Updated: Apr 21
What is a 20-minute neighbourhood?
Over the past two or three years there has been a lot of talk about 20 minute neighbourhoods in the UK.
These concepts have been discussed for many years within the transport planning and general planning professions. The Covid 19 pandemic and the climate emergency have now given these discussions and concepts greater importance and urgency with policymakers.
Although we are now starting to see the concept of “20 minute neighbourhoods”, and the principles upon which they are based, mentioned in policy and guidance there is no standard definition.
The general idea is to create neighbourhoods in which people can meet most of their daily needs within a short walk or cycle ride of their home.
As transport planners we have used this concept (i.e. accessibility planning) for many years. We frequently undertake accessibility planning and produce isochrones maps to demonstrate the range of facilities available within a specified distance/travel time of a proposed residential development site.
The general principles of the 20 minute neighbourhood can be traced back to the Garden City concept of development formulated over 100 years ago and which led to the construction of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, both in Hertfordshire.
The idea has gained popularity in recent years in Australia, France, the USA and in the UK.
Although there is nothing fundamentally new in the concept as it is now promoted in the UK what is new, and potentially helpful, is that we now have some formal guidance as to the range of services and facilities that should be provided in relatively close proximity to residential development, and perhaps rather more importantly we also have some guidance as to acceptable travel times and distances. We would expect this guidance to be further refined in the future.
Why 20 minutes?
The maximum time people are willing to walk to meet their daily needs locally is generally taken to be no more than 20 minutes. This equates to a 10 minute walk (800 m distance) walk to a destination and back again.
There is, however, no particular ‘magic’ associated with the figure of 20 minutes.
The key feature is that people should be able to live locally thereby reducing reliance on the private car.
What this means in practice varies greatly depending upon the location. For example, the assessment and measures needed to support a sustainable rural community will be different from that needed to support a sustainable development in a town or city centre. Despite their differences both locations could be considered to be successful sustainable communities.
What are the key features of a 20 minute neighbourhood?
There is no simple definitive list, but a successful 20 minute neighbourhood is likely to include some, if not all, of the following:
food retailers (e.g. convenience stores/supermarket et cetera)
education (nursery, early years, primary within the 20 minute neighbourhood)
secondary schools & colleges within acceptable travel times by public transport/cycle.
Health services (e.g. GP surgery, dentist & pharmacy)
a diverse range of employment opportunities
public open space (e.g. Parks and Recreation grounds)
access to regular public transport provision
high quality walking and cycling infrastructure within the area
a diverse and affordable mix of house types
Again an element of judgement is required because whilst this wide range of facilities may be achievable in a dense urban area, it is very unlikely the full range of services will be available in a single rural village. In these circumstances it may be possible to provide sustainable transport links between villages or ensure that the full range of services is available in a nearby market town so that residents only have to travel to a single location for most of their day-to-day requirements.
What are the benefits of 20 minute neighbourhoods?
The creation of well-connected communities with easy access to a range of services by modes of travel other than the private car delivers multiple economic, environmental, health and social benefits.
The principles upon which the concept of 20 minute neighbourhoods is based are not new. As transport planners we have used this concept (i.e. accessibility planning) for many years. We frequently undertake accessibility planning in support of development proposals.
The concept of a 20 minute neighbourhood seems simple to understand. In our experience the accessibility planning principles underpinning the 20 minute neighbourhood concept can require complex judgements to be made, particularly when dealing with an existing highly developed area with limited opportunities to improve active travel links.
We are concerned that the concept as currently promoted in the UK is unduly simplistic because it focuses primarily on walking times and distances. In our experience a less prescriptive and more wide-ranging approach is normally needed that recognises the specific characteristics of an area and community.
Whilst presenting a figure of 10 minutes travel time (an 800 m walk) is potentially helpful there is the danger that this figure could become ‘set in stone’ whereby a round trip of 19 minutes could be considered acceptable whereas a journey of 21 minutes could be unacceptable.
In our opinion a less prescriptive, more holistic, approach is likely to deliver the maximum benefits in terms of creating sustainable, healthy communities.
Overall though we think that the relatively high public profile now given to 20 minute neighbourhoods means that politicians and other decision-makers in the planning & development sector, including planning and highway officers, will be much more familiar with, and receptive to, the concept of accessibility planning. Hopefully this will help create sustainable communities which help tackle the climate crisis and promote health and well-being.