Ask the Expert: Reinventing Cities for the 21st Century

Ask the Expert: Reinventing Cities for the 21st Century

Murray Graham, Associate Director of Planning at Enzygo, considers the benefits of the walkable cities and embracing the 15-20-minute neighbourhood concept and how we can help them become a reality.

Climate change is here, congestion is here, social problems and inequality are here. We need to rediscover how to make our urban areas more sustainable? We know there are problems and not surprisingly the talk about new ways of living in the UK right now is growing louder alongside that sense that cities and towns can better connect us to each other and what we need. Covid 19 perversely was a positive catalyst to show that we can do things differently and the economy thrives with invention.

Cities, towns and neighbourhoods have generally evolved as people look for the services and facilities they need and this of course depends on the wider area, including topography and landscape, population density. It is now generally agreed that people are generally happy to walk for 20 minutes to get to and from the places they need to go. This has been particularly true during the recent Covid19 lockdowns, where people have left the cars at home and walked to the neighbourhood centres.

Whilst travel by car may often be the only practicable option, there are simple steps we can all take to reduce the number of journeys we take and their impact on the environment. Part of the solution is to ensure that it is easy for people to meet most of their everyday needs by a short, convenient and pleasant 20-minute return walk – 10 minutes there, and 10 minutes back. The 20 minute Neighbourhood.

People have generally made fewer journeys on foot than they used to because the distances to the things they need have become longer and less accessible. Too many neighbourhoods have been planned around car travel at the expense of providing the local jobs and services that a community needs to thrive.

They harm people who are already disadvantaged the most. By making sure that neighbourhoods are compact and contain a mix of different shops, services and amenities, we can make it fundamentally easier for more people to walk.

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. The recent high court decision in Greater Manchester signaling the public ownership of buses means that an integrated transport system is becoming a reality – Northern Trains/buses and Metrolink.

We have to consider the affordability and diversity of housing available and the suitability of the neighbourhood for people at different life stages. The provision of high-quality housing is fundamental to new and existing 20-minute neighbourhoods, ensuring that all residents have a safe, healthy and energy-efficient home. There needs to be an integrated mix of housing tenures and types that reflect local housing need and support people at all stages of life, for example, families, older people, those unemployed and on benefits or low incomes, students, and people with disabilities. They must also provide genuinely affordable and social housing, including community led housing projects.

Has the planning system been failing to create vibrant, sustainable neighbourhoods to change people’s habits? Yes, without a doubt and too many new developments are designed in ways that lock people into insular car dependent developments divorced from the community. Things need to change and can change. In Scotland, the Government has included 20-minute neighbourhoods within its current Programme for Government. During the pandemic many local authorities allowed temporary road closures, streets were repurposed for living and the benefits have been significant.

The general consensus is that by moving towards 20 Minute neighbourhoods there are economic benefits for local businesses, such as investment in better streets and public spaces for pedestrians can boost 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.

There are of course the health benefits for both physical and mental health. The physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity are well established. 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.

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, participate politically, and be involved in the community. We can look to increased pedestrian activity in public space can also improve perceptions of safety through passive surveillance that naturally aids the prevention of crime, with more ‘eyes on the street’.

The change starts at home and small incremental changes can start to make neighbourhoods more sustainable.

If you are looking to progress a development and require my expertise, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Murray Graham
Associate Director of Planning,
Enzygo Ltd

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