This week, Associate Matthew Thomas discusses how we need to look at communities as a whole, rather than individual elements, in order to develop a sustainable future.

“By re-imagining towns around the 20-minute concept, we can maximise these outcomes and thus deliver more sustainable communities for the future. But what are 20-minute towns, and how would this work?”

Whilst attending the RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence for our Techniquest scheme, the President and principal speaker Dr Wei Yang discussed the 20-minute town concept. Though not a new concept, it has been swiftly increasing in popularity as a viable basis for planning the towns of the future. The pandemic and resultant lockdowns brought this to the forefront of public discourse, prompting us to reconsider our relationship with our community and our lifestyle, something that we explored in our ‘Home of 2030’ submission.

When we consider ‘sustainability’ as a topic, there are multiple subjects that must be considered. Buildings of course play a huge part, accounting for 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint; however connectivity and transport, good health and wellbeing, community cohesion and social value as outlined by the RIBA in their 2030 sustainable outcomes are also crucial. By re-imagining towns around the 20-minute concept, we can maximise these outcomes and thus deliver more sustainable communities for the future. But what are 20-minute towns, and how would this work?

The name is self-explanatory in that the concept is based around masterplans that allow full connectivity throughout the town in question within twenty minutes. In 2020, Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, put forward a case for Wales to be the trailblazer of this concept in the UK, and I see its potential as being a way to achieve the goals that the architectural profession is working towards. The idea promotes walking as the chosen method for transport; the ‘twenty-minute’ aspect is based around being able to reach most facilities on foot in this amount of time.

To achieve this, we need to champion locality, sense of place and the sustainable community as a whole, as opposed to focusing simply on the sustainable buildings. We must ask what people’s needs are, and therefore ensure that within the ‘twenty-minute’ walk, each of these are met. There is a need for communities to have accessible facilities that enable communities to thrive. Places to meet, work, to throw birthday parties or learn new skills; access to safe, clean, green spaces, creating the opportunity for social spaces set within a network of pollinator paths, wildflower meadow habitat and tiny forests, which promote wellbeing, and social interaction; accessibility of all areas with comprehensive, carbon-neutral modes of transport; a review of the materials and process used for building; and of course, a concerted effort to re-imagine and retrofit existing buildings when feasible. Essentially, we need to provide environmentally friendly buildings and transport, within a cohesive community that is economic prosperous, utilising a green infrastructure.

This approach was championed by our Home of 2030 entry, heavily focusing on the masterplan and landscape, and many of these principles have been transferred and refined in our current masterplanning schemes that we are leading.

A review of our city-centres is drawn from a similar approach, focusing on neighbourhoods and community-scale developments which are deliverable, and this is the rationale behind the #bettertowns roadmap, a collaboration between HLM Architects, Didobi, realestateworks and the Consumer Data Research Centre, which champions a highly visual, data and evidence-led process, navigating five stages to determine short, medium, and long-term strategies for individual towns. Each town’s journey starts by creating a baseline, defining a mission, appraising options, creating an action plan, and delivering outcomes. The methodology is universal, but the solution is unique.

We must strive to understand the individual communities, challenges, and opportunities thoroughly, and enable developments that are truly representative of, and tailored to, the local people they serve. The #bettertowns roadmap gives clear direction as to how to assess localities, establish goals, and work to achieve them – creating a universal, multi-disciplinary route map to develop these communities of the future, enabling local authorities to plug in their co-ordinates and move towards their own #bettertown with confidence.

If we can combine this with the twenty-minute town concept, and embrace a truly holistic approach to sustainability, we will be well on the way to delivering healthier, unique, inclusive, and environmentally friendly communities that celebrate their locality as well as the people within them.

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