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One of the great things about teaching planning and training future planners is that we are constantly researching emerging themes and exploring how they relate to the planning system. One such concept is the 20-minute neighbourhood which was pioneered in Paris and has been adopted in many cities and countries around the world including Melbourne, Scotland, China, and Ipswich (Stanley and Hansen, 2020). It is a concept that has resonated with many of us as we have been confined to our neighbourhoods for much of the past year, with a total of 164 days of ‘stay at home’ edicts since 23 March 2020.
I am blessed to live in a 20-minute neighbourhood, St John’s, originally a village and now a suburb of Worcester. Although it has become a bit rundown in places, the relatively densely populated Victorian streets surrounding its centre and the presence of the University of Worcester nearby mean there is reasonable footfall to support a successful local centre.
However, in discussing the exciting concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood with a Geography colleague, I was struck by his poignant question: ‘Who is the 20-minute neighbourhood for? Is it for the middle-class, homeworking professionals who like their coffee and artisan bread? What about the people who may have to travel a long distance to work in cafes and supermarkets? The 20-minute neighbourhood is a great concept but it must be for everyone’. Shortly afterwards I attended a Town and Country Planning Association Conference on the 20-minute neighbourhood and the point was made again. (https://bit.ly/31kvAif).
Modernity and the separation of work from home
Of course, part of the reason the 20-minute neighbourhood is so hard to deliver relates to modernity and the way in which our towns and cities have evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries. In a PLMR (Political, Lobbying and Media Relations) event on the issue, Councillor Bridget Smith observed that 20-minute neighbourhoods previously existed in the form of towns and villages where there would have been local services or services coming to the village, like the assizes and markets (https://bit.ly/2P90rM4). However, with the Industrial Revolution, improvements to public transport and the advent of the car, there was a separation of work and home, as well as services and home. Shops, services and employment clustered in city centres or Central Business Districts (CBD), while factories, retail parks and supermarkets grew up on the urban edge. In more recent years, there has also been the rise of online shopping, large flagship city centre shopping centres, like the Bullring in Birmingham or Cabot Circus in Bristol, and austerity. These trends have militated against the local provision of shops and services although certain local centres, especially those with wealthy or creative populations in places like Bristol, have been prospering with the increase of freelancing work from coffee shops and demand for independent, local retail.
The experience of lockdown
The experience of lockdown has been unique insomuch as we have been forced to think about our neighbourhoods. To some extent there has been a revival of local centres in cities like Birmingham. The Place Alliance Report (2020, p. 3) showed that 75% of people felt their local neighbourhood served their everyday needs during lockdown. However, 4%, or 2.7 million people if extrapolated, said it did not serve their needs, with owner-occupiers being the most satisfied and social housing tenants the least, bearing out the poignancy of my colleague’s question. Place Alliance also recommended a 5-minute neighbourhood because the use of greenspace and facilities reduced significantly with a walk of over 10 minutes, while their Housing Design Audit recommended a minimum density of 50 dwellings per hectare for new development (Carmona et al., 2020, p. 12).
What are the implications for planning?
First, whilst a noble concept, there needs to be recognition that delivering the 20-minute neighbourhood requires a range of policy responses that go wider than planning. For example, in a recent report commissioned by the Scottish Government, A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres (Sparks, 2021), there was a wider set of recommendations including possible fiscal measures, like an Out-of-Town Car Parking Space Levy and funding for town centre living and activities, such as art festivals. I have recently been reviewing a book, Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19, by the well-known scholar, Robin Hambleton (2020), and he makes the convincing case for inclusive, facilitative, and collaborative leadership. Partnership working between various local stakeholders is therefore very important to both manage and develop a vision for places like Paisley First or Moseley Forum (Birmingham). However, planning is limited in how far it can regulate what retailers come into a neighbourhood, as seen in the High Court case upholding Bristol City Council’s decision to approve a Tesco store in Stokes Croft. Regulation of local centres has been further eroded by Permitted Development Rights and the proposed ‘Class E’, which would allow service, commercial and retail uses to change into residential. Furthermore, shops and services in our neighbourhoods are often determined by wider, structural economic and social forces such as a bank or post office closing a local branch for example.
However, the planning system, through neighbourhood and local plans, does have a key role in bringing different actors together and articulating a positive vision of place. This can be seen in Moseley’s Big Plan or Supplementary Planning Document which was led by one of my colleagues, Dr Austin Barber. Moreover, retailers, especially independent ones, are driven by footfall and the vibrancy or vitality of local centres, so planning has a role in helping to ensure high quality place-making, public realm, and local environment. For example, in Birmingham, the Colmore Row Business Improvement District has been improving public realm and adding planters to Church Street whilst, in St John’s (Worcester), the local centre has been dug up for much of the past year to install block paving in a bid to recreate the ‘village’ environment. Extending the botanical illustrations further, in a recent RTPI seminar on the Future of Town Centres, Shelly Rouse used the helpful illustration of planners being ‘gardeners’ helping create the ‘right’ conditions in which local centres could thrive (https://bit.ly/3rlKorb).
To conclude, this article is not critiquing the concept of a 20-minute neighbourhood per se and has highlighted the positive potential of planning, but it is very important that we ask ourselves the question as planners – who is the 20-minute neighbourhood for?
Many thanks to Rob Booth of the University of Birmingham for the very helpful and thoughtful discussion which inspired me to write this blog.
Charles Goode is a Teaching Fellow in Planning and Geography at the University of Birmingham having recently submitted his ESRC-funded PhD on the Green Belt and the housing crisis. He has published on the governance of the Green Belt (https://bit.ly/3sAA0xV) as well as the implications of Coronavirus on planning (https://bit.ly/2Nb4gzb).
Carmona, M. et al. (2020) A Housing Design Audit For England. London: Place Alliance.
Carmona, M. et al. (2020) Home Comforts. London: Place Alliance.
Hambleton, R. (2020) Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19. Bristol: Policy Press.
Sparks, L. (2021) A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
Stanley, J. and Hansen, R. (2020) People love the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods. So why isn’t it top of the agenda?, The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/people-love-the-idea-of-20-minute-neighbourhoods-so-why-isnt-it-top-of-the-agenda-131193 (Accessed: 25 February 2021).