centre however, after decades of changing work and consumption patterns in recent years these high streets have struggled to stay alive. While these centres are vital in catalysing community cohesion and resilience, only 10% of London’s high streets and town centres have a strategy for renewal. Now, with many people working from home and spending much more time in their local area there is an opportunity to utilise this infrastructure to create 10-minute neighbourhoods within the UK’s largest city.

The City of Leeds is another example of the opportunities presented by pre-industrial town planning. At one time this historic city possessed a rich mix of land uses within compact and walkable neighbourhoods. As with London much of this infrastructure remains could help to facilitate contemporary planning strategies such as the 20-minute neighbourhood.

  • North Lanarkshire & Tralee

While much of the attention around the 20-minute neighbourhood has focused on cities, this idea is also being successfully implemented across regional towns. One example of this is in North Lanarkshire where the “One Place, One Plan” project will create eight major “town hubs” which will incorporate primary and secondary schools on a wider campus alongside a range of community facilities ranging from healthcare, employment and services for older adults to sport, retail, and transport. With an ambition to replace every school which has not been remodelled since 1996, this plan aims to create places for the whole community within walking or cycling distance from people’s homes. These hubs will vary in size according to the local geography from Town hubs to Community and Small community hubs.

Similar plans are being considered in Ireland where the regional towns of Carlow, Ennis and Tralee are part of an action plan to improve connectivity and create ‘10 minute towns’. As the name suggests this concept seeks to make all community facilities and services accessible within a 10-minute walk or cycle from homes or are accessible by public transport services connecting people to larger scaled settlements. With towns like Tralee set to experience a population increase in the coming years, plans such as this will help to attract new jobs and make these towns more sustainable places to live, work and play.

  • National government recognition in Scotland

The importance of creating 20-minute neighbourhoods has been recognised in Scotland’s Programme for Government (covered in a recent LGiU briefing). This recognition has been welcomed by groups such as Sustrans and the Improvement Service which have both done work on the concept and feasibility of 20-minute neighbourhoods. The Improvement Service for example, has recently published a report on the impacts of two different options for spatial planning policy: the traditional approach and a 20-minute neighbourhood approach. For each scenario the report presents potential impacts on the wellbeing of people and planet and summarises the key issues, recommendations and research questions. This research was coordinated jointly by the Improvement Service, Scottish Health and Inequalities Impact Assessment Network, and the Spatial Planning for Health and Wellbeing Collaborative Group.

Challenges and critiques

While the principles and vision behind the 20-minute neighbourhood are universally appealing, in practice this idea has faced a few key challenges.

Firstly, there is the challenge of measuring success. This has been highlighted by a number of 20-minute city plans which fail to specify what ‘access’ means and how it is measured. For example, the walking pace of a healthy, able-bodied adult may be different to that of a child or an older person. Additionally, stopping at intersections or taking more meandering footpaths may also impact the speed at which someone can travel from a to b.

Secondly, a key issue that has arisen in some plans is the type of essential social infrastructure or distance measure methods that are used to create the 20-minute radius. While some strategies don’t specify what counts as ‘essential social infrastructure’ (which poses a problem when it comes to tracking progress) other, such as that in the US city of Portland requires four key pieces of social infrastructure located close to affordable residential housing: public primary schools, grocery stores, green parks, and public transport stops with minimum travel frequency standards.

Thirdly, the evolution of thinking around 20-minute neighbourhoods has led some to question whether the ability to move about and switch locations is integral to innovation and advancement? The issue of physical mobility that this question touches upon is an important point to consider within this emerging model of urban planning. While reducing emissions and investing in local services needs to be a key part of future planning strategies, as we move forward it is important to bear in mind the need to avoid segregating neighbourhoods and to maintain social and cultural mixing across the city.

Lastly, an infrastructure deficit is a key practical challenge for many towns and cities. While some councils, e.g. North Lanarkshire, have been successful in securing funding in order to build new infrastructure, for others there just isn’t the money to do this meaning that essential services cannot be developed across multiple localities. This is an issue for Local Authorities across the world.

While Plan Melbourne sets the vision of the 20-minute city, local government has the shared responsibility for delivering the community infrastructure critical to 20-minute neighbourhoods. In Melbourne, a review of a 20-minute neighbourhood pilot program found councils expressed the need for long-term investment and engagement. The pilot program confirmed that the implementation of 20-minute neighbourhood projects should be led by local government in partnership with communities.

Overall, it is important to acknowledge that while this idea seems simple and appealing, in practice it is one which requires a holistic and joined up long-term planning strategy that goes far beyond just providing bike lanes and footpaths.

Reflecting on the real-life experience of the original 20-minute city – Melbourne

In the three years since the 20-minute neighbourhood was introduced, the state government has run three pilot projects to test the practical delivery of 20-minute neighbourhoods and commission research to identify potential pathways for achieving 20-minute neighbourhoods in greenfield development. The pilot projects highlighted the need to embed 20-minute neighbourhoods in decision-making, to provide guidance on designing liveable places and the need to work in partnership with government, industry and communities. The research to identify potential pathways recommended ‘temporary activation toolkits’ and ‘temporary infrastructure and service delivery masterplans’ to deliver the access and services early and throughout the different stages of development. It also stated the need to understand and identify how residents will access jobs and services locally and regionally, with a focus on active and public transport options.

Collectively, this work is an important reminder that the problem 20-minutes neighbourhood seeks to address – that of living long distances from major employment centres, with a lack of public and active transport options, limited local retail and services – requires a long term, collaborative approach between all levels of government, the private sector and the community. To begin with, the provision of footpaths and bike lanes may be adequate in dense inner areas, but in Melbourne’s middle and outer ring suburbs without access to the jobs, retail and services people need they will not provide a viable alternative to the car.


The renewed interest in 20-minute cities is a welcome response to both the challenges of responding to Covid-19 and to deliver the amenity and access needed to move away from car-centric communities. New research on achieving the 20-minute city in Melbourne notes that:

“While the research underpinning this report was completed before the onset of Covid-19, its conclusions have only become more pertinent in the face of recent changes to the workforce, travel patterns and local amenities required to maintain health and wellbeing. These circumstances have brought to light an opportunity—and imperative—for planning and development of new neighbourhoods to be reimagined so that these places, and the communities that inhabit them, are well-prepared for future shocks and stresses.”

As a recent LGIU briefing highlighted, while this crisis has already brought countless challenges and hardships, it has also provided a clear public, scientific and political mandate for change. As health and environmental crisis begin to converge, the need to develop sustainable and resilient communities is more vital than ever. While these changes will require brave leadership and will come with financial costs the short, medium and long-term health and environmental savings would be both socially and economically vital to future health and well being of the communities served by local government.

As powerful actors within the networks of place-based development, local governments play a key role in catalysing and leading this change. With this in mind, over the coming months LGiU will be taking a more detailed look at some of the practical steps that councils can take to deliver a socially and environmentally sound future.

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