20-minute neighbourhoods and cities are all the rage. Although the concept is directly descended from the Urban Villages and New Urbanists’ walkable neighbourhoods of the mid-90s, Covid has given it new relevance.
The theory behind 20-minute neighbourhoods is well accepted. But attempts to implement the concept have raised a number of important questions. How big is a 20-minute neighbourhood? What mode of travel does it refer to? Do all needs need to be met within 20 minutes? Do all needs need to be met within the same neighbourhood?
A central issue in planning for 20-minute neighbourhoods is how to define them. The most common interpretation is a 10-minute walkable catchment from activity centres1. But not all of the key ‘ingredients’ of a 20-minute neighbourhood are found in centres. Schools and parks, for example, are commonly located elsewhere.
Does this mean we have to move all schools and parks to activity centres? Of course not.
Instead, it means that the 20-minute catchments of each ingredient are different. They don’t align with each other to create discrete, ‘complete’ neighbourhoods. From our homes we might walk or cycle one way to the shops, in a different direction to school and another way altogether to the doctor. These destinations might be in different neighbourhoods, but we are still living a 20-minute lifestyle.
We should avoid the trap of imagining discrete neighbourhoods
The 20-minute catchments of each ingredient are different
Providing a job for all workers within 10 minutes of their home is not a realistic expectation. Even by public transport, 10 minutes doesn’t take you far in a large city like Melbourne. And certainly nowhere near as far as people are willing to travel. Most of us want to be able to choose from a greater range of potential employers than could ever be found within 10 minutes of our homes, and are willing to commute further to achieve that. And, similarly, employers want the ability to choose from a much larger pool of potential employees than those within 10 minutes of their workplace.
We could move closer to our jobs, but it’s not practical to move home every time we change job. And most of us aren’t willing to limit the pool of people we might want to co-habit with to those with a job close to ours, or change them every time we change job!
This means that workplaces will continue to be beyond a 20-minute return journey for most people—30 minutes each way is a much more realistic goal, with a good public transport system.
The notion of cities made up of equally well-provisioned neighbourhoods risks homogeneity and the loss of distinct neighbourhood identities and choice. Great cities comprise a diverse range of neighbourhood characters offering distinct lifestyle choices, from lively neighbourhoods to quiet ones, gritty to green, filled with students or families, and so on. In our 20s, we might want to live in a neighbourhood that provides a choice of nightlife within 5 minutes’ stagger; in our 30s and 40s we might need a park around the corner for kids; and in our older years having shops and cafes close by might be most important.
Similarly, standardising densities to support idealised 20-minute neighbourhoods could further reduce character along with housing choice. Instead, a variety of neighbourhood densities should be delivered ranging between a minimum that can just sustain the essential ingredients within, say, a 10-minute walk, and higher densities that can sustain a much wider range of nearer amenities.
5 & 30-minute lifestyles
What does all this mean? Well, it means that we need to recognise the wonderful complexity and diversity of cities and avoid the trap of a simplistic diagram of discrete neighbourhoods fitting neatly together like a mosaic, which bears little resemblance to why and how people live in urban areas.
Yes, we should aim to provide daily needs within a comfortable walking distance of all homes. Ideally, this means a 5-minute walk to top-up shopping, a park and a tram or bus stop (forming part of a public transport system providing access to a diverse range of jobs), but maybe a little further for schools or doctors.
But we shouldn’t plan for clearly-bounded ‘complete’ neighbourhoods and imagine that people won’t walk or cycle outside them. We should assess the provision of each ingredient separately across a wider area and fill the gaps as needed, creating a continuum of opportunities for a 20-minute lifestyle.
And, in doing so, we should maintain and enhance the character of each place based on a distinct mix of local ingredients and housing types.
1 The 20-minute neighbourhood concept means getting to the destination and back home again within 20 minutes.