For my leadership challenge, I set myself the goal of learning about the South of Scotland region, my new home and the geographic remit of my job at an economic development agency. By bringing a greater understanding of the local context to my work, I hope I will be able to balance big ambitions for change with a sense of what is relevant, realistic and really needed, and in doing so deliver meaningful and sustainable change. And in the middle of the pandemic, I had to be open minded about how this learning might happen!
This post focuses on applying the lens of rural context to a concept that is gaining traction in policy and sustainability spheres: the 20 minute neighbourhood.
Once again, it was a walk that triggered these musings. One day at home, I found myself without anything for lunch. Fridge/cupboards/freezer bare of anything inspiring (and we all know that in the depths of lockdown, something tasty for the next meal was one of the only things to look forward to…). No problem, I thought, I’ll just pop to the shops, then I looked out of the window and realised our shared car wasn’t there. What would have been an 8 minute drive into town became a one hour walk, a 6 mile round trip to stop my stomach rumbling.
This got me thinking about the concept of the ‘20 minute neighbourhood’ (or sometimes called the ‘15 minute city’), which we have discussed on our masters’ course and which is currently in favour as part of the solution for improving climate and wellbeing outcomes in our towns and cities. It was also included in the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2020 (1). Could it — and is it expected to be — a viable solution in rural areas like mine?
The essence of the 20 minute neighbourhood is a place that’s “designed so that residents can meet the vast majority of their day-to-day needs within a 20 minute walk (approximately 800 metres) of their home” (2). These daily needs include shopping, leisure activities, schools, local services such as a GP practice, green space and ideally access to work. Its proposed outcomes include: an improved local economy, reduced health inequalities, improved quality of life and climate action. The climate benefits stem particularly from the accessibility of services leading to an increase in active travel (cycling, walking) and a subsequent decrease in emissions from car use; a study by the City of Melbourne estimated that implementing 20 minute neighbourhoods across the city could reduce daily greenhouse gas emissions by more than 370,000 tonnes (3).
Clearly there are challenges to realising this vision in a rural context, where low population density can’t attract or support the services from the public or private sectors that would sustain a 20 minute neighbourhood. At a recent Scottish conference one participant quipped that many rural Scots live more than 20 minutes from the nearest public transport, let alone the nearest services (5). So does that mean we abandon the idea outside of large towns and cities? Or can we rethink it to capture some of the benefits for rural populations as well as urban?
Some commentators seem to think it is possible to adapt for rural settings, although thinking appears to be in its early days. ‘Tweaks’ could include an emphasis on fit-for-purpose, affordable (and presumably climate-friendly, although this is not explicitly mentioned) public transport, increasing digital availability of services such as virtual GP consultations or outpatient services and the digital presence of local businesses, and supporting working from home, capitalising on the remote working infrastructure adopted by many employers during the pandemic (5).
On the other hand, whilst these tweaks could deliver the practical goal of bringing services and work “closer” to the homes of rural people, I wonder whether they risk undermining some of the higher-level impacts sought by the 20-minute neighbourhood such as healthier lifestyles from more active travel and greater wellbeing from more interaction within a local community.
Other people also challenge whether adapting the model in these ways is really still a 20-minute neighbourhood at all. They suggest that policymakers etc. should move away from such a rigid definition and reshape it as a wider “conceptual framework for better designed and more sustainable places” (6), and I think I agree. Importantly, underpinning this conceptual framework should be a participatory approach — letting (rural) communities have their say throughout the design and implementation of any model (7).
So what can I take from this for my work? Specifically, I can see that there needs to be further nuanced discussion about applying the 20-minute neighbourhood concept to Scotland’s rural regions, and as a representative body for the South my organisation would be well placed to contribute to this conversation. More generally, there is perhaps a principle for me to remember: that there are unlikely to be any one-size-fits-all solutions to creating sustainable communities, so top-down ideas need to be shaped by the bottom-up realities of local places.
1 — Scottish Government (2020) Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland: The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2020–2021 https://www.gov.scot/publications/protecting-scotland-renewing-scotland-governments-programme-scotland-2020-2021/
2 — ClimateXChange (2021) 20 Minute Neighbourhoods in a Scottish Context https://www.climatexchange.org.uk/media/4661/cxc-20-minute-neighbourhoods-in-a-scottish-context-march-2021.pdf
3 — Victoria State Government (2019) 20 Minute Neighbourhoods: Creating a more liveable Melbourne https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0031/428908/Creating-a-more-liveable-Melbourne.pdf
4 — Scottish Rural Parliament 2021, Session report: 20 minute neighbourhoods https://www.sra.scot/sites/default/files/document-library/2021-06/0.%20vSRP2021%20Session%20Report%20-%2020%20Minute%20Neighbourhoods.pdf
5 — ClimateXChange (2021) 20 Minute Neighbourhoods in a Scottish Context
6 — Scottish Rural Parliament 2021, Session report: 20 minute
7 — ibid