The idea of the 15-minute city has generated a huge buzz across property and politics, amid a wider rethink of how we build and manage cities post-pandemic.

The concept makes sense. Building communities in which everything you need – groceries, leisure, work – is within a 15-minute return walk would generate huge health and wellbeing benefits.

It cannot work everywhere. The reality is that in some parts of the country, such as London, and for some jobs, many people will still need to commute longer distances – and want to travel to central bars, restaurants, theatres and shops. But the benefits that the approach can bring mean elements of it could be considered from the largest to smallest schemes.

As England prepares for 19 July – ‘freedom day’ – with the planned lifting of work-from-home guidance, will we remember lessons from lockdown? And what might they mean for urban planning’s utopia of walkable neighbourhoods?

Post-pandemic working

Whether or not you believe in a genuine 15-minute city will likely depend on your views regarding post-pandemic working habits. If you’re in the 100% remote work club or can walk to your office, 15-minute cities might work.

But if you believe, as we at Knight Frank do, that workers may still need – and, crucially, may want – to attend an office that requires a commute even a few days a week, the concept in its purest sense can fall down. Whichever camp you fall into, planning for and building space for diverse and varied business activity, as well as residential, should be a key feature if we are to deliver neighbourhoods that cater to all residents’ needs.

And we can learn lessons from the largest of cities. London is an interconnected web of urban villages, and the GLA’s own research suggests 90% of Londoners live within 10 minutes of their local high street. For years developers have been doing a good job of creating mixed-use neighbourhoods in the capital – see King’s Cross, Battersea or what’s coming in Brent Cross and Tottenham.

Skeletons of success

Now it’s time to take those lessons into towns and villages in need of expansion. That needs to be achieved without adding to car dependency – often caused by a lack of local employment, amenity or accompanying infrastructure. If developers and planners benchmark proposed development against its impact on walkability, things will start to improve.

We already have market towns or areas within cities with thriving high streets. Think Marlborough or Harrogate, for example. These are what success looks like and, as a result, nearby housing tends to be popular. However, lack of suitable land and local opposition means these settlements aren’t easy to grow.

Perhaps the real opportunity, then, lies in our secondary towns and villages: those that once thrived, but aren’t quite thriving anymore. These have the same skeletons of our most successful towns and villages, but with a high street that needs some love and investment.

Here, we can solve a raft of property’s problems in one hit, including revitalising tired high streets and shopping centres, boosting housing supply and building sustainable, varied and walkable communities. It also fits with various government policies, including accelerating housing delivery, building beautiful and green development.

Lessons from Nansledan

Aside from making meaningful urban interventions, we can also significantly move the dial when masterplanning large urban extensions and garden villages.

An interesting case study is taking shape in Nansledan, an urban extension of Newquay. Led by the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of HRH the Prince of Wales, plans are being delivered for a new community of more than 4,000 homes, supporting a similar number of jobs.

The next phase will include a new high street designed from first principles to meet local needs. It will include around 30 shops, cafés, a pub, restaurant, supermarket, more than 15 studio workshops, offices, and – a rare thing to find in a new development – a church, combined with a community hall. The high street and its church/community hall will sit at the heart of the town and will be delivered with the long-term future of Nansledan in mind, fostering a walkable and socially resilient community.

The pandemic has shone a new light on how we interact with our homes and neighbourhoods. The way we plan and build new developments is a critical part of providing a sustainable choice for future generations.

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