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Building equity into 20-minute city plans



I only left my suburb once last weekend, and it was excellent. As boring as it may sound, it turns out that this highly local lifestyle is not only good for the environment, but is one that appeals to many of us. Rather than spending our time driving between amenities and activities, most of us would like to be able to walk or cycle to most of those things that contribute to living a good life. And governments are starting to take notice.

Main St Croydon, in Melbourne's outer-east.In recognition of the social and environmental benefits that flow from people staying out of their cars and getting out into their own neighbourhoods, cities around the world have been announcing plans to improve liveability by adopting the 20- (or 30-) minute neighbourhood concept. Plan Melbourne describe this as being 'all about "local living" — giving people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip of their home'.

But what do we mean by 'everyday needs'? Does this mean the same to all people? Some researchers have emphasised the importance of tailoring neighbourhoods to meet the specific needs of residents — an outcome that can apparently be achieved by doing geographic analyses that track local behaviour.

According to Dr Este Geraghty, chief medical officer and health solutions director at Esri: 'One community may need to focus on providing sidewalks and green spaces to encourage residents to get more physical activity, whereas another community might prioritise affordable housing projects.'

It's true that we all have different priorities when it comes to making our neighbourhoods liveable. I conducted my own highly scientific survey (on Twitter) by asking people to share their top priorities, and responses differed in a number of key respects. Some placed specific value on nice bars, hipster cafes and somewhere to eat dinner, while others were more focused on fresh food, playgrounds and libraries with storytime. Partly this difference reflects the fact that some of us are home during the day (either with children, or for reasons of age, health or employment), while others work elsewhere during the daylight hours and appreciate features that bring our neighbourhoods to life in the evening.

One of the biggest differences between Sydney and Melbourne's plans is that Sydney has tried to include work within its 30-minute zones, while Melbourne has explicitly left work out of its 20-minute neighbourhoods.

Sydney is apparently struggling to implement its vision largely due to urban congestion, unaffordable housing and a lack of public transport in the outer suburbs. By leaving work out of the picture, Melbourne has freed itself up to focus on the needs of those not in the workforce (and, presumably, on workers when they are actually at home). In doing so, Melbourne is acknowledging the specific importance of locally accessible neighbourhoods to people who spend most of their time at home and who are at higher risk of social isolation when they can't walk to the local shops or meet other parents at the local playground.


"The fact is that most of these amenities are paid for by public money. Their abundance in the inner-city is more of a reflection of history and social capital than anything else."


But regardless of our places of work, most of us do seem to want the same things: accessible footpaths (and cycleways); community gathering spaces, like parks, beaches, and cafes; and decent public amenities, such as local shops, libraries, bulk-billing GPs, quality public transport and schools. And we all appreciate it when our neighbourhoods are nice places to be at due to features such as trees, natural beauty, low traffic, and an absence of eyesores like parking lots or industrial buildings.

Although it might seem like this shopping list of neighbourhood features is excessive, the benefits that flow from enabling people to walk (and cycle) around their neighbourhoods are pretty impressive. Not only is it good for the environment and for public health, but it enables people to build community and strengthen social networks.

Let me give you just one example. The local shops in the Canberra suburb of Scullin had being suffering a slow demise that culminated last year with the closure of its supermarket. While some small shops stayed open, the reduced foot-traffic was marked. In response, a small group of residents decided to open a new shop that was specifically designed to bring people together. And so the Scullin Traders was born. It's not a supermarket, but it does serve decent coffee, basic groceries and gifts, and it has worked to bring the community further together.

As one local told me, 'It's been transformative. We can do things in a short walking distance that used to be a drive to another suburb. Kids are making new friends. People are looking out for escaped pets.'

Of course, without the action of local residents, and a full-time volunteer roster to keep it going, Scullin Traders wouldn't be viable. So, while I'm 100 per cent in favour of local community initiatives, there also has to be a way of ensuring equity of access. For me, that's the central issue here — the incredible inequality that currently exists in our access to these basic features of a good life. While many inner-city suburbs are replete not only with hipster cafes, nice bars and restaurants, but also footpaths, cycleways, open green space and quality public amenities, many people in the more affordable outer suburbs have to drive to almost all of these.

Some might argue that this is precisely why people pay such high prices for real estate in the inner suburbs, but the fact is that most of these amenities are paid for by public money. Their abundance in the inner-city is more of a reflection of history and social capital than anything else. People living in the outer suburbs have just as much right to these public services and would benefit just as much (if not more) from having access to attractive public space and to being able to meet their daily needs on foot. The social and environmental benefits would also flow to all of us in building healthier, more resilient communities and significantly reducing pollution.

So let's all do more to build up the amenity and sense of community in our local neighbourhoods, but let's also keep equity on the agenda and ensure that 20-minute neighbourhoods are a right, not a privilege.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Main St Croydon, in Melbourne's outer-east.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, climate change, community



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Existing comments

There are lots of good ideas in this article about community life and how much benefit we gain from being able to access facilities which make living a vibrant experience. In large cities like Sydney and Melbourne affordable housing is limited to outer suburbs and it is these areas especially which need community involvement in enhancing the lifestyle of all who live there. While it's great to be able to spend most time in our neighbourhoods, it's also good to be able to travel within our regional areas, our cities and our country. And to travel to far distant places. We seek other worlds when we travel: a most interesting venture.

Pam | 30 August 2019  

Central Business Districts are old fashioned. The only people who need to be there during the week are those whose employment premises, for outdated historical reasons, are located there. Why does MLC have to be near IAG and both in the city centre? It’s not as if they visit each other. The executives and administrators of companies and public service departments can be located in industrial parks or decentralised commercial precincts. Almost nobody needs to be in a CBD on the weekend, and certainly not to do their grocery shopping. Hubs such as a Westfield and ancillary precincts containing offices, medical centres, public libraries, parks, etc. within a short driving time of home (cars still being a necessity more than a luxury for moving the masses of purchased items), are the anchors of the non-occupational features of most lives.

roy chen yee | 31 August 2019  

Desiring "an absence of eyesores like parking lots or industrial buildings" adequately describes the major fault in planning and development of new suburban estates. In both Melbourne and Sydney, the long commute twice a day is a major fault in the increasing urban sprawl. Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth are not far behind. New housing developments in the outer regions of major cities do not include planning for workplaces in the vicinity, because industrial, and some commercial buildings, are considered to be eyesores. Urban planners and developers continue to separate housing and workplaces by long distances, and as a result, they aggravate the urban problem of long commutes to and from work. Modern industrial and commercial design places factories and office blocks in garden settings, and current environmental legislation requires the elimination of offensive odours and excess noise from industrial sites. Exclusion of the workplace from Melbourne's 20-minute neighbourhoods, and difficulty including the workplace in Sydney's 30-minute neighbourhoods are to be expected, given the exclusion of workplaces from proximity to residential areas in last century's zoning regulations which still apply.

Ian Fraser | 02 September 2019  

Great way to help stop social isolation, building strong healthy communities for everyone.

Jo | 02 September 2019  

Cristy - in your 'highly scientific survey' did anyone mention toilets? Clean, accessible and with changing facilities. Essential for oldies and the young, not forgetting the inbetweens.

Joanna Elliott | 02 September 2019  

While reading your article Christie, I was recalling my time living in Sydney's eastern suburb of Randwick, with my current location, living in Gilmore in the south of Canberra. Living in Sydney,it took me about an hour by bus to my work place in the CBD, adjacent to Hyde Park. That was if there were no accidents on the way; then it could blow out to two hours, fortunately we had "flex", so I could make up lateness at the end of my day. Living in Gilmore I had to drive about 12 kilometres to my work place. It took about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic. Public transport was not an option, but the wife and I worked almost next to each other, so we travelled together. We have Chisholm local shops down the street , so I can walk down. In Randwick, the shopping centre was about 5 kilometres away so a car was a necessity to do the weekly shop, we had a very poor public transport service. We now live next to a nature reserve, so we walk around it regularly. While in Sydney we were next to Queens Park, however it was not safe at night and even daytime. Our area is low density housing, Randwick was becoming a sea of Unit developments, with the traffic congestion which come from poor infrastructure planning. . Which would I choose? Where I am now! I have open space, low air pollution, great views to the Brindabella's and lovely neighbours. I would not wish to live in Sydney's Western Suburbs or even have to commute to work from the Central Coast or the Blue Mountains. each day. A very unequal society indeed Christie.

Gavin A. O'Brien | 02 September 2019  

Cristy, I appreciate your viewpoint is from someone living in the suburbs of a capital city. My viewpoint, from someone living in a small regional town, is that we have no local public transport; few facilities and must use cars although the 20 minute criterion is met with them. Our children (we as parents) must pay for accommodation in a major city in order to attend university. There is no government help for that. We have little choice in shopping and don’t have local access to specialist medical attention. We need to travel 3 hours by car for access to such facilities. Or for real access to the arts. There is no prospect of these facilities ever being provided. But we do have a good sense of community. And housing is very affordable. It would be good for government to help towns such as ours too, but I won’t hold my breath.

Frank S | 02 September 2019  

On a recent visit to members and friends of Cardijn Community in Creswick, Mortlake , Warrnambool and Newstead there were four initiatives that echoed Cristy's article. In Creswick town life has been revived by coffee shops where locals gather daily to meet and catch up which is an essential part of their life before returning to the isolation of farm life can impose sometimes. It has been added to tree changers from the Mornington Peninsular who have taken over local bookshop and understand the importance of a conversation as well as a place people can meander. Sadly many tree and sea changers do not get that when you move , you hav to get involved if you want the benefits of rural life. In Mortlake, the shopkeepers have started a gooday campaign for their farmers and young isolated people who come to install various facilities to make them feel welcomed and acknowledged. In Newstead it was the important difference a pastorally oriented minister or priest can make to turn social inter-reaction around while various groups in Warnambool challenge the status quo that rather than blindly accept progress as unstoppable, In Shepparton , similar things are taking place to unite seventy culture into one community supported by positive civic and clergy leadership aided by proud local newspaper that affirms these initiatives when television local media being deleted. The key thing is that locals support these initiatives with their support and consumer dollars. They model what large urban centres only dream about.

WAYNE McGOUGH | 03 September 2019  

Its a chicken and egg situation as to what comes first, the population to support the services or the services to attract the population. If the intention is to decentralise capital cities, then there has to be incentives commercially such as a 12 month free council rates, high quality fibre broadband to the premises, freight, warehouse and transport nodes, reliable and affordable electricity, parks, tree lined streets, public pools, libraries perhaps tertiary institutes or annexes thereof plus the ability to commute to capital cities if need be by rapid transport systems.

Wrace Boomaker | 07 September 2019  

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