15-minute neighbourhoods should be part of London’s recovery plan

As the Mayor, London Assembly, Councils and businesses started to chart London’s recovery from the coronavirus lockdown at the first meeting of the London Transition Board, it’s clear the next stage for the capital will not be business as usual. Nor should we go to back to the way things were, with our centralised system bringing in weary commuters on overcrowded public transport from dormitory suburbs of soulless town centres lined with rent-a-chains, betting shops and charity stores punctuated by empty properties.

Lockdown has shown us that many of our local areas still provide us with most of our essentials, albeit supplemented by online shopping. However, the continued necessity for physical distancing impacts both our ability to travel via public transport and work in busy, central London office blocks. Even if people can get into their place of work, they face queuing for hours to get into lifts that can only carry one person at a time or walking tens of flights of stairs.

Coronavirus has created an abrupt transformation of our workplaces and practices. Looking forward, there is the likelihood that a significant number of the cafes, barbers, sandwich shops, nail bars and pubs – many of which depend on London’s glass towers being full of hungry, thirsty and time-poor employees – are at risk of closing because of the new coronavirus model of working from home or in physically distanced offices. As I highlighted in my letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak in April, three quarters of businesses surveyed by the Guardians of the Arches and East End Trades Guild will not be able to pay their next quarterly rent.

Luckily, although not quite ‘shovel ready’, there is a model providing the economic activity and jobs that supports a green recovery which Robert Jenrick, Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has asked mayors and business leaders to provide [paywall]. It’s called the 15-minute neighbourhood.

Ideally, the money that the Government is providing for the recovery should use the 15-minute neighbourhood as its model to enable Councils to put in the infrastructure needed to make it easier for people to get around on foot and by bike. Too many of London’s villages and local high streets are designed around cars, with the negative consequences of congestion, air pollution, lack of physical activity and the climate crisis. All of these have a massive economic impact, with traffic jams alone costing the UK £7.9 billion a year. And the physical benefits of cleaner air and safer roads are ones that many people want to keep after lockdown, with a survey showing that 54 per cent of Londoners do not want to go back to pre-Covid traffic and pollution levels.

Already, the reduction in public transport use enforced by physical distancing is creating a car-led recovery, but we can rein this inhttps://www.politico.eu/article/life-after-covid-europeans-want-to-keep-their-cities-car-free/ by https://www.politico.eu/article/life-after-covid-europeans-want-to-keep-their-cities-car-free/making it safer and more convenient to walk and cycle around our local areas, which will also create opportunities for small businesses. As Transport for London has found, the retail spend per square metre for cycle parking is five times higher than the same area of car parking. With more people working from home, perhaps those firms that supplied the needs of the city-based office staff should be encouraged to set up shop back in the towns and high streets closer to where they live.

London now has the highest rate of home working in the country and far too many people have had to improvise offices in bedrooms or at kitchen tables because their homes aren’t big enough to provide separate workstations. People need access to alternative, affordable places near their homes where they can find the peace, space and facilities they need to work without disturbance from other household members, children and noise, among other things. With the school holidays having begun, and few of the usual summer activities for children available, quiet space for parents and carers to work in are essential.

At Mayor’s Question Time on 16th July, I asked Sadiq Khan what measures he is putting in place to support boroughs to provide bookable access to buildings with fast wifi, copying, printing facilities etc. One way of doing this is through ‘Meanwhile Use’, which would allow empty units, usually retail or commercial, to be taken out on short leases. The retail sector has been hit hard by both coronavirus and the move to internet shopping, so many high streets and shopping centres have voids. Landlords must be encouraged to rent these out as ‘pop-up’ serviced offices or workspaces, appropriately physically distanced of course. Other imaginative uses for these units should be considered too, such as for the arts, which has been so hard hit by lockdown.

The 15-minute neighbourhood also requires quick and easy access to green space. 21 per cent of households in the capital don’t have gardens, compared to between 7-to-13 per cent elsewhere in the UK. Fields in Trust’s Green Space Index shows that Londoners have the lowest amount of publicly accessible park and green space available to them at just 18.96 sqm per person.

A quick solution to this lack of green space would be to enable residents to turn individual parking spaces outside their homes into mini parks or ‘parklets’, or for businesses to create them in pedestrianised shopping centres, like these ones in Putney. Planters used to filter streets to reduce rat running and support active travel is another affordable option. The Mayor’s Streetspace programme has invited boroughs to roll out low traffic neighbourhoods using experimental traffic orders and planters. This could transform whole neighbourhoods very quickly.

Cities and towns across the world are already implementing 15-minute neighbourhoods – Paris, Copenhagen, Ottawa and Melbourne being prime examples. Here in London, Islington have announced plans for a third of the borough to be part of a low traffic neighbourhood by the end 2020, and Camden have started work on reinventing its centres to create ways of working that match how residents live using a healthy by design approach.

It is the healthy aspect that is so important in how we redesign our neighbourhoods going forwards. Since coronavirus, many of us are experiencing more local, slightly less frantic lives, and the months of lockdown left us with cleaner air and quieter skies. We have woken up to birdsong even in the heart of a city. Maybe we can keep some of that?