ADAM Director Hugh Petter writes a piece on ‘Why we need to build more 15-minute cities’ for The Sunday Times

June 20, 2024

Why we need to build more 15-minute cities

Ignore the conspiracy theorists - this much-needed planning concept can lead to a more sustainable, inclusive and healthy way of living.

Read the full article in The Times here

The 15-minute city is a simple planning idea where most daily necessities such as schools, shops and offices are a quarter of an hour’s walk away from any point in the urban area. It’s about quality of life, place and how much carbon we consume. Surely we all want to be able to walk or cycle around where we live? Yet some conspiracy theorists think, bizarrely, that the 15-minute city is a creepy government agenda to control our lives by keeping us to one place.

In fact, the 15-minute city is a traditional idea that harks back to the way we used to live before big-scale development and urban sprawl. I think it’s worth defending because it could provide a blueprint for a more sustainable way of living in the future.

These days, environmental experts talk about embodied carbon — the amount of carbon emitted from constructing buildings — but buildings used to be low in embodied carbon because they were made out of local materials. We also hear about climate resilience — the ability to anticipate and respond to climate-related shocks such as floods and droughts — but the design of older buildings was usually dictated by the local climate anyway.

Congestion and pollution were also non-issues because travel to school, shops and offices was undertaken on foot, horseback or bicycle. Local businesses thrived and met many of the everyday needs of their communities.

Meanwhile, new housing estates are often devoid of any local character. Since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which laid the groundwork for our current planning system, an increasing burden of red tape and regulation has been used by successive governments to try and drive better development.

Having to meet all these obligations means builders often have to employ lawyers and consultants to get planning permission, which makes applying to build a costly and time-consuming exercise. It’s risky too as there is no guarantee that your application will be approved.

This has squeezed most small and medium-sized housebuilders out of the market. Now a few publicly listed companies, with deeper pockets, control most development in Britain. Their business model is founded upon repetition, minimising cost and getting a quick return on capital. This results in endless, dull, monocultural housing estates that blight our country.

Poundbury in Dorset had the endorsement of the King when he was Prince of Wales

Photo credits: ALAMY

Almost everything that the residents of such places need for everyday life is a drive or bus ride away, so they have no option but to clog up our roads just to get the kids to school, pick up some groceries and go to the office. There is ample evidence that such places are often bad for health and wellbeing, they lack any community spirit, and they induce behavioural problems.

Even if the houses being built are closer to zero carbon, the patterns of life that housing estates allow are anything but. Is it any wonder that development isn’t popular, even in the midst of a housing crisis? This dissatisfaction creates pressure for more regulation and the challenge is in finding effective ways to break this vicious circle.

In the 1990s the King, who was the Prince of Wales at the time, endorsed the development of Poundbury in Dorset and, more recently, Nansledan in Cornwall, on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. His motivation was to show the advantages of mixed-use, walkable development that responds to local character.

The King opened Nansledan School in Cornwall in 2020

Photo credits: ALAMY

There is now a diverse and rapidly growing body of landowners following these examples — Blenheim at Woodstock in Oxfordshire; Southwick at Welborne and Ashfield at Romsey in Hampshire; Burghley at Stamford in Lincolnshire; and Moray at Tornagrain on the Moray Firth — creating more beautiful and sustainable communities where most everyday needs are within 15 minutes of every home.

While it takes longer than the mainstream development model, this approach delivers better long-term social and economic value, and communities that reflect local character.

All of the main political parties have committed to building more homes, but the incoming government will need to think carefully about what this looks like. New ways must be found to encourage small and medium-sized housebuilders back into the market. At the same time, landowners who want to control their development vision through sequential sale of land need level tax treatment with those who want to sell their asset upfront.

Instead of indulging fringe fears and conspiracies, let’s hope the new government, whatever its political complexion, dedicates itself to untying the knots we have created for ourselves over the past 70 years so we build places our ancestors would recognise as inclusive, healthy and sustainable.

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