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10 October 2019

20-minute neighbourhoods

Good physical health, a forgotten initiative of Melbourne’s 20-minute neighbourhoods?

The 20-minute neighbourhood is a term that is often used in planning and is usually thought of having a range of services and job opportunities within proximity to where you live, essentially ‘living locally’. But when you delve deeper in understanding the features of a 20-minute neighbourhood, there is one benefit that often gets overlooked: good physical health.

The concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood is an intrinsic part of the urban consolidation debate. The proximity of employment, shops, services and facilities and promoting sustainable transport are some of the key benefits of a well-located development. But what about active living and healthy lifestyles that are derived from ‘living locally’? Have the health benefits of creating, maintaining and enhancing ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods been lost in the plethora of urban consolidation goals and urban design practices where greater emphasis is placed on good architectural design and the benefits derived from additional, more diverse and affordable housing? It seems that way.

What is the 20-minute neighbourhood?

The 20-minute neighbourhood initiative is all about ‘allowing people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip from their home. The physical benefit derived from this is being active. Research undertaken by the Heart Foundation for the Victorian Government identifies the hallmarks of a 20-minute neighbourhood as follows:

  • be safe, accessible and well connected for pedestrians and cyclists to optimise active transport
  • offer high-quality public realm and open space
  • provide services and destinations that support local living
  • facilitate access to quality public transport that connects people to jobs and higher-order services 
  • deliver housing/population at densities that make local services and transport viable
  • facilitate thriving local economies
Click here for viewing the image: Liveable communities should have access to these features

Why is activity important?

The health benefits of this initiative should not be underestimated. The Heart Foundation makes it abundantly clear that any physical activity is better than none. Being physically inactive is one of the risk factors for heart disease and not to mention a range of other chronic diseases.

It is also commonly accepted that having regular physical activity will help you live longer, feel more energetic and prevent mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. In addition, physical inactivity has economic costs by adding more strain on the health care system and reduced productivity.

What has the government done?

Since the inception of 20-minute neighbourhoods into Plan Melbourne, the Minister for Planning launched the 20-minute Neighbourhood Pilot Program in 2018 to test and evaluate the practical delivery of these neighbourhoods. This program is in partnership with a range of local councils, the Victoria Planning Authority, the Heart Foundation, Victoria Walks and Resilient Melbourne. 

This program is being delivered in two stages:

  • Stage 1 Existing Neighbourhoods (complete)
  • Stage 2 Greenfield Neighbourhoods

The pilot projects in stage 1 were to test the implementation of 20-minute neighbourhoods in the Neighbourhood Activity Centres of Croydon South, Strathmore and Sunshine West. Each of these projects involved the following stages:

  • Creating community partnerships by engaging with the local community to identify concerns and ideas,
  • Preparing technical assessments on walkability, transport networks, land use, housing density and vegetation cover; and
  • Identifying future initiatives and infrastructure opportunities for the neighbourhood.

Each Council undertook both similar and different methods of community engagement, but importantly, many common ‘future opportunities’ themes emerged, which were:

  • Improving and prioritising pedestrian movements and safety;
  • Developing more bicycle lanes and improving cycle links and facilities;
  • Supporting greater housing diversity;
  • Enhancing the public realm;
  • Creating greater diversity in commercial areas; and
  • Improving recreational facilities.

The real success of these pilot programs now rests with Councils and local communities to work together to implement these future initiatives.

What can we do?

The government’s pilot program is definitely welcomed, but as town planners, there is certainly more that can be done to strongly advocate for development in Melbourne’s established areas to achieve the 20-minute neighbourhood. 

Let’s not forget the first objective at Clause 11-Settlement, which states that planning should recognise and plan for health, wellbeing and safety. It is important that the benefits of good physical health be at the forefront of advocating the 20-minute neighbourhood.

It is often much easier to justify the tangible benefits of being within a convenient walking distance to a train station or shops, but the value of good physical health is priceless, and this really should take precedence or at least not be forgotten in the decision-making process.

Author: Edelene Loke, Associate: Planning

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