I went to the dentist this morning and timed how long it took to walk from my new home, which overlooks open countryside, to the dentist’s surgery. It took just eight minutes. When I left the dentist I stopped to chat with a friend who happened to be passing. Then I popped into the town’s Romanian café, which serves excellent coffee, and found myself in conversation with other customers. I grew up in this town, returning last year after 40 years living elsewhere. I feel a strong sense of belonging here, which I’ve not experienced for a long, long time. I think I’m living in a ‘15-minute community.’
Leiston has a population of around 6,000 people, and shops, cafés, pubs, schools, cinema, sports centre, doctor, dentist and business park are all within a 15-minute walk of my home. There are also seven places of worship, a reminder that Suffolk has a history of religious non-conformity.
If I hop on my bicycle, my 15-minute range extends to include the beach, railway station and Aldeburgh’s high street, which has more upmarket shops, restaurants and hotels. After 25 years living where I had to drive to get anywhere, even to buy milk or a paper, I bask in the convenience of having so much within a short walk, so am more aware than most of the benefits of the 15-minute city concept.
So why is the concept so unpopular?
Sometimes you have to feel sorry for urban planners and councils, who get stick for trying to recreate a concept that worked well for more than a thousand years, but been largely lost in the last half century. My son lives in Stoke Newington, where efforts to create a low traffic neighbourhood have proved unpopular with people unhappy to find their road has become a one way street, or even closed off at one end.
Think tank Centre for Cities suggest that in London, most jobs and entertainment will always be further than 15 minutes away from your front door, making attempts to reduce travel unrealistic, but my son’s experience suggests otherwise. He cycles the four miles to his job in the city each day and most of his social life is centred on Hackney, the borough within which Stoke Newington sits. His nearest Tesco is a five-minute walk from his flat.
There’s nothing new about 15-minute communities
Researching my latest book Where are the Fellows who Cut the Hay made me very aware of the way rural communities were self-sufficient until relatively recently. Blaxhall in Suffolk, where the writer George Ewart Evans lived in the early 1950s then had a shop, school, pub and church. The old folk he interviewed remembered when the village also had a mill and shoemaker; 150 years ago villagers grew vegetables, baked bread, brewed beer and most kept a pig at the bottom of the garden. People lived simply, sustainably and while life was sometimes hard, they were mostly content if not happy.
Go back a little further, to the nineteenth century, and each village was also responsible for its own poor, levying a local tax that was based on the value of your house. The church would hold this money and use it to support neighbours in need. The unemployed were given work mending the roads, with stones picked from the fields. Of course few take the trouble to look back at how their forebears lived, and if they did, might be more receptive to the idea of 15-minute cities.
Are people a little too quick to suspect a conspiracy?
A recent Thetford town council meeting at which 20-minute neighbourhoods were not even on the agenda was disrupted when around 200 people turned out to protest against the concept.
Some, it seems, felt that this would restrict freedom of movement, and with the Covid lockdown fresh in their minds, people clearly did not want this. The irony, as councillor Terry Jermy told me, is that ‘Thetford’s 1960s growth was shaped by 20-minute neighbourhood type policies – residential areas with lots of walking routes, employment nearby and all the retail options in the middle of the residential areas.’
He went on to explain that ‘sadly over time the shops have gone (too many people shopping online and in supermarkets), most people drive to work and the estates weren’t designed for that many cars; and other services that were once in the town centre now been removed – linked to cuts and austerity.’
I think we’re all too quick to dismiss Thetford’s expansion as driven by the need to house London’s overspill, and forget the vision of the planners who created a series of neighbourhoods. Locals have even gone so far as to create a rival town council they’ve called Thetford Sovereign Council. This unelected body claims to represent those who choose not to vote in local and national elections. I suspect they will need hard evidence of public support if they are to be taken seriously.
So let’s get back to basics
It was psychology professor Robin Dunbar who, after years of research, concluded that we can only maintain a relationship with 150 people, so will instinctively limit our personal network to around that number. Blaxhall’s strength was that it was a small village, and even today fewer than 200 people live there. We are essentially herd animals and when early populations grew beyond the point where everyone knew everyone else, tensions would arise and some would inevitably branch out and start a new settlement nearby.
A return to ‘15-minute city’ living could do far more than reduce our need to travel. It has the potential to bring back the sense of community that has been lost of late, which in turn will engender civic pride, reduce crime and give our collective wellbeing the boost we all need.