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Are 'doorstep communities' the answer to better urban living?

Twenty-minute neighbourhoods, 15-minute cities, low traffic neighbourhoods, walkable neighbourhoods: these concepts are suddenly everywhere. They boil down to a simple idea: that services and amenities needed for daily life should be within an easy, attractive and walkable distance of your home.

The benefits of being able to walk or cycle to the facilities or services you might need on a daily basis are clear. More active lifestyles are encouraged; traffic and pollution are reduced; money is saved on fuel or public transport; local shops and businesses thrive and people see more of their neighbours, creating a stronger community.

Professor Carlos Moreno wrote about the 15-minute city as one where all city residents could access their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. First published in 2016, his theory found new prominence after the pandemic. As our lives became increasingly circumscribed and localised during lockdowns, the importance of having facilities on your doorstep became not just a “nice to have”, but essential to your health, happiness and well-being.


The 20-minute neighbourhood (or variations thereof) seems to have struck a chord with politicians, planners and the public and has now been declared a new organisational principle for planning settlements, from Paris to Melbourne.

Too vague to be useful?

What does this mean in practice? A 2023 YouGov poll found that most UK residents would like to have bus stops, convenience stores, pharmacies and surgeries within a 15-minute walk. Opinion was more divided however on banks, supermarkets, and hairdressers. Equally, a 15-minute walk has a very different outcome for a fit and healthy 25-year-old compared to a parent with a pushchair or an elderly person; a 15-minute cycle ride could have a large enough radius to encompass most of a small town.

The attraction to politicians is obvious – depending on how you define it, success is certain.

More fundamentally, these ideas are arguably nothing new. Towns and cities such as Cambridge historically were (and indeed still are) inherently walkable, with tight medieval plans, high-density populations and intermingled uses all favourable for pedestrians. Even the smallest of villages would once have had a butcher, baker and candlestick maker on the doorstep.

Is the concept therefore too vague to be meaningful? Isn’t it just re-heating well-known concepts on mixed-use and high density?

Well, yes, but the 20-minute neighbourhood as a concept is notable for two reasons. Firstly, it is immediately intelligible to both policymakers and the general public (evidenced by its rapid popularity). Secondly, it focuses not just on the location of services, but on how they knit into the wider urban and rural environment: how easy it is to get to these services by sustainable modes of transport? What is the quality of the route?

Application in practice

Local Plan-making has long sought to protect and enhance services and promote sustainable development. It is easy enough to imagine how a 20-minute neighbourhood could be created in a new settlement or urban extension (such as the Core Site in North East Cambridge), applying these ideas to existing car-dominated suburbs and rural areas requires more creative thinking.

In rural areas, many local authorities already rank their villages in terms of sustainability, focusing growth on larger settlements. The protection of bus services and enhancement of cycle and walking links with smaller villages can create an effective neighbourhood catchment area, promoting further use of services in a central village. The Scottish Government for instance is seeking to apply the 20-minute neighbourhood across the country in their next National Planning Policy Framework.

Our post-war suburbs can also be retrofitted. Existing local centres can be protected and enhanced through careful interventions or redevelopment, and pedestrian and cycle infrastructure enhanced. Public sector assets can be reviewed and sometimes re- or co-located. TfL’s Liveable Neighbourhood programme gives grants to London Boroughs to improve their pedestrian, cycling and public transport infrastructure.

Case Studies

Core Site: a new settlement (by James Cox, Senior Development Manager at TOWN)

U+I and TOWN are bringing forward plans for a new low-carbon neighbourhood of 5,600 homes built on a 48-hectare brownfield site in North East Cambridge.

The site will be designed with the 5-minute neighbourhood concept at its heart, creating three distinct and compact walkable neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood will feature a range of amenities, making it possible for residents to meet their daily needs within a 5-minute walk of home. This approach will enable residents to lead fulfilling and sustainable lives in a diverse and vibrant urban setting.

The planning application for the Core Site is expected to be submitted in 2024.

The Meadows Community Centre & Buchan Street: revitalising existing suburbs  

The Meadows Community Centre and Buchan Street Community Centre are two Council-owned community assets located on the northern edge of Arbury. Whilst they contain a wide range of facilities they are ageing, low-density and inflexible, with large areas of surface car parking and limited active street frontages. Their proximity provided an opportunity to consider rationalisation.

Following extensive community and local authority engagement, in 2019 the Cambridge Investment Partnership submitted proposals to build a new, larger sustainable community hub at The Meadows, and redevelop the existing centres to incorporate mixed uses and council housing.

Architects Pollard Thomas Edwards designed the new multi-storey Community Hub to combine the needs and functions of both existing centres. The building is fully accessible and flexible with active frontages to its surroundings, providing an open and welcoming aspect. The new Community Hub is now complete and will shortly be opening to local residents. It has been built before either of the existing community centres is demolished to ensure continued availability and access.

Work will shortly begin on the Buchan Street site which will be opened up to provide a central pedestrian plaza, linking Orchard Park, Kings Hedges Road and Buchan Street. Moving the community centre to The Meadows enables the provision of a larger shop and café, supported by 28 new council rented homes.

The Meadows Centre is a much larger site and provided the opportunity for a different treatment. As well as the Hub, three apartment blocks are being built, ranging between three and six storeys. The tallest block provides a local landmark and nodal point.

The scheme shows how existing local centres can be retrofitted to provide higher-density mixed uses where pedestrians and cyclists are prioritised.


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