20-minute neighbourhood- home is where the heart is

Written by: Cameron MacFarlane, Community Engagement Manager, the ALLIANCE

Published: 14/07/2021

Cameron MacFarlane from ALISS shares his thoughts on the 20-minute neighbourhood concept from a community perspective.

You don’t have to live in a place to feel rooted to it. We each have a variety of social, cultural and emotional ties to different places for different reasons. This can be true even though we may not personally live there, or the opportunities to visit are rare, or the time we spend there is short.

Whether it’s through choice or being forced to leave, we don’t always live in the place we call ‘home’. But being physically resident in a particular place is an important aspect of our lives. This can be on a temporary and practical basis, or it can be part of how we identify and define ourselves. Either way, to large extent it is this location within a geographic area that naturally defines our perceptions around what we view as our local neighbourhood and community – at least for the period of time we are resident there, but sometimes beyond.

The concept of a 20 Minute Neighbourhood is inherently linked to place and in turn the assets that exist in and around particular geographic areas. In this respect housing is fundamental in determining our ‘place’ as our address or postcode, which translates as a physical pin on the map, then shapes what we then define as our local neighbourhood. As an extension to this, our address or postcode can often form part of the criteria that determines if and where we are eligible to access certain services or attend certain activities.

Beyond determining our location, housing is interlinked with various other factors that affect our health and wellbeing more broadly, impacting physically, mentally, socially and economically. Safe, secure, good quality and affordable housing must be considered a prerequisite for enabling people to live well. But it is only one factor and we need more than good housing. We also need access to healthy food and greenspaces; we need meaning and purpose in our lives; and as much as anything, we need social connection with other people. As Aristotle suggests, ‘we are by nature social animals’.

During the Covid 19 pandemic the increasing availability and reliance on digital technology has on one hand allowed connection and enabled participation in a way that requires no physical interaction and transcends geographic areas and boundaries. Many groups and services have adapted to the challenges posed by social distancing, or restrictions on the numbers of people who can meet in person, by moving online. In some ways, for some people, this has increased access by removing the time, effort and cost needed to physically travel and attend. However significant barriers remain for many in terms of engaging digitally and digital inclusion remains an important issue. Furthermore, according to the Mental Health Foundation (this link will take you away from our website), 24% of adults in Scotland have experienced loneliness as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic so it is clear that despite an increased array of digital options, social connection has still been difficult for many. Beyond this, digital technology can’t replace opportunities to spend time outdoors in nature which, as outlined in the ALLIANCE’s report on ‘The Potential of Green, Blue & Wild Spaces in tackling health inequalities’ is also important for health and wellbeing.

Alongside the role of digital technology, the pandemic has also amplified the impact that geographic location has on our day to day lives and the importance of the community assets that exist within local neighbourhoods. Lockdown restrictions that have prevented travel and required people to stay local to varying degrees over the last couple of years have meant that people have been more reliant on what is more immediately located within their neighbourhood, or wider local authority area.

For me personally, living in Glasgow has meant that for much of the last year, a trip to the beach, or a walk in the hills has often been impossible. This inability to get out of the city for long periods of time has made the existence of local greenspaces including public parks and gardens even more important.

Being forced to spend so much time in my own neighbourhood has also been quite enlightening in terms of discovering – and appreciating – some of the things that are present so close to home. Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign (this link will take you away from our website) my wee boy, Sorley, and I have been making a ‘nature map’ along our daily route walking to and from his nursery. It’s a 10 minute walk but even within that small amount of time and space, making our map has shown us how much more exists on our doorstep than we might previously have noticed or paid attention to. Essentially and unintentionally, we’ve been ‘asset mapping’ in a very limited form which immediately leads me to connect my own personal experience with my role working on the ALISS (A Local Information System for Scotland) Programme at the ALLIANCE.

Community assets and in turn asset mapping are central to the ALISS Programme which aims to help people, including citizens and professionals work together to gather, manage and share information about these assets which exist in neighbourhoods throughout Scotland, and which play a vital role in helping people to live well. When the ALISS Programme was originally being coproduced with disabled people, people living with long term conditions and/or providing unpaid care, one of the fundamental questions framing the process was ‘What keeps you well?’ And in answer to that question people spoke about a wide range of activities ranging from formal health and social care services to informal community groups and associations as well as places and spaces.

This same question continues to frame the work of the ALISS Programme and one of the most interesting and inspiring things about working on ALISS is the opportunity it provides to hear about and speak with people involved in the huge range of organisations, groups, services and activities throughout the country that can make a positive difference for individuals and communities in terms of supporting health and wellbeing. To live well we need a range of services and connections. To achieve safe and secure housing we need the housing support and homelessness services that can help to obtain and sustain this. To enable independent living we need health and social care services that are person centred, inclusive and accessible for all and we need services such as independent advocacy that can help to ensure people are aware of their rights, are not excluded from the services they are entitled to and are able to participate as fully as possible in the decisions that affect their lives.

But amid these formal services, communities themselves represent an interconnected network of opportunity. Whether it is joining a community choir or book group to meet new people and participate in meaningful and enjoyable activities with others or joining a local walking football team or community garden for increasing physical activity and getting outdoors for some fresh air. Many of these activities are interlinked in terms of the benefits they provide. For example, the motivation for joining a walking football team may be to get a bit more exercise and improve physical health, but it also involves getting outdoors and enables social connections with other members of the group.

For those who don’t know yet all the pockets of potential that their neighbourhood might hold to fuel a new interest, revive a hobby, or make a new friend, ALISS could be their starting point. And in so doing, they can find new connections within their neighbourhood that further adds to that rooted sense of place.

This Opinion is part of a specially commissioned series by the ALLIANCE’s Academy programme which accompanies the Academy summer event series Exploring Scotland’s 20-minute neighbourhoods delivered in partnership with Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland (MACS) and Disability Equality Scotland (DES).

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