The future of the left since 1884

Paving the way to happiness

Redesigning our neighbourhoods so people live within a 20-minute walk of everyday services will lead to healthier, greener lives, writes Ellen Jones.



It has been said that this is the UK’s first election where climate change will play a defining role. Regardless of whether it was young people taking to the streets demanding action in order to protect their futures, David Attenborough’s pleas to protect our planet at Glastonbury festival, or the actions of Extinction Rebellion across the county that caught our attention, there is no denying that the climate crisis will be at the forefront of voters’ minds come December 12th.

So what are the challenges which we face?

The UK, as well as many other countries, has announced a climate crisis. One of our biggest problems is we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions from transport – and largely cars – is the UK’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The government therefore need to support more people to walk, cycle and use public transport, but this is difficult when our towns and cities have mostly been designed around the car. Schools, hospitals, job opportunities, leisure facilities and shops are often easiest and quickest – and sometimes only accessible – to get to by car. This is at the expense of providing local jobs and services that a community needs to thrive.

We live in a highly unequal society, where not everyone has equal access to services and their everyday needs. . This is being worsened because people cannot afford their own a car, or can’t safely travel around  in order to get from their home to access local services.

Transport for Better Homes found that 18 out of 20 recently-built housing developments were being designed around the needs or motorists, which means that households without a car are being forced to live in areas devoid of services and without access to everyday social connections.  Car-based living is increasing air pollution which is, in turn, damaging our health – and even the health of unborn children. Our reliance on cars is a factor in the current high levels of physical inactivity and decreasing life expectancies, and this is costing our NHS billions every year.

Car-based living has additional negative consequences for people living in more deprived communities, as they are most at risk of road danger , air pollution and lack of access to services, despite being less likely to drive.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. We desperately need new, affordable housing which allows everyone the freedom to access services. So now is the time to stop building out of town, car-dependent housing estates devoid of any services, and start building strong, well connected neighbourhoods.

In our recently published Manifesto for UK Government, Sustrans puts forward a vision where everyone in towns and cities across the UK have access to everything they need within a 20-minute walk; schools, shops, recreational facilities and workplaces are all on their doorstep.

Streets prioritise people by having wide pavements, seating and cycle parking. Green space is ubiquitous. Cars are guests on residential streets and are the exception around schools, children play outside as it feels safer, and they walk and cycle to school again.

People choose to walk and cycle because it is the most obvious choice, the easiest choice, the cheapest choice. Public transport is easily accessible, cheap and frequent.

People see their neighbours and have a social connection to the place in which they live. It is a community.

In order to make this a reality, Sustrans is calling on the next UK government to make the 20-minute neighbourhood concept a central principle of the planning system.

Planners need to work in collaboration with those working in transport, public health and development to jointly plan and develop new settlements, and wider urban regeneration. By building communities where housing, jobs and retail sit side by side, we can unlock productivity and connect people with places and with each other.

To support this we also need to see the next government to implement an updated and better funded cycling and walking investment strategy and ensure that targets are met. We believe that this will require at least 5 per cent of the transport budget to be spent on walking and cycling between 2020 and 2021, rising to at least 10 per cent before 2024 to 2025. This will help local authorities develop and implement safe and direct walking and cycling links.

Sustained long-term investment in our neighbourhoods, where people live within a 20-minute walk of everyday services, will be critical to creating healthier, happier communities and a zero-carbon future for everyone.

Photo credit: Nick Kane

Ellen Jones

Ellen Jones is senior policy officer at Sustrans


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