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Robbie Calvert: A 20 minute future

A planning concept for urban growth

Robbie Calvert - Policy, Practice and Research Officer at RTPI Scotland discusses his recently published briefing looking at how planning policy and practice can help implement 20 minute neighbourhoods

20 minute neighbourhoods are a planning concept for urban growth that has gained significant traction across the world in recent times. It’s been catalysed by COVID-19 restrictions which have limited many populations to their locality. Whilst their definition is not universally agreed upon, the basic premise is of a model of urban development that creates neighbourhoods where daily services can be accessed within a 20 minute walk.

A range of interventions can support the implementation of 20 minute neighbourhoods including active travel interventions, public realm and greenspace enhancements, traffic reduction or calming methods, service provision and considerations of densification. The fundamental tenets of a 20 minute neighbourhoods are not necessarily new in planning. However with the renewed political and societal focus on neighbourhoods resulting from  COVID-19, an opportunity has been created for planning to reposition itself and be seen as a proactive and visionary discipline vital in supporting post-COVID recovery.

I see 20 minute neighbourhoods as a model for sustainable development for both planners and wider society. The concept delivers on many of the aspirations on UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 to ‘make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.

Bearing in mind that planners have been working towards many of the aspirations of the 20 minute neighbourhood for a number of years, how can we better support their implementation? In my recently published work I identified some key areas of opportunity including transport and density policy, local service provision, the pre-application process, planning obligations and engagement with wider place-based partnerships.

Transport and settlement patterns

Today’s theme at COP26 is around transport. This is a key policy area needed to be considered to help deliver 20 minute neighbourhoods through better integrating transport and land use planning. The planning system has an important role to play in delivering active travel networks, reducing congestion and thereby creating more liveable streets.

Maybe we could refresh Transport Appraisals to support 20 minute neighbourhoods through more emphasis on active travel infrastructure needs and traffic calming measures such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods? In an interrelated matter, we need to continue to consider how urban settlement form impacts on behaviours of populations. Compact settlement patterns help to reduce the distances between homes and jobs and makes more efficient use of existing transport infrastructure.

Our research has shown that larger settlements with higher densities can provide a critical mass of population to support local services, improve economic productivity, reduce transport emissions, create better public health, and achieve greater social interaction. It is estimated that to support 20 minute neighbourhoods, an average density of at least 65 dwellings per hectare in new developments may be required, although it could be higher in some areas. A stronger policy steer in terms of density will be necessary to add more weight in the planning balance to the consideration of compact settlement form. This may include readdressing existing neighbourhoods with low densities with an appropriate policy response. 

Service provision

I like to see daily service provision in the broadest sense, considering things like access to greenspace and children’s play and leisure opportunities as well as shops. When considering the provision of services in localities development planning can provide a policy support for service access to new developments but consideration also needs to be made about servicing from a retrofit lens, whether it is supporting the provision of new services in areas deficient of them or encouraging residential developments in areas well serviced such as town centres. Consideration needs to also be made for any proposals for car dependent out-of-town retail and leisure that are not closely located to populated areas, which may necessitate a blanket presumption against such developments.

Development Management

Development management will be an important process of pro-actively managing development in local areas to support 20 minute neighbourhoods. Could a refreshed pre-application process help support 20 minute neighborhoods? This could include, for example, a general criteria framework checklist process requiring developers to show how proposals meet envisioned outcomes. Planning obligations could also play a role in setting out infrastructure requirements to create or reinforce successful 20 minute neighbourhoods. Moving forward as we hopefully shift to a more outcomes focused measurement of planning authorities performance, could we try and quantify and measure the success of implementing 20 minute neighbourhoods?

Place-based partnerships

The successful operationalisation of 20 minute neighbourhoods will require the collaborative work across a wide range of stakeholders in the public sector, private sector, third sector and in the communities themselves. Consideration of 20 minute neighbourhoods needs applied to a range of public sector decision making areas such as planning, Community Planning, asset management, street maintenance, investment, health and education service provision.

A place-based approach is about considering all aspects of a place when considering an intervention. New and existing forms of place-based ways of working provide an exciting opportunity to implement 20 minute neighbourhoods. Ultimately it is critical that we take communities on this journey with us and integrating community-led planning with the aspirations of 20 minute neighbourhoods could help planners to communicate strategic overarching considerations and allow communities plan priorities for interventions, conveying detailed local understanding.

In its quick rise to fame the 20-minute neighbourhood concept has made a significant and likely lasting mark on the way in which we think about urban development. With renewed vigour from COP26 I hope us planners continue to support its implementation to achieve a greener, healthier and fairer future.    

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