15-minute neighbourhoods and the real 'power of nearness'

July 17, 2023

15-minute neighbourhoods raise the idea of having all your basic living essentials nearby, but what are their large-scale benefits?

What is a 15-minute neighbourhood?

The basic notion of 15-minute neighbourhoods – which are sometimes reframed as 15-minute cities, 20-minute neighbourhoods and more – puts forward the idea that urban areas should be designed to give individuals the ability to meet almost all of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk from home.

To achieve this, there should be shops, transport and facilities within this radius; meanwhile, the journey to them needs to be amenable to active transport. To encourage walking and cycling there must be adequate shade, safe pathways and cycle paths, as well as a focus on placemaking to draw people towards public spaces. Meeting these needs enables people to live locally and has the benefit – both societally and individually – of growing active transport trips and lessening the need for lengthy commutes in cars to perform daily activities.

Richer public spaces and placemaking initiatives are a key part of the 15-minute neighbourhood vision.

While basic essentials are integral to the formation of a 15-minute neighbourhood, other features must also be considered to make individual neighbourhoods feel complete. These include local playgrounds and parks, green streets and open spaces, sport and recreational facilities, affordable and diverse housing and even community gardens and similar public spaces.

An old concept that sounds somewhat radical in today’s world of urban sprawl and scattered amenities, new 15-minute neighbourhoods (20-minute neighbourhood, 15-minute cities or otherwise) are being created in cities all over the world, including Melbourne and Sydney within the confines of Australia.

Base mapCatchment analysis
An example of a 15-minute walking catchment using Planwisely's catchment analysis tool.

What are the benefits of 15-minute neighbourhoods?

From a casual observer’s perspective, 15-minute neighbourhoods have obvious benefits. Beyond these, however, there are deeper advantages that have given the concept much of its recent momentum.

On a granular level, easy access to work, transport and amenities gives individuals more autonomy over their time and how they spend it. Less time commuting means more opportunities for recreation, exercise and personal interactions, all of which are favourable outcomes. This aspect, in concert with a higher proportion of walking and cycling trips on a day-to-day basis, are foundational to fostering physically and mentally healthier people.

15-minute neighbourhoods give locals everything they need within easy walking distance.

More broadly, activating a 15-minute neighbourhood has implicit benefits for the neighbourhood itself. Firstly, a neighbourhood with a well-rounded offering of products, services and employment opportunities is a self-sufficient one. It also means that a higher proportion of spend remains in circulation within the local economy. Meanwhile, an effective 15-minute neighbourhood places high importance on well-considered placemaking projects, the result of which are people-centric public spaces that reflect the community and encourage interaction, giving rise to a more engaged and thriving neighbourhood.

On a macro level, the proliferation of 15-minute neighbourhoods means a move away from the centralised approach to work and amenities that magnetises people into city centres. This rather recent development, which has been brought about by the dominance of private vehicles and growing urban sprawl, has driven greenhouse gas emissions to ever-increasing heights. A move away from this tidal flow of vehicles and people into centralised hubs – instead empowering shorter journeys that don’t require a car – has significant potential for positive environmental impact and improved sustainability.

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How do you build a 15-minute neighbourhood?

The ideological thrust behind 15-minute neighbourhoods is highly attractive, but how do you even go about building one out of an existing neighbourhood? Depending on the neighbourhood, this task can be relatively simple, incredibly challenging or somewhere in between.

While essential checkpoints such as local schools, shops and employment opportunities seem like the logical catalyst for creating 15-minute neighbourhoods, these ingredients have proven to be insufficient on their own. In addition to these baseline requirements, active transport is crucial to living locally; this means greater focus on walkability, cyclability and community interaction in open spaces.

Safe, shaded and well-connected walking networks are crucial to creating vibrant local communities.

To achieve this, more active travel infrastructure is essential. This means more provisions for cyclists, as well as more pedestrian and cycle routes in general. To encourage walking trips, roads must be well designed and enforce safe speeds, while sufficient tree canopy cover and a range of activities and public spaces within the vicinity are also key to the 15-minute neighbourhood recipe. By doing so, neighbourhoods can invert the proportion of commutes to put walking and cycling first and foremost, public transport second and car travel last.

For future neighbourhoods, the biggest change is a shift in focus from the movement and parking of cars (which in doing so makes more spaces for people) to the health and wellbeing of communities. This switch is a north star for urban development – giving planners an organising principle for how we plan our neighbourhoods in the future. Additional guidance and inspiration for the 15-minute neighbourhood can be seen in cities all over the world, and it’s a strategy that’s set to spread further in the coming years.

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