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Walkability: the new gold standard for urban planning

Once upon a time, the Australian dream was to buy a property in the suburbs, taking advantage of the vast networks of highways and the lowering costs of vehicles to get away from the rat race.

The suburbs offered plenty of space to raise a family, even if it meant markedly more time in the car, travelling to and from various conveniences. At least you were out of the hustle and bustle of the city.

That was the idea back then.

With a renewed focus on local living and environmentalism, the ability to walk no further than 20 minutes from home while still accessing everything you desire on a day-to-day basis is considered the “new gold standard for urban planning,” according to UNSW Built Environment Professor Linda Corkery. The concept is known as ‘the 20-minute neighbourhood’ – and the development of such walkable areas is on the rise.

“The goal of the 20-minute neighbourhood is to make available the essentials of day-to-day life within a convenient walk from home,” Professor Corkery says.

“This means having shops and services, schools, public transport, and employment within a 20-minute walk.

“So considering a typical day, I might need to get my kids to school, collect a script at the chemist, meet a friend for coffee, pick up groceries, and ideally that could all be done on foot.

“The 20-minute distance stems from what is considered an average walking time for a healthy adult to cover roughly 800m, taking into account the general ‘walkability’ of the area.”

Convenience isn’t the only attractive attribute of such neighbourhoods.

“Residents of these neighbourhoods often have a strong sense of community and connection to place,” she says. “People are out and about on the street socialising, supporting local businesses, being involved with local schools, enjoying local parks. It helps all those kinds of things.

“There are also environmental benefits to be gained if people aren’t jumping in their cars all the time to do local errands.”

Professor Corkery says COVID-19 restrictions have highlighted flaws in current neighbourhood, such as inadequate walkways or street lighting.

“It’s come sharply into focus because we’ve had to stay at home and only go outside for ‘essential’ activities'” she says. “People are re-discovering their local areas, and we’re seeing increased use of local parks and streets for daily exercise.

“And, we’re taking more notice of the amenity, or lack of, in local neighbourhood environments. In some places we can see the need to have better street design, improved footpaths, street trees, and connections to local green spaces.”

Of course, the secret is to keep such neighbourhoods desirable, yet affordable – which is not an easy task. The key is to develop more ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods, with equal and open input from community members, local business stakeholders, and urban planners.

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