Climate Week: How 20-minute neighbourhoods can help us fight the Climate Emergency and save our towns and cities
Wales should introduce 20-minute towns and cities to improve health, boost the economy and support communities in lockdown, says the Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe.
The 20-minute neighbourhood concept gives people the ability to ‘live locally’ – where most of their everyday needs are met within a 20-minute walk of their home.
It’s being piloted in Melbourne, Australia, is backed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and re-elected Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to make the French capital a ‘15-minute city.’
The Commissioner, whose role is to protect future generations from the political actions of today, thinks the idea is crucial to creating “connected, low carbon and active communities” and has asked Welsh Government and councils to explore how it would work in Wales.
It’s part of her concept for smarter urban planning – desperately needed, she says – to fight the climate and nature emergency, ensuring Wales meets the global need for rapid decarbonisation and restoration of nature, while supporting an ageing population, and adapting to technology changing the way we live and work.
A 20-minute neighbourhood could, she says, help prevent the spread of future potential epidemics, supporting targeted, local lockdowns and helping communities meet the challenges if and when they happen.
Under the scheme, there are shops, schools, green spaces, culture, leisure and work, all within 20 minutes of an affordable home. Destinations are better linked, with more quality and safer walking, cycling and public transport connections, to reduce pollution and improve long-term health and well-being.
It’s one of the recommendations in the Commissioner’s Future Generations Report that she says has become more urgent due to the Covid-19 pandemic, like a Universal Basic Income and a reduced working week.
Ms Howe recently wrote to chancellor Rishi Sunak with Wales TUC, to urge him to support a shorter week and in May, she set out five steps to help Welsh Government deliver on a green recovery budget.
She said reimagining our urban landscapes would help address inequalities and support people to follow lockdown rules.
“The 20-minute neighbourhood is about creating urban spaces where people can access safely most of the things they need to live a healthy and happy life, without relying on a car,” said the Commissioner.
Her report also asks Welsh Government to work with public bodies to deliver 20% tree canopy cover in every town and city in Wales by 2030, and set standards to ensure people can access natural green space within 300 metres of their home.
She said: “Well-connected local areas in lockdown have given us a glimpse of a future with clean air, and safer, more inclusive communities.
“Allowing people to work closer to home, paired with a shorter week, could help community action like volunteering to continue, while supporting people with increased caring responsibilities.”
Welsh Government recently announced its ambition for around 30% of the working population working from or near home, adding it was exploring a network of community-based remote working hubs.
The Commissioner is calling for a focus on delivering the digital infrastructure across Wales which would allow people to take advantage of the ability to work anywhere, while shopping, living, volunteering and accessing public and lifestyle services locally.
“Wales can pioneer this change in the way we live and work, and the way our urban spaces are designed around community,” said Ms Howe.
“As a small and clever nation, we can lead the way in how towns and cities function in a fast-changing future. The green recovery in Wales could be life-changing, but we must join up the gaps.”
Spaces, said the Commissioner, should be designed in collaboration with communities, with an emphasis on ‘placemaking’ – the act of creating sustainable places that complement well-being – where people can lead active and healthy lives.
Under the plans, domestic tourism and the local economy could be boosted by local footfall. And it would give Wales a competitive advantage, in retaining the people and skills it needs to build back better after the pandemic.
Fewer car journeys and single-occupant vehicle trips would reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion while also curbing the amount of plastic entering rivers and seas via vehicle tyres.
Organisations from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) to the UN, along with economists and academics, have called on government to invest in a green recovery, which has significant potential to create jobs for the future.
This month, the Landscape Institute said now was a ‘once-in-a-generation’ chance, echoing recommendations in the Commissioner’s report to invest in nature.
Next month, the Commissioner launches her Manifesto for the Future, where she will set out key issues facing future generations that political parties should commit to in their manifestoes ahead of next May’s Senedd election.
She added: “We’ve already seen people play a huge part in creating healthier, cleaner air within their communities.
“Supporting better-connected communities can help everyone act against the climate emergency and reimagine the future we want.
“Government needs to do all it can to make that possible – making sure everyone is digitally connected and allowing people to co-design the places where they live, work and play.”
Notes to editors
With a remit set out in law, Sophie Howe is the world’s only Future Generations Commissioner.
She took on the role after Wales introduced the pioneering Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015.
Her job as the ‘guardian of the interests of future generations’ is to advise the Government and other public bodies on delivering lasting social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being.
The Commissioner’s work prompted Cardiff to put record investment into cycle super highways combined with greening communities and focusing on reducing transport-related air pollution in deprived areas.
The requirements of the Act to do things which drive multiple benefits to well-being have also led to GPs in the capital being able to prescribe free use of the city’s rental bike network to those people whose health would benefit from increased physical activity.
UK walking and cycling charity, Sustrans, also supports 20-minute neighbourhoods.
Sustrans Cymru Deputy Director, said:
“Currently, too many neighbourhoods are planned around car travel. This has had a damaging effect on our bodies, our minds, and the air that we breathe.
“People often have little choice but to drive to do something as simple as buy a pint of milk, and people without a vehicle are left with poor access to the things we all need every day.
“By building communities where housing, jobs and retail sit side by side, we can unlock productivity and connect people with places and with each other.”
Side bar: What IS a 20-minute neighbourhood?
“Living in a 20-minute town has made a huge difference to my happiness and mental health in lockdown”, says Rhyann Milne, a sustainability consultant.
The 35-year-old can access her favourite and most-used places all within a 20-minute walk from her home near central Caerphilly.
She said: “There’s a cycle network that allows me to avoid the main roads and the pavements are wide and safe for walking with the children.
“In five minutes there’s a small lake and nature reserve, surrounded by a large green space with a butterfly garden, in 15 minutes there’s a playpark.
“Within 10 minutes is my daughter’s school, and on the way back, we can have a picnic by the castle and feed the ducks, or a cake and milkshake at an independent deli on the way home for an occasional Friday treat.
“If I need fresh fruit, I can be at the green grocers’ within ten minutes. I can jog to Wern-ddu forestry [a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSI] in 20, there’s a pharmacy. We have everything we need.”
Living in a 20-minute community helped in national lockdown, and when Caerphilly borough was placed on local lockdown this month.
“Lockdown hasn’t been easy but it’s been easier to deal with thanks to living in a connected area,” said Rhyann, who has been working from home or on furlough from her job in the centre of Cardiff.
“Of course it’s hard not seeing family who live far away but there’s a security that comes with knowing we can access shops and support.
“There’s a residential home on our street and when I was furloughed, we walked past every day and got to know the ladies sat outside in the sunshine on the grass.
“We got on first name terms with the dog walkers.”
The mum-of-two says the move from an isolated area with very little in walking distance meant her maternity leave with her second child was dramatically different from the first.
Rhyann had her first child, Arianwen, now four, while living at the top of a steep hill in an area of Mountain Ash, where she found little to no community.
“I was very isolated and it wasn’t a very happy time. There were hardly any safe pavements, let alone cycle paths,” she said.
“There was a lack of access to shops, the station and meeting places and I had to drive 15 minutes to Aberdare to find any sort of socialising with other parents.
“I didn’t know of any baby clubs and all the shops were at least a half an hour walk away – which involved a steep walk back up a hill with a pram.”
The family moved to Caerphilly three years ago and Rhyann had her second child Evelyn, now 18 months.
“My second maternity leave was completely different and 80% of that was down to where I live,” she said.
“Living in a connected place has improved my mental health and happiness.
“With my second baby, I was able to go to baby groups, meet other parents in parks and make friends, which makes such a difference, especially in those early months.”
Photographs: Rhyann Milne with her daughters, Arianwen, 4, and Evelyn, 18 months.