COP26 – The potential of the 20 minute neighbourhood

The Blog

The UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, is taking place in Glasgow between 31st October and 12th November 2021. We await to learn what is agreed to secure the UNs’ objective of global net zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century. At Nexus Planning we are working to reduce our carbon footprint and with off-setting have achieved Net Zero carbon status. But we, along with our clients, partners and communities can do more and so in the run up to COP26 we offer some thoughts on how planning and development can influence change in our urban environments, contributing towards the goal of net zero carbon.

In the first of our articles, Murray Graham, Director, considers the carbon benefits of the 20-minute neighbourhood concept and how we can help them become a reality.

Climate change is happening and society, and of course the planning system, needs to grapple with carbon reduction, climate change resilience and adaptation.  How do we do this?  How can we live and work in a way that reduces our impact on the climate and environment?

Not surprisingly then, interest in the 20-minute neighbourhood concept is growing in the UK,  alongside the sense that our urban environments can do much better in connecting us to each other and the services and facilities we need day to day  - to be places where everyone can thrive without having to use a car. 

Road transport is a very significant source of carbon emissions in the UK, whilst also contributing to poor air quality and impacting on the quality of our urban environments. Of the approximately 34 million vehicles on our roads, 28 million are cars. Road transport accounts for 22% of total UK emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Whilst electric vehicle use is growing these are not emission free and it is likely to be 15 to 20 years before the UK fleet is overwhelmingly electric. So we shouldn’t rely on technology to solve this problem on its own – rethinking our urban environments has a big part to play. 

Whilst travel by car is often the automatic, easy choice, there are simple steps we can all take to reduce the number of journeys we take by car. For planners, part of the solution is to ensure that it is easy for us to meet most of our everyday needs by a short, convenient and pleasant 20-minute return walk - 10 minutes there, and 10 minutes back.  The 20 minute Neighbourhood.

Unfortunately however, as urban areas have grown and retailing and other services have become increasingly consolidated, we have got into the habit of making fewer journeys on foot.   Indeed, too many neighbourhoods have been planned around car travel at the expense of providing the local jobs and services that help a community thrive.  Many of us have now become reliant on driving for simple day to day needs, and those without access to a vehicle can be left isolated.

By designing and re-imagining neighbourhoods that are compact and contain a mix of different shops, services and amenities, we planners can make it easier for people to choose walking, or cycling, as the first transport option.  We also need to enable longer sustainable journeys to places outside of the neighbourhood and to support those who could find it challenging to make a trip on foot or by cycle.  Frequent, direct public transport would provide direct access to the places they need to go.

There are of course both physical and mental health benefits of active travel, which is at the heart of the 20 minute concept.  Time spent walking in green spaces contributes directly to mental health and recovery. Those who walk and cycle to work are at a reduced risk of early death or illness compared with those who commute by car.

Compact neighborhoods also offer the opportunity to build a better sense of community.  Living in a walkable environment can support a sense of community and improve social interaction, as residents are more likely to know their neighbours and trust others, and participate in civic society.  More activity on the street during the day and into the evening can make them safer places for everyone.   Creating well-designed, walkable environments provides opportunities to support inclusive design. Older people are more likely to engage in walking than in other forms of exercise, which can help to prevent ageing conditions such as arthritis. Child-friendly streets allow for informal play and increased independence, which is important for child development.

Organisations such as the TCPA, Sustrans and the RTPI are some of those that have set out how we can work towards achieving true sustainable neighbourhoods in the UK.  The general consensus is that by moving towards 20 minute neighbourhoods there are economic benefits for local businesses, with investment in better streets and public spaces boosting footfall and trading.  They can help to reduce retail vacancy in high streets and town centres and by keeping investment local, through community wealth-building, can develop the skills of local people and create stable, well-paying jobs. 

Action is needed and it is encouraging to see that the first steps are being taken to shift the balance of how our streets are used more in favour of pedestrians.

In Scotland, the Government has included 20-minute neighbourhoods within its current Programme for Government. During the pandemic many local authorities have allowed temporary road closures and the benefits have been significant. 

Pavement parking has been prohibited in London since 1974 but it has a major impact on the quality of the pedestrian environment in much of the rest of the country.  While successive governments have recognised there is no perfect solution to this complex problem, it is clearly time to look again at this issue in detail. The Department of Transport (DfT) launched a consultation into options for addressing pavement parking in 2020 and we look forward to legislation on the matter. 

The Government has also of course been looking at ways to improve the planning system and this offers yet more opportunities to embed the 20 minute neighbourhood concept fully into the way we plan our towns and cities. We can improve walking and cycling infrastructure, including by reallocating street space to pedestrians and cyclists.  We can create more complete neighbourhoods by decentralising core services and developing a social and functional mix.  This means, amongst other things, ensuring that shops selling fresh food are present in all neighbourhoods.  We need to update our plans to ensure that they require critical public services, infrastructure and green space to be accessible to all residents at the neighbourhood level.  There also needs to be a real and genuine push to promote affordable housing in each neighbourhood.

We of course need to realise that the design, characteristics and detail of any 20-minute neighbourhood will vary with local context and the aspirations of the community. Every area will need different approaches and interventions.  Some communities have fewer resources and will need more support in order to contribute to conversations about shaping where they live. In many towns and cities we need to look at bringing new life to underused properties and land, including public assets, increasing the density of activity. 

Planning tools should be use to promote active ground floors and animated streets.  Through policy local authorities should encourage the flexible use of buildings and public space. We need to embrace the opportunities of hybrid working patterns, increasing the provision of high-speed internet and promoting neighbourhood co-working spaces.

Many positive steps are already being taken but there is much to be gained from a co-ordinated planning and investment approach aimed any enabling neighbourhoods to thrive.  Small but disjointed steps can get lost and have little impact.  By leading at the national policy level, as in Scotland,  we can achieve genuine sustainable neighbourhoods but there needs to be a real desire to make the joined up, far sighted decisions required.  

Authored by Murray Graham, Director.