It started in Portland, Oregon. It was picked up by Melbourne. Now it may be coming to a neighbourhood near you.
It’s the “20 Minute City” and Professor Iain White is doing his best to bring the idea to Aotearoa New Zealand, via Hamilton.
Iain is an academic, a Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of Waikato, whose list of credentials is very long. But the boundary between being an academic, advocate, or even an activist can be blurry. He has been in the media a bit lately, making an inspiring case for lifestyle-driven cities that better serve our daily needs. Under his guidance, Hamilton City Council has pitched a proposal to the Government’s “shovel-ready” scheme to turn Hamilton City into New Zealand’s first “20 Minute City”.
So, Iain, what is a 20 minute city and why do we need it?
In simple terms, the 20 minute city concept is about living locally and aiming to give you most of what you need for a good life within a 20-minute walk, cycle, or public transport trip from home. So, things such as local employment, shopping, health and community facilities, education, playgrounds, or parks should all be easily accessible by everyone and without needing a car.
Cities designed in this way bring wide-ranging benefits. We should see a decrease in time spent in congestion, fewer accidents, lower greenhouse gas emissions, even a reduction in noise or stormwater pollution. At the same time we should see an increase in our health from a more active lifestyle, enjoy more choices about how to travel, and more connectivity should mean we spend more money in local businesses.
People like the 20 minute city because it’s about them. They are at the centre and they’re going to be closer to things. But it’s also a very different way of planning. Our planning in New Zealand isn’t great. Look at the outcomes – look at the water quality, look at the congestion, look the car ownership, look at the emissions. We talk too much about numbers and speed, and not enough about quality and lifestyle.
But to get proximity to that gravity of infrastructure and amenity requires quite smart planning. It’s about how you change land use over time and to justify the inclusion of building the infrastructure, you have to have a certain amount of users. So this is a way to get density into the city too and it allows you to have the difficult conversations around density and around trade offs.
The thing that really aligns this idea with the Better Futures Forum is that it’s really vision-led. It’s looking for a new way of, and making the case for, a new way of doing things, rather than just a new policy. So, the vision should come first and the policies should be redesigned to deliver that.
I’m quite excited about the potential of applying it because it has to be better than what we do now, particularly with the dominance of roads and how our cities sprawl. The other thing is that if you want a walkable environment, it needs to be design led. You need to design environments which are safe and where people will choose to walk or cycle. It’s a lifestyle driven version of planning.
It sounds like a fairly simple concept, but how can it be translated to the Hamilton context?
You need to think about what the ideas and the principles of a 20 minute city would mean in this particular place. Melbourne’s 20 minute neighbourhood plan is the image that gets bandied around a lot – but it’s culturally blind. There are some very different cultural perspectives between Australia and New Zealand, so you look at it from an Aotearoa perspective and you think – well, where are the cultural spaces? So it is important to translate the principles in an entirely new way within New Zealand. If we progress the idea here, it is critical that it needs to be based on New Zealand values and to develop a road map of how that could be done so that other cities can do it too.
For example, in a recent workshop, we were talking about what the participants want in a city and in a lifestyle, because this process is value led. Someone said they want to hear birdsong every day. And there is a really interesting perspective – do we plan for birdsong? How can we make sure that everybody has birdsong in their life every day?
Another interesting point was that it was not really about themselves, which is what you see in some of the other interpretations overseas. They were saying – I want my children to have access to affordable housing. You don’t see that in any interpretation of any 20 minute city anywhere to date, because it is about things which are there now. I quite like this idea of this being an intergenerational city – an intergenerational 20 minute city which will try to give future citizens the same access to a good lifestyle that we enjoy now. I like the idea of creating a beneficial legacy rather than it simply being a transaction between the state and citizens right now.
As an academic you see a lot of policy mistakes and failures by drawing upon ideas and just applying them uncritically. You can’t just pick ideas up and put them in other places – it doesn’t work in the same way. You can’t put Melbourne laneways in other parts of the world – they are specific to that place. But we tend to do that as planners. So we can’t just pick up this concept and apply it to New Zealand. We’ve got our own values, we’ve got our own context, we’ve got our own expectations about the lifestyle that we want, but also that we want future generations to have. You also want to learn the lessons from elsewhere. For example, we know a risk is that this policy initiative could lead to gentrification, and so how do we acknowledge that and take steps to make homes more affordable as part of the process? This is the kind of thinking that’s going to make this unique because that’s not been done before.
New Zealand tends to have quite a car-based culture. How do you think people will take to walking, cycling and catching public transport?
All the evidence worldwide says pretty much the same thing – people will cycle if it’s safe. I’m not talking about paint on roads – we need separated, quality cycle infrastructure. And you saw it during lock down. Not only did people cycle more, but they had a different emotional connection with their place. They experienced their city differently. You’ve got to give people an alternative. We’re not going to tell people how to travel, but we need to provide options to get there in ways which are safer and healthier. Then the mode shift can look after itself.
That’s one of the things I want to do, if we do get support from the government to pursue this, is to look at the psychology of modal shift, to look at why people are changing or not and what we can learn from that.
What’s the one thing that needs to change about the way we approach planning to be able to implement ideas like the 20 minute city?
We need a more vision-led approach to policy and that vision must be meaningful, not just words. We’ve got this recent shift to spatial planning and it could fit well into that. There’s power in visions that allow you to coordinate and integrate and allows you to understand trade offs and to get buy in from multiple stakeholders who can align the policies. Visions like this deliberately cross institutional boundaries, they have residence in multiple areas – so the parks people get it, the infrastructure people get it, the transport people get it and you’re giving them something meaningful to integrate over rather than trying to do it via an internal policy.
I don’t think we do this enough in New Zealand – to say this is what we could have, is this the kind of future you would want? And you kind of put yourself out there to make the case for change, because the alternative is quite passive, just going out to consultation and you’re not necessarily drawing on science and evidence about what is possible, or what is best practice. I’d like to see more of that in our planning.
And you need strong political leadership. This kind of idea has got to be driven. This is not a technical exercise, this is a political exercise. So you need politicians who agree with the idea and say, we’re going to align our budget, our policies and our structure to deliver this. So there is a political risk in aligning yourself so closely to a particular idea or agenda.
I see my role as someone concerned with change, as trying to lessen that political risk by making the case for something different and linking to evidence about what it offers and how it can be done. This is a deliberate attempt to create a new imaginary, to try and capture people’s attention in order to create both a new political discussion and political pressure to do things differently.
There is clearly a positive reaction to this story – it seems to be resonating with people. And the politicians are reacting to the people as well. They’re saying – if this is actually what people want, maybe we should think about doing it and how do we do it? The way I see it is there’s a vital role for academics in public life to be political actors, to raise these new imaginaries, these new possible futures that people don’t know they want until you articulate them. Then to work in new partnerships to try and make that happen. That’s what we are trying to do right now in Hamilton.