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It is time for the 20 minute neighbourhood, in the country.

· Catriona McNaughton,Planning,Sustainability,Analysis

In 2017, Plan Melbourne was launched, guiding the city’s planning to 2050. It focused strongly on the 20 minute neighbourhood, an idea that most people will walk up to 20 minutes to access services, and if you can provide services within that area you can deliver better liveability and sustainability for your residents. The concept has gained traction over this year as people have returned full time to their neighbourhoods due to COVID-19 restrictions requiring working from home. Suburban coffee shops have survived comparatively well (or thrived) gaining trade from Melbourne City commuters now looking closer to home.

By August 2019, and after a dedicated cross-government effort, the first report on the Living Locally 20 Minute Neighbourhood Pilot Program was released and supported embedding the approach into long term planning. It highlighted key findings that included emphasising the need for place-based planning and community partnerships. Interestingly, while the concept was embraced, access to jobs (or a commute under 20 minutes) was always largely excluded or only referenced through access to public transport.

The leap forward in technology-supported ways of working drastically changes this dynamic and should shift forward significant changes in local planning, including emphasising a need for this local living. While this 20 minute neighbourhood plan is focused on Melbourne, the benefits of this shift are particularly the applicable in rural and regional areas, where we are likely to see an accelerated shift towards decentralisation as professional service and other workers are more able to work from anywhere.

The need to support people to live within their local area shouldn’t just come from a fear of another pandemic, but from the need to support a range of lifestyle options that enable rural and regional areas to grow and thrive, enable very different types of work to be conducted from a single household, and therefore also support housing affordability. Plan Melbourne seeks to ‘rebalance’ population growth to the regions and improve connections between cities. The work from home environment supports this, more than almost any planning measure undertaken so far, but as identified in the 20 minute neighbourhood concept it is not just jobs that are needed.

In rural and regional areas, we might not seek to strive for the same goal of a 20 minute walk from home, but should seek to apply the same concept to our regional hubs including boosting our smallest towns’ services and delivering all of the other features of a 20 minute neighbourhood in our larger regional centres. While people may need to drive there, we can seek to ensure that they drive to their closest regional centre for a wealth of life and culture, and that once they arrive they can walk to all that the need from a single stop.

At present, the focus of regional plans is more of corralling growth into appropriate areas at a macro scale, for instance encouraging residential growth around existing centres to protect the agricultural lands beyond. There is less clarity on where and how this residential growth should be supported by services, like the 20 minute neighbourhood context, leading in some cases to long stretched out settlements that provide a narrow parallel path down a major highway with businesses dotted along the highway and residential behind this – an unwalkable environment for those within. This is also reflected in natural, tourism and cultural attractions need for protection with little focus on growth in these areas, except to support community cohesion such as community sports grounds.

The COVID-19 recovery will dominate state and Federal Budgets for some years and are likely to focus on large scale infrastructure projects. The 20 minute neighbourhood program has been trialled in existing and greenfield neighbourhoods and as we seek to recover from COVID, particularly to close the disadvantage gap that has grown, we should consider applying the concept to our regional centres with one or more of these neighbourhoods depending on size. Instead of ‘managing’ growth we should seek to draw city residents out, encouraging the population rebalance faster and supporting this through other programs such as for large growing businesses that can manage a dispersed workforce.

Catriona McNaughton is Manager - Communications at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.