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The 20 Minute City: We Shape Our Cities, Then Our Cities Shape Us

Dr. Iain White has been Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of Waikato in New Zealand since 2013 and is currently the Associate Dean Research for Arts, Law, Psychology and Social Science. Prior to this he was the Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Ecology at the University of Manchester in the UK. He is a planner who is committed to engaging beyond the discipline with researchers, practitioners and communities to analyse new forms of spatial development, climate change adaptation, and addressing the housing crisis in other words to create real world impact.

Iain is the author of four books, his most recent book is titled 'Why Plan - Theory for Practitioners' and was published in 2019. Currently Iain is asking the big questions around “what kind of an economy do we want to have, and how can our substantial investments to stimulate recovery help us transition?” Dr. Iain White is making the case for putting local at the core of NZ’s economic recovery.


The concept of a 20 minute city is simple: to design and enhance people's interactions around physical neighbourhoods. The concept started in Portland, Oregon and has been picked up by cities around the world. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has proposed a vision for Paris as a “ville du quart d’heure” or a 15 minute city.

The 20 minute city is defined around an area with a radius of about five kilometres – about a 20 minute public transport or cycle trip – with a potential population catchment of around 200,000 people. This size and structure could be home to a number of communities and neighbourhoods that between them offer most of the services, activities and social infrastructure to meet essential people needs. There are many features that need to be considered in a 20 minute city neighbourhood or city - local employment, affordable and diverse housing and integrated transport to name some of the key ones.


So does a 20 minute city framework create and enhance regenerative and resilient behaviours?

On effective city planning

Firstly, a good place to start is to think about what would happen if we had no plan? What would the world look like? What would be lost and who would be most disadvantaged? City planning links to wider issues like fairness or into general intergenerational equity. So there's a strong public good element to city planning.

Secondly, planning’s role is development control: restricting noise, building heights etc. Recent debates in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and elsewhere is that the purpose of planning is to do things quite quickly and in volume. We need more houses, more roads, more pipes, and we need them to be delivered faster and with less red tape. Unfortunately, this usually ends up with doing the wrong thing more efficiently. Effective planning is thinking from first principles about what we'd like planning to deliver for societies.

On shovel-ready projects

Post Covid, we must resist the temptation of looking at building infrastructure just as a means to create jobs and rather look at infrastructure that enables long term prosperity and regenerative economies.

We have a once in a generation investment to make significant changes to our cities and our lifestyles, and infrastructure has a huge effect on our lives. A good quote to explain this is from Winston Churchill, when he said “"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

If we build more roads and build on the periphery of cities and expand our urban footprint, we know that generations of people will be stuck in traffic traveling to and from their place of work. So we need to think about the influence of behaviour, which then feeds into many other agendas around wellbeing or productivity.

The thinking and vision behind the 20 minute city

This idea of a 20 minute city in simple terms, is about living locally. We've all seen that during lockdown we started to value our local area much more than perhaps we did before.

A 20 minute city aims to give you most of what you need for a good life within a 20 minute walk, cycle or public transport trip. So employment, shopping, health, community facilities, education, playgrounds and parks should be easily accessible by everyone. As you don't need to commute so much, you might be able to have more interactions with your local area. So the vision comes first and then you think about the kind of infrastructure we need, whether the amenities are in the right place, and the kind of planning the rules and the regulations to enable us to transition towards that.

Retrofitting a city to becoming a 20 minute city

Every city will have to be retrofitted. The challenge is that when you retrofit there’s less power, less ability to make changes. In any city there's land that's owned by the state - a lot of the public groundworks like roads, sidewalks, parks, public squares etc. On state-owned land, there is absolute power to change uses in different ways, with a strategic vision in order to get these sorts of synergies between land uses. However, when retrofitting a city, planners can use incentives and instead of being reactive to proposals, can be more proactive to signal the sustainability changes they want to see.

Hamilton: NZ’s first 20 minute city?

Hamilton is exploring the 20 minute city as a strategic city planning tool. A proposal is awaiting a government decision on whether it will invest in resources to deliver this. Alongside the strategic vision is the proposal for a big research arm - a living lab - that will document and evidence the impacts and implications of a 20 minute city. So we know people who recycle more are healthier, but how much money does that save costs on healthcare? We know people shift modes when given the choice, but what are the things that might not more likely to happen in a New Zealand context? The plan is to set up this living laboratory to monitor the effects and the change in real time, while working with citizen scientists.


Listen to our full conversation with Iain on the 20 minute city concept and planning for regenerative cities.

Learn more about Iain’s vision for a 20 minute Hamilton here:

Articles discussing post-covid shovel ready projects and introducing 20 minute city:

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