The two key pillars of promoting wellbeing and addressing the climate emergency appear to have set us on a path towards a future where people will aspire to travel less, buy locally and generally look for more from their immediate surroundings.  The Coronavirus pandemic forced us all to stop and look around, and increased our awareness of our own homes and neighbourhoods, and whether they truly meet our needs on a local level, or how they could be better built or adapted to meet those needs.

Spatial planning policies shape local neighbourhoods, which have significant impacts on the health and wellbeing of current (and future) residents.  The planning system already seeks to create sustainable places, which includes good access to public transport and promoting active travel where possible.  However, it is also fair to say that private transport still plays a big part.  A recent English study suggested that as many as 18 out of 20 housing developments were designed around the car, with the majority of residents in those developments having to drive for local shopping or access to services.  That poses obvious questions for people’s wellbeing and the environment.

The pandemic really has shone a light on the health and environmental benefits of having more accessible and inclusive neighbourhoods.  It is perhaps then not surprising that the concept of the “20 Minute Neighbourhood” has emerged as a key concept for the Scottish Government’s recovery from the pandemic and its emerging planning policy.

The idea is simple – it is a neighbourhood where, on your doorstep, you can get the goods and services you need within a 20 minute walk or cycle from your home.  The idea is credited as having originated in Portland, Oregon (think, The Goonies).  In 2014, it was implemented in the London Borough of Waltham Forest under huge protest from local residents.  Six years later, it is hailed as a big success, having caused a significant drop in traffic and an increase in active travel and green space.

The Scottish Government promoted the 20 Minute Neighbourhood in its recent programme for government, ‘Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland: The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2020 – 2021’.  It also features prominently in its recently published Position Statement on the emerging National Planning Framework (NPF4), which will fix the direction of national planning policy for the next 20 years or so.

The broader principles that underpin the 20 Minute Neighbourhood are already influencing the development of spatial policy.  Aberdeen City Council have been vocal since their Proposed Plan 2020 was first in discussion that health and wellbeing would play a key component in the City’s vision.  At the heart of the Proposed Plan 2020 is the vision for planned local environments and good quality housing which can have a substantial impact on the quality of life across the City. The Proposed Plan 2020 contains policy statements which recognise the need for people to have access to safe, convenient active travel and that good neighbourhood design promotes physical activity. This should then in turn enhance social connections and strengthen mental health. Amongst others, the Proposed Plan 2020 outlines a vision for compact neighbourhood design with walkable local facilities and public transport accessibility to allow car free access to services, amenities and employment which increases health benefits and reduces the impact of poverty.

Aberdeenshire Council have also been proactive in including outcomes and visions for active travel and integration of neighbourhoods within their Proposed Local Development Plan 2020. One of their main outcomes of the Proposed Local Development Plan 2020 is the promotion of sustainable mixed communities. The promotion of green-blue networks within and between settlements is also a key factor to allow travel within and between neighbourhoods to be sustainable and not car dependent. The Proposed Local Development Plan 2020 aims to make effective use of the transport network and to reduce the need to travel and promote walking, cycling and public transport.

The planning system has long promoted neighbourhoods that are less car dependent, more integrated and with more amenities within walking distance.  Local Authorities across Scotland continue to promote policies to achieve this, although they do so on a discrete basis.  That can make it difficult for developers, who may have to adapt the design of their development depending on its location.  The promotion of the 20 Minute Neighbourhood as a national planning policy concept could result in a more coherent and joined up approach, which would make it easier to plan at a local level, and more predictable for those looking to create and develop the neighbourhoods.

We will be keeping a close eye on this potentially key concept as NPF4 continues its progress through consultation in 2021.