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09/09/2021

How the 15-minute city involves relearning how to plan for people

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Cycling and walking / iStock-157507569

Modern cities, towns and neighbourhoods seem almost designed to suppress activity and create poor health, says Scott Cain. The concept of the '20-minute neighbourhood' offers planners - and technologists - a way of rethinking how our living spaces can be designed to be more healthy, sociable and economically viable

“Better hindsight improves insight and makes for a less imperfect foresight.” Sage words from WH McNeil which help make lessons of the past relevant, timely and real. 

Yet, how far back should we look in order to help us make choices today? Say, for tackling obesity, delivering on net-zero or creating the planning and policy conditions for this "new golden era in cycling and walking’’ as Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has called it in the government’s Gear change strategy.

Way back. 

Or at least that’s the opinion of cultural anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, who tells us we are hard-wired to be lazy. Or more precisely, to save our available energies for more essential things, which historically included, say, reproduction or hunting.

“In the last 100 years, and more intensively in the last several decades, we’ve planned, designed and innovated out everyday activity”

So if we feel a strong instinct to jump in the car, or indeed find the parking space nearest our destination, it’s arguably what our brains tell us we are meant to do.

Yet, there’s a mismatch, as it’s known. Take obesity. As we evolved we took the food and conserved the energy we needed. But in the last 100 years, and more intensively in the last several decades, we’ve planned, designed and innovated out everyday activity and made very tasty, high calorie, often unhealthy food unimaginably available – very deliberately and systemically aided by planning, innovation and technology.

To achieve new policy goals – like net-zero places, tackling obesity or enabling half of all journeys in our towns and cities to be on foot and by bike by 2030 – how can we use planning, design and technology to design healthy activity back in? And how can we leverage the creative energy of UK firms to to realise this vital and urgent transition?

As planning professionals, what hard yards must be put in to create active environments, which allow people of all ages, cultures and abilities to be active, in an everyday sense, without the need to exhort ourselves to find the money and time to ‘do fitness’?

“Challenges include potentially diluting the power of agglomeration effects – the idea that talent and skills draw together like a centrifugal force to create value, innovation and knowledge”

As the RTPI and Sport England have highlighted, there are very real challenges for planners in making real the promise of the ‘15-minute city’ or the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ – the compelling vision that many more of our everyday needs can be met locally, within a 15- to 20-minute walk, jog or bike ride from where we live.

Challenges include potentially diluting the power of agglomeration effects – the idea that talent and skills draw together like a centrifugal force to create value, innovation and knowledge. Or vital service provision in constrained times, spanning everything from the NHS to good local public transport, or access to shared social infrastructure like libraries, leisure facilities and green spaces?

We glimpsed some of what is possible during the pandemic – with more remote work, more local living, less travel and related shifts in expectations, attitudes and behaviours.

Look to Paris, where the 15-minute city was conceived, and we see bold moves – like repurposing 140,000 car parking spaces, half of the city’s total, to increase bike lanes, bike parking, parklets and shared public space. Or the work of Glenn Lyons, the Mott McDonald Professor of Future Mobility, with what he calls ‘triple access planning’, which considers land use, transport planning and digital infrastructure coherently, suggesting ways of planning, thinking and acting in more environmentally and socially positive ways.

This isn’t easy stuff.

Yet just because such new ways of thinking – like the 15 minute city – don’t fit easily with how we’ve evolved planning and design, all the more reason to use our uniquely human gifts for reason, imagination and cooperation to evolve it again.

Whatever our expertise or role – from investors to property developers to businesses right across the UK economy – we have a wonderful and timely opportunity to create the changes, the novel thinking, the innovations and the kind of service-related jobs that we so urgently need today.


Join the Active Travel Summit

These and other topics will be explored at Connected Places Catapult’s Active Travel Summit on 29 September, a virtual free-to-join event with place and industry leaders like Dame Sarah Storey, the active travel commissioner for South Yorkshire, fresh from her incredible Paralympic successes in Tokyo, through to the DfT’s chief scientific advisor Dame Sarah Sharples and The Planner’s very own Simon Wicks. Sign up today here.


Scott Cain is an associate at Connected Places Catapult, CEO of active travel business Active Things and will co-host the Active Travel Summit

Image credit | iStock

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