Andy Colvin is a community development worker who lives and works in East Ayrshire – where he has recently worked with Celebrate Kilmarnock. He began his career in the East End of Glasgow, and has worked as far afield as Boston, USA. In his work he focuses on giving people the resources, time and space to come up with their own solutions to the challenges they face.
In this article, the final one in our series, he provides some closing reflections on some of the opportunities and challenges that the 20 minute neighbourhood concept raises for practitioners and communities alike.
A 20 minute neighbourhood is a very simple and appealing idea that seems to be everywhere just now, let’s hope it’s more than a 20 minute flash in the pan in planning and policy circles. Who wouldn’t want to have all their day-to-day needs within a 20 minute walk of their home? Especially, if it’s a nice walk through some lovely park with the birds singing or along a living street with the sun on your face. But let’s not kid ourselves. 20 minute neighbourhoods are not a panacea for addressing all of the social and economic challenges that people or places in Scotland face.
It’s a simple and appealing idea with walkability at its core, where priority is given over to the pedestrian and not the car. Simple and appealing but with huge implications on and challenges for how we all order our daily lives and communities. Are we really ready to give up the freedom a car brings? Is public transport ready for us to give up the car?
Most people would accept that where we spend our time has an important effect on our lives and that improving the quality of places and the opportunities we have access to, can support our health and wellbeing. You just need to walk barefoot along a quiet beach for 10 minutes to realise the difference it can make to your mood. Sometimes it’s best with friends and sometimes best alone. It really depends on where you are at and importantly having the choice. Can you plan in personal choice?
Maybe we can put in the physical infrastructure. The consensus is that half a mile (800m) is the distance of the 20 minute neighbourhood; 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back, which is based on the average walking times of a healthy adult. There’s another challenge: does this discriminate against older, mobility impaired, those with young children or pram pushers? But what about the human infrastructure?
I stay in a lovely village which a lot of people would consider very much a walkable, liveable, and thriving place but no-one can push a pram down the main street without being forced onto the road by parked cars. It’s an old village and most of the pavement is not even wide enough for a pram. It was designed for the needs of a different era and whilst it has its restrictions I’m not sure if there’s any desire to change much and risk the character of the village.
Another challenge is that my ideal 20 minute neighbourhood would be very different from that of my 20 year old self, and I’m not too sure if an ‘ability to age in place’ could bridge the gap. My younger self simply prioritised different things and had different needs, which begs the question – whose 20 minute neighbourhood are we talking about? A little obvious but always worth asking.
It’s heartening to see that the Scottish Government has committed itself to working with local authorities and other partners to take forward ambitions for 20 minutes neighbourhoods. I do however wonder, if 20 minutes neighbourhoods are just easier to talk about than the day-to-day challenges that many of our citizens face with poverty and alienation.
We all know that wanting to live somewhere and being able to afford to are two very different things. Does it really matter how close you are to amenities if you can’t afford to use them? Does your proximity to green space really help with your mental health when you are constantly worried about feeding your kids and yourself?
Staying positive, it’s a bold statement of intent by the Scottish Government and a great opportunity to adopt an approach that is based on people, on building relationships, on inclusion, and on the fundamental belief in our humanity as the most powerful change agent. But to mean anything, 20 minute neighbourhood must first and foremost be about people and how we interact with each other and our environment. The features and infrastructure have to be there and there needs to be an element of quality and experience too but this must be a people-centred approach to urban design and planning.
20 minute neighbourhoods present an opportunity to pull together all other policies in a given area but it must pull people together and build the bonds that create cohesive communities. Strong and vibrant communities have an identity where people have a strong sense of pride in their space. Strong communities have an engaged populace prepared to adapt and change behaviour to accommodate others.
No-one is going to argue against better and healthier neighbourhoods, against places where people want and can afford to live, against improving people’s quality of life or tackling climate change. Talking about 20 minute neighbourhoods is the easy part but are we going to change our behaviours or change our laws to accommodate others. Are we ready to tackle the predominance of second homes in some of our beauty spots? or ban cars from our city and town centres? Are we ready to tackle the scourge of poverty?
These are critical questions, and illustrate my core point – 20 Minute Neighbourhoods are a simple and appealing idea, with some far reaching demands if we are to prioritise quality of life and health as well as our net zero ambitions. However, success will require challenging conversations about priorities, and resources to make their results a reality.