The benefits of accessible neighborhoods
By Tom Logan*
If you live in a city or town, you have a mental map of where you travel the most. But how accessible are these places and how long does it take you to get there? Above all, could you do everything you need to do without a car?
These are the kinds of questions that advocates of more livable urban areas are now asking with greater urgency. Climate change, rising fuel prices and social connectivity are driving the shift to ’15-minute cities’ – although the actual number of minutes may vary depending on a city’s ambition .
Copenhagen, for example, aims to be a five-minute city, while Melbourne opts for ten. New Zealand cities are also on board, with Christchurch and Wellington wanting to be 15-minute cities, and Hamilton a town 20 minutes away.
The idea isn’t that you can drive through an entire city in that moment, but rather that your own neighborhood has everything you need at your fingertips on foot, by bike, or by public transport. For simplicity, we simply call it the “x-minute district”.
Our recently published research rates all urban areas in New Zealand and compares them to the 500 largest cities in the United States for residents’ proximity to daily needs. So where are they currently and what are some of the main challenges?
How we measured accessibility
from new zealand emission reduction plan requires a 20% reduction in urban vehicle travel by 2035. This move towards sustainable modes of transport will also require a change in the shape of our agglomerations.
New transport strategies are beginning to take this into account. But how do cities assess urban change, measure the impact of proposed development, or effectively renovate existing neighborhoods?
By assessing New Zealand’s 42 urban areas and the 500 largest US cities, our goal was to provide a consistent and transparent approach to reporting. We also wanted to help cities transition to sustainable urban design effectively and efficiently.
We have developed a dashboard to show the proximity of city blocks (the smallest geographic unit in the New Zealand Census) to their closest amenities. If you live in one of these urban areas, you can check the accessibility of your neighborhood using our interactive guide.
The dashboard helps councils understand accessibility (and lack thereof) in their cities and neighborhoods. Our ongoing research aims to identify locations with the best accessibility, which should help with incentives and guidance for new developments.
So how do New Zealand cities rank? Wellington is the most accessible, with 61% of residents living within a 15-minute walk of the amenities surveyed. But that pales in comparison to New York (88%) and San Francisco (73%).
Auckland has only 43% of residents within 15 minutes of major amenities. Hamilton (with the aim of becoming a 20 minute city) scored 39%. And Christchurch (with an unofficial target of 15 minutes) also reached 39%.
It is in particular access to the supermarket that is most detrimental to a city’s score. Accessible grocery stores are a key component of walkable neighborhoods, and without them we will never meet transportation emissions targets.
It is therefore disappointing that this important factor was overlooked in the opinion of the Commerce Commission supermarket sector review. This lack of consideration of climate change in industry and competition policy has been highlighted by the Prime Minister’s visit to US bulk retailer Costco upon arrival in New Zealand.
This type of car-dependent development is the antithesis of walkable and sustainable neighborhoods and the government’s emissions reduction plan.
The benefits of accessible neighborhoods
The main motivation for better urban design is to encourage active modes of transport and reduce dependence on cars. But the benefits go far beyond transport emissions alone.
Increased social cohesion is a co-benefit. In Paris, this form of urban planning is called “neighborhoods of proximity” because they increase the proximity between people and places, but also between people themselves. This improves social connection and has mental health benefits.
Public health is another benefit. Studies showed that the Barcelona approach (which also prioritizes active transport through urban planning) avoided around 700 premature deaths per year through reduced air, noise and heat pollution and to increased physical activity.
There are also huge benefits for young, old and low-income families who become less dependent on the automobile. There are also benefits in the form of economic dynamism and urban security.
Get out of our cars
Finally, we also need to consider whether 20-minute and 15-minute quarters can get the benefits they seek. In reality, what is the probability that people walk 20 minutes to do their shopping? Studies conducted abroad suggest that much shorter distances between homes and amenities may be needed.
This will vary depending on the person, their age and physical condition. But it will also depend on the amenities themselves. We might be happier biking or walking further to school, for example, than walking home from the grocery store.
So while the concept of the city in 15 or 20 minutes can be useful in communicating a broad vision and bringing people together, it should not be taken too literally.
The main objective should be to improve accessibility as much as possible in order to reduce our dependence on the automobile and to reclaim our neighborhoods for people. This will benefit our health, our sustainability and our communities.