Audrey Birt explores the 20-minute neighbourhood concept and reflects on its potential transformational benefits for the community.
As we emerge once more from lockdown, thanks to COVID-19, Spring has never felt so welcome. And for many of us we have learned so much about our local areas and if we are fortunate we have seen the buds awaken and offer their blooms and the trees spread their branches, drawing our attention to what is around us. We have become more aware of our neighbourhoods and have discovered how important they are. Instead of jobs that take us away from our homes, we were home and perhaps for the first time having time to raise our heads and notice both what was good but also become very aware of the gaps that affected their lives.
With uncanny prescience the Scottish Government have included 20 Minute Neighbourhoods in the 2020/21 Programme for Government (this link will take you away from our website) a concept that has found its time. The Mobility Access Committee Scotland (MACS) that I’m a member of “believes in a Scotland without the barriers that isolate and exclude disabled people from making their choice of successful door to door journeys”. Reading about 20 Minute Neighbourhoods we have been interested in how this might enable disabled people being able to fully contribute to and enjoy life as involved members of their communities. So many studies have shown that disabled people, including those with hidden disabilities, have been deeply impacted by the pandemic including by the Office for National Statistics (this link will take you away from our website). Hate crime, shielding, loss of support both social and medical have all meant that for many a deterioration in health and increased isolation and loss of agency. It’s never been more important to look at solutions that involve much of the determinants of health  ; transport, housing, access to social and medical facilities, access to good food, social connection and agency, green spaces and physical activity. So the question I hold is how can the 20 minute neighbourhood contribute to that?
What is fascinating is that whatever our focus or interest, the 20-minute neighbourhoods concept appeals. If we are committed to a green economy for example then the concept of local work, growing and selling local produce, a car free environment, a culture of walking, cycling or wheeling, growing local business and even generating locality-based energy sources from wind, sun or in some rural communities, hydro-electric; then 20-minute neighbourhoods design can have so much to contribute. If health is your interest, then aside from having primary care facilities within the 20-minute access, walking, cycling, wheeling is hugely important for wellbeing as is access to gyms and outdoor parks and playing fields. As the pandemic has worsened social isolation and loneliness the approach provides the opportunity to be improved by communities and activities that are connected and local.
The image from the work done in Melbourne Australia (this link will take you away from our website) shows the interconnectedness of the features that could make up a 20-minute neighbourhood. A key finding from this work as it emerges, is the importance of collaboration. Enabling 20-minute neighbourhoods to emerge takes a vision and commitment from across local government agencies, third sector, corporate sector and vitality the local community itself. The vision itself needs to be ambitious everyone within that community. Involving disabled people from the start will ensure good accessibility which helps everyone.
The Place Standard (this link will take you away from our website) is a tool designed to support conversations across sectors and communities whether they are existing or being developed from new and can act as a valuable resource to examine a route to 20-minute community development. In many ways it stands on the shoulders of good practice across Scotland but enables a national ambition.
Communities, even new ones are not blank canvases either. They are full of the assets of those who have come together there, of shared histories and new ones. The risk of national approaches is that the “professionals” unintentionally miss the assets, because traditionally we have focussed on deficits (like needs assessments). Asset based community development (this link will take you away from our website) turns the traditional approaches on their heads and seek to increase interdependencies within communities and this in turn builds social capital. All of this will be important in nurturing the growth of that deeper sense of neighbourhood.
This is a concept that requires a long-term commitment, beyond political lifetimes, and may fall fowl of that. Engaged communities can sustain beyond policies and politics. The approach risks leaving behind rural communities, some who will not doubt have some sense of neighbourhood but can be very isolated and far from the supports that are crucial parts of the urban concept; like medical facilities, banks, public transport and so on. Can rural communities learn from the approach and build digital support where geography does not enable face to face?
I’m very much looking forward to these sessions, covering the key areas I have mentioned. There is much to learn here and for me, much to be excited about.
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 MACS and Disability Equality Scotland (DES).