Opinion: We need more 20-minute neighbourhoods to help people walk and cycle

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 149.

Image as described adjacent
Robin Heydon

Recently, I wrote about research that discovered that we are creatures of habit and typically visit no more than 25 regular destinations. But could this research be used to help build a better city?

There is growing demand for what some people call a 15-minute or 20-minute neighbourhood. This is not just a UK thing: Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo calls it the ‘ville du quart d’heure’, and the movement is growing in countries like Australia, Canada and the USA to name a few.

This is really nothing new. Jane Jacobs was one of the earlier campaigners for liveable cities, campaigning against the Lower Manhattan Expressway that was dressed up as urban renewal and so-called slum clearance. This was just going to be a ten-lanes-wide elevated highway that would have required a number of neighbourhoods to be destroyed. These very same buildings are now worth millions each. Jane argued that the more facilities within easy reach the better. She estimated the maximum size of an effective city district to be 200,000 people and 1.5 square miles. Or about 20 minutes’ walk across.

People walk arm in arm down Orford Road in London towards an attractive sunset
Orford Road in Waltham Forest, where a low-traffic neighbourhood scheme led to more people walking and cycling. (Image: Paul Gasson)

Waltham Forest is probably a good example of a 20-minute neighbourhood. Despite protests, the scheme to create a low traffic neighbourhood in the suburban centre was a success. New shops have opened, filling in empty store fronts, more people are walking and cycling, car ownership has fallen by a fifth, and new housing developments are appearing with no allocated parking. Even the use of the neighbourhood as a giant commuter car park stopped when controlled parking zones were introduced.

A 20-minute neighbourhood is one where everything you need is within a 20-minute walk or cycle from where you live. This will include places to buy groceries and household supplies, and places to just spend time like a library, coffee shop, or the pop-up park that used to be a car parking space. There needs to be a wide variety of housing, from the smallest studio apartments to larger family homes.

None of the above says anything about density. It is really about the mixes of uses. Where is the local corner shop in, say, Cambourne, or has that been designed out because everybody should shop at the single big-box store? And while we’re criticising Cambourne, why are the offices stuck in a corner, when in Cambridge the offices are spread to all parts of the city? I can understand moving the dirty iron works and other heavy industry out of the residential areas, but do we need to apply the same rules for a dentist, accountant, or barber?

However, the really big difference a 20-minute city makes is the ability to walk and cycle across it easily. Good pavements that have no pot-holes, and no cars randomly blocking the way. Good cycleways that are smooth and direct. Good short-cuts for people walking and cycling, with the cars having to go a little further, because the more people that walk and cycle, the more eyes there are on the street, the more likely you will stop at a shop, and the more likely that all the services you need will be within walking or cycling distance of where you live. If most or all of your 25 places are within walking or cycling distance, then why would you even go to the expense of owning a car, when you could use a bus or train or rent a car for those occasional long trips?

Robin Heydon is Chair of Camcycle. This article was first published on 3 August in the Cambridge News, where you can read his column each week.

The 20-minute neighbourhood concept is one of the influences on the design and planning of the new ‘city district’ in North East Cambridge, which was consulted on in 2020. Find out more about how current plans for this area affect cycling and walking at camcycle.org.uk/northeastcambridge