The 15-minute neighbourhood concept used to be branded a simple one: do you have most of your everyday needs within a short walk, wheel or cycle of your home? But we’ve seen recently that simplicity doesn’t always save you from being muddled, misinterpreted and misrepresented.
At The Young Foundation, we believe the 15-minute neighbourhood approach has huge potential, but to unlock it we need to step out of our comfort zone and embrace its potential for nuance. With that comes the chance to create an ongoing dialogue between residents and local councils, through new ways of working, and with local insights and inspiring visions for our local places.
Lessons from experience
My understanding of this potential stems from The Young Foundation’s partnership with Waltham Forest Council, where we worked with communities, leading to a data-rich and resident-led vision and framework for the local area. The east London council then embedded this in its corporate policy, creating a council-wide strategy.
At a recent webinar with the Town and County Planning Association, to support other communities trying to create complete, compact and connected places, I shared a handful of key lessons on embracing a dynamic way of applying 15-minute neighbourhoods.
1. Centre a definition not on distance, but on individual experiences
We can get tied up in definitions, debating whether 10, 15 or 20 minutes the right metric to use. In my experience, the measurement of ‘15-minutes’ is one that benefits from being held loosely. It is not about drawing circles on a map. Instead, the focus should be on seeking out the perspectives of a diverse range of residents who all have their own personal ‘15-minutes’ and needs, that may look different from one another. This fluid and flexible application of the concept takes into the account a local area’s surrounding context and doesn’t unintentionally create boundaries by sticking rigidly to minutes travelled.
2. Prioritise working with residents
One of the reasons we wanted to work with Waltham Forest was their clear commitment to resident-led vision. Residents have played a critical role in shaping Waltham’s Forest’s approach, with 1,000 people registering their interest to take part. It is thanks to their insights that we moved our thinking beyond just a consideration of a local area’s assets, to also accounting for the experiences it should enable. Their priorities shaped the strong commitment to inclusion, safety and social connection in the final vision, ensuring neighbourhoods work for ‘me and my neighbours’.
Our recommendations stress keeping the momentum of a participatory approach, by providing opportunities for residents to play a role in shaping their neighbourhoods in ways that work for them. Creating this ongoing dialogue has significant potential to change the way that local councils work together with residents, playing to each other’s their strengths, and supporting greater resident-led action and community power. There are recommendations for how to do this in our report, but the critical takeaway is seeing 15-minutes not as a concept to apply, but instead valuing the conversation it enables.
3. Embed ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’ at a strategic level locally
It’s also about creating opportunities and mechanisms to better work together within local government. The concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods originates from planning departments, but has cross-cutting potential. It is one of those rare topics that can unite conversation and intent across different teams, by providing a focus on what people need to thrive, whilst valuing the different aspects of peoples’ lives.
This creates the chance to reduce siloed working, enables multidisciplinary approaches, and supports both the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of what local governments do. It takes leadership, foresight and a phased approach to do this well. Therefore, to make the most of this opportunity for joined-up action on complex and connected issues, it should be embedded at the highest strategic level, into corporate frameworks and cross-cutting strategies.
No ‘perfect solution’
While we see great potential, we shouldn’t see the 15-minute approach as the ‘perfect solution’. As an approach, it poses questions as well as answers.
But the value is in the conversation – and it’s one we must have if we are to work together to navigate through the tensions, trade-offs and opportunities that come with making decisions in local places. By recognising there’s no such thing as a perfect solution and allowing 15-minute neighbourhoods the space to be nuanced and shaped with residents, we can achieve that.