Living in Proximity – 20-Minute Cities

Words by Jasmine Ashkar
Photography by Wolf Zimmermann

What is a ‘liveable’ city? What factors ensure the needs of its inhabitants are easily serviced? A notion garnering intense discourse among urban policymakers and citizens alike is that of the 20-minute neighbourhood. Addressing several key elements of liveability, the 20-minute city framework strives to foster connection by increasing community interaction, providing ease of movement and generating central hubs that are productive in facilitating amenities, services and socialising – all within a 20-minute stroll of the doorstep.

This concept is not new; however, its relevance has been intensified in recent years owing to populations living through pandemic lockdowns. Mobilisation and restricted movement within communities have put a magnifying glass to the availability and quality of amenities and green space surrounding us. The revival of local exploration – a residential renaissance of sorts – saw people flocking in droves to utilise open areas and spaces of public amenity when faced with travel restrictions. A renewed sense of appreciation for the treasures right under everyone’s nose was felt; at the same time, for those residing in areas lacking in thoughtful community facilities and respite from concrete urban areas, the absence became starkly obvious.

The revival of local exploration saw people flocking to utilise open areas and spaces of public amenity when faced with travel restrictions.

During lockdowns, the emergence of locally-led initiatives such as outdoor libraries, mini-golf courses and “Spoonville” – a community venture that saw Melbourne’s nature strips populated by villages of googly-eyed wooden spoons – brought into sharp focus the yearning for connection and its positive impact on community wellbeing. As societal interaction is gradually re-established following the pandemic’s aftershock of isolated living, there appears to be a shift in collective values that leans towards embracing a more involved community existence. “Covid and increased working from home has underlined the importance of neighbourhood,” notes Adjunct Professor John Stanley from the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at The University of Sydney Business School. “Shaping our cities to function as a series of 20-minute neighbourhoods requires that we focus less on big projects and more on how to shape our local areas for more fulfilled lives, with potential benefits such as higher levels of personal wellbeing, stronger communities and increased equity – all with a lower environmental footprint.”

The changing face of daily life, along with the greater implementation of working from home arrangements, has seen property markets impacted, with people prioritising housing that is closer to open space and access to retailers, healthcare and food outlets. “Whilst many inner suburbs of our capital cities, as well as their CBDs, deliver many of the benefits of the 20-minute neighbourhood due to high levels of accessibility to a wide range of services and job opportunities, the challenge lies in the middle and outer suburbs,” notes Professor Roz Hansen AM, Professorial Fellow from the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning at The University of Melbourne. “The three Ds – ‘density’, ‘design’ and ‘diversity’ – are fundamental to retrofitting these suburbs to become 20-minute neighbourhoods,” she adds. “‘Density’ in dwelling numbers and resident populations; ‘design’ that integrates good development outcomes, placemaking and safe and easy access to a range of jobs and services all within a 20-minute walk, cycle trip or public transport ride; and ‘diversity’, including a range of housing types to buy or rent, more mixed-use development and a community of different age groups, incomes and cultures.”

The 20-minute city presents a host of idyllic outcomes for its citizens.

It seems that there is a natural propensity for models that echo the sentiments of 20-minute cities and, alongside this, its adoption among policymakers. The idea has already been embraced by city planners across the world with London, Helsinki, Paris, Singapore, Toronto and – in our corner of the globe – Melbourne and Sydney. Plan Melbourne’s 20-Minute Neighbourhood Pilot Program was introduced in 2018 and aims to assess the viability of implementing such a concept among Melbourne’s metropolitan council areas. The plan centres around the model of localised living – outlining access to safe cycling and local transport that would see 20-minute round-trips from home ultimately allow people to meet most of their daily needs. As the program outlines, the endeavour to enable connectivity and walkability throughout Melbourne’s neighbourhoods is set to transform the future of the city with the strategy “supporting jobs and growth, while building on Melbourne’s legacy of distinctiveness, liveability and sustainability,” which “seeks to embed the 20-minute neighbourhood concept into major infrastructure projects.”

Further to the emotional benefits, wellbeing is supported by increasing active lifestyles that promote beneficial movement and a reduction in the need for car use, leading to healthier air quality. “Our governments need to enthusiastically support [neighbourhood] development as a core ingredient of more sustainable cities,” John explains. Exploring the idea of a 20-minute city in Aotearoa, New Zealand, WSP Consulting recently published a report that described the positive impact of living locally. “The benefits of the suburban revival extend beyond productivity; people commuting towards concentrated city hubs are mass producers of pollution and hotspots for disease spreads,” the report states. “Greenhouse gas emissions fell 4.8 per cent in 2020, largely due to transport emissions reducing from people travelling less.” Additionally, in Melbourne, economic growth has been studied as a result of increased walkability through discerning urban design. The City of Melbourne’s Walking Plan 2014 described a projected $2.1 billion rise in the Hoddle Grid’s economy based on a 10 per cent improvement in the space’s walking connectivity.

Promising in theory, the 20-minute city presents a host of idyllic outcomes for its citizens. The challenge in fulfilling the localised program lies within a range of infrastructure improvements and practical integration of interdisciplinary expertise that extends beyond governments, policymakers, urban planners and landscape architects. Describing an ideal set of circumstances, practical implementation of 20-minute neighbourhoods may not yet be in reach for the many areas of Australia and New Zealand under-serviced by public transport or lacking appropriate density levels; however, the movement towards more centralised community living – in any capacity – is a fruitful one that has been accelerated by the context of the previous few years. Armed with the lived-experience of surviving through intense periods of isolation, the revival of localism sees populations coming together, with googly-eyed spoons in hand.