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An A-Z of research, to help deliver the ’20-minute neighbourhood’

JUST what is needed to turn an already-existing housing development (or even one still on the drawing board) into a self-sufficient neighbourhood, where all of life’s essentials – work, education, food, recreation, etc – are within a 20-minute cycle or walk away.

Here are some ‘serving suggestions’…

A

Affordable housing, and in perpetuity

It would be clearly an aim of any new housing development to provide homes at a price deemed to be ‘affordable’, and ideally have in place a system whereby these properties are guaranteed ‘affordable’ in perpetuity.

Currently, all new housing developments require to provide circa 25 per cent ‘affordable’ housing, although the hope might be that – potentially with clever design and smart manufacturing processes (allied to a commitment to paying modest salaries and no bonuses to senior management) – that percentage figure could become much higher.

Of course, various definitions of ‘affordability’ abound, but, for all the variations, it has not stopped the Scottish Government vigorously pursuing a programme of ‘affordable’ house-building, with a target 50,000 completions during the course of the current Scottish Parliament term.

To that end, the Scottish Government provides grants to registered social landlords, to allow them to build or acquire properties to rent at an ‘affordable’ price.

More research needed.

Auditing

A community audit would require to be a mix of surveying individual households and listing district-wide ‘assets’. 

It would be an early-stage initiative in any proposal to intensify an already-existing housing developments, not least because it would double as both a courtesy and a communications exercise.

Among the questions to be asked in a household survey would be proximity to existing work places, need for car parking (and possibleenthusiasm for car sharing), willingness to volunteer, frequency of overnight visits from friends and family, and fabric issues with one’s existing home (eg condensation, noise, draughts, security, etc).

An audit of district-wide ‘assets’ would include detailing refuse and recycling collections (noting a Herald news report, here, suggesting that three tonnes of waste per minute is ‘exported’ for ‘recycling’) and postal services. Plus the emptying of litter bins and the operation of social and youth clubs.

More research needed.

B

Broadband, satellite, telecommunications and television

It could be argued that nothing cheapens the look of a housing estate more than a proliferation of satellite TV dishes, which is why they are banned from housing developments overseen by HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay.

Instead, his developments operate communal provision, likely a district-wide satellite dish feeding into individual houses.

More research needed.

Building regulations

Building regulations, operated by local authorities, will include guidance on the likes of overlooking (in Edinburgh, 18m), and would need to be complied with, as a prerequisite for planning permission.

As the organisation, Create Streets, often tweets: the intimacy of most medieval village and town centres would not be permitted under current building regulations. 

More research needed.

C

Cafe

A cafe can be many things to many people. Not only can it be a place to meet friends (and therefore a possible antidote to loneliness), it can also host meetings (committees and clubs, such as knitting, local history, book-reading, bird-watching, homework, etc) and provide a library of books, CDs and DVDs. A licensed cafe would provide a setting for evening activity and one with a small stage would provide a performance space.

The Stove, on Dumfries High Street, has a small performance stage.

The Atelier cafe-bar on Bridge Street, Berwick-upon-Tweed, not only serves tea, coffee and alcohol, but also meals. It also operates as a deli.

Meanwhile, Tabac, beside Exeter Central rail station, demonstrates that cafe-bar spaces need not be big, to create a bustling atmosphere.

It might be that a bar is established within the community, as an extension to a micro-brewery operation.

The idea is that any cafe-bar be as multi-functional as possible, and not just to provide a wide range of services, but to improve the chances of it being financially self-sustaining. For instance, it might be that a cafe-bar is attached to a shared laundry.

More research needed. 

Car parking and electric car charging

Even when pushed underground, car parking can be expensive to provide (which is why, in many private developments, a car parking space costs). And it is hardly the most edifying of sights; when land could be used for gardens, wildlife or recreation, its is often taken up by dozens of cars.

Clearly, some car parking is required – including dedicated space for those with a physical disability, plus for any car sharing club vehicles.

Existing car owners might be reluctant to give up car parking that they hitherto have easy and, no doubt, free access to. But they might be persuaded to join a car sharing club.

Where possible, cars should be demonstrably eco-friendly, and should that require the installation of a sufficient number of charging points (with access to energy from renewable sources), then so be it.

While a supermarket chain might be permitted to ‘set up shop’, it should be done only with space for delivery vehicles and parking only for those registered as physically disabled. In other words, no parking for customers able to walk or cycle.

More research needed.

Car sharing

As we all know, cars are used intermittently, and are mostly left standing in car parking.

A car sharing system would potentially deliver substantial savings to members, and not just on the purchase of vehicles, but also maintenance, MOTs, Road Tax and insurance. It potentially offers members all the convenience of a private car but without all the attendant hassle.

A car sharing club operates in Edinburgh, managed by Enterprise Car Club. It is possible to book a time slot online (and also cancel a booking), fuel is purchased using a commonly-held payment card, cars are opened and locked via a computer chip attached to the windscreen and fully-comprehensive insurance is included in the charge, which is calculated as a mix of time and mileage.

All that is required is for users to return the car to a designated parking bay – which in the context of a housing estate – will be little more than a few minutes’ walk away.

A car club also reduces the need for car parking spaces, freeing up land for potentially more productive purposes. It might have an impact on the number of vehicles on the roads network outside the neighbourhood; as people possibly think twice about undertaking a journey (because of the relative effort of having to book a car). But that would not be its primary purpose.

Car sharing would be a service made available to both new and already-existing residents.

More research needed.

Care in the community

‘Care in the community’ seeks to enable people to continue living in their own homes, even if their health is ‘poor’.

It is a concept most commonly associated with older people, but also applies to people with learning and other disabilities.

It should be therefore a given that houses should be designed to be ‘future-proof’, so that it is possible for a person to remain in their own home, even when struggling with the likes of dementia or mobility issues.

More research needed.

Commercial and retail space

It is not a given that commercial and retail space has to be sold or rented at the going, market rate.

If, somehow, the costs of creating them – e.g. on the ground floor of tenement blocks – are relatively low, then, in tandem, so too can the prices charged.

That might allow some wriggle room, in determining who occupies the spaces.

It might be that some ‘desired’ operators – eg a plastics-free refillery shop – would find it tricky to pay the going rate.

This form of subsidy – which is best operated as rents, as opposed to sales – allows for pro-active shaping of the ‘cultural assets’ available to a community.

As mentioned elsewhere, any of the major supermarket chains seeking to open an outlet might well be permitted to do so, but only if there is no customer parking (parking only for people with a physical disability and for delivery vehicles).

More research needed.

Common cooking

The provision of a common house – where it is possible to cook and eat together – not only offers the prospect of social interaction (potentially vital for combatting loneliness), but the chance to eat well but cheaply.

Bulk purchases of ingredients can reduce the per household cost of cooking, perhaps supplemented by produce from a common garden (fruit and veg).

For hard-pressed parents, common cooking offers relief from the chore of daily individual cooking, where the temptation might be to provide arguably less-than-nutritious ready meals.

In other words, common cooking potentially provides children with a nutritious and balanced diet.

Children might also be able to learn to cooking skills.

It might be helpful to provide a series of recipes, especially designed for bulk cooking.

More research needed.

Common garden

As part of proposed communal activity, and a local response to an arguably dysfunctional globalised food system, a common garden would not just provide a supply of fresh produce for residents, but also a guaranteed supply of ingredients for any communal cooking.

Gardening, in itself, is widely recognised as an antidote to poor mental health, and the trick with this proposed garden would be to deliver a harvest that is just enough to provide the community with all that it requires. Otherwise, some might have to be given away or sold (both potentially not a bad thing).

Garden tools could be shared in a secure shed, accessible for use not just in the communal garden but also any private gardens).

More research needed.

Communication

The above-mentioned auditing of community ‘assets’ and aspirations / concerns / etc is a step in the right direction to communicating fully and openly with the community.

People have a tendency – and almost every right – to feel resentful when they are not being properly communicated with.

Initial communication might be supplemented by a regular newsletter – printed or online – plus other online presence.

A physical drop-in centre is a direct invitation for residents to ask questions / find out more.

And of course, communication might require to be conducted in several different languages, including in any invitation to join a waiting list for housing.

More research needed.

Council Tax

New properties means the possibility of new property tax for the local authority. Council Tax in Scotland, as well as the rest of the UK, operates to various tiers of property valuation.

More research needed.

Critical mass

The installation of certain community ‘assets’ – such as schooling, nursery provision, a bakery, a cafe-bar, GP surgery and dental practice – requires population critical mass, to ensure that each are viable.

The numbers are not necessarily that easy to source.

More research needed.

D

Decision-making

The upside of a decision-making process that involves voting for or against written-down motions and (where relevant) written-down amendments, is the cleanliness and relative swiftness of it all.

People will know exactly what they are voting for and exactly what they might be missing were they to miss the meeting, if motions and amendments are issued with plenty of advance warning.

After speeches for and against, a vote is taken and, simply, the majority wins, with the chair casting the deciding vote in the event of a tie. But the downside is potential bitterness among the minority.

A response to that is consensus decision-making, which seeks to have all decisions receive the endorsement of everybody, with a variation being ‘sociocracy’ (requiring ‘consent’ as opposed to ‘consensus’).

More research needed.

Disability access

It goes without saying, all design should be conscious of the challenges that might be faced by people with a disability, including dementia and mental health issues. That will extend to pavement and road design, plus the design of house floor plans.

The language, when it comes to house design, is about ‘future-proofing’ so that homes can be lived in all the way to the end of one’s life.

More research needed.

E

Energy

Depending on already-existing provision – in a housing development already built – it might be that energy sources are converted from the traditional gas and electricity suppliers.

New housing developments are often designed with some form of district heating system, the aim often being to eliminate the use of fossil fuel-based energy. It would require an energy audit as to the most efficient (and environmentally-conscious) energy provision for an already-existing housing development that is being intensified.

Housing built to at least so-called ‘Passive house’ standards would reduce the need to instal an energy source for heating purposes. Meanwhile, energy for running appliances and technology – ie electricity – can be purchased from renewable sources.

More research needed.

Extreme weather

The ‘Big Freeze’ of 1963, and abnormal weather events of more recent years, underline the need for utilities, buildings, etc to be installed and erected with worst-case scenario planning very much in mind; probably assuming that extreme weather is likely to be no longer an ‘one in a hundred years’ event but an annual one.

More research needed.

F

Finance

Financing any regeneration project is likely to involve having to go to the commercial lending market – perhaps in the first instance, banks.

That said, government grants are likely to be available for the specific provision of ‘affordable’ housing. And there may be additional grants for wider regeneration purposes, on an ad hoc basis.

One way or another, applying for funding – including from charitable trusts, perhaps for feasibility studies – will require the applicant to be a ‘properly’-constituted body.

More research needed.

G

Gentrification 

Any place undergoing some form of revitalisation is, to all intents and purposes, undergoing a degree of gentrification, which can lead to an increase in property prices and rents, as the changing reputation of a place is reflected in relatively higher demand for properties, compared to supply. 

The term, ‘art wash’, is used pejoratively when an area is transformed by artists moving in (arguably at its most insidious when at the invitation of developers) to help make a place feel ‘trendier’. 

The fiercest critics of gentrification are likely to claim ‘social cleansing’, whereby the poorest in a community are essentially priced out of their homes.

A potential counter to the inflationary pressures of gentrification is the establishment of a Rent Pressure Zone, whereby rents are pegged to a maximum annual increase.

More research needed.

Give a Day

Give a Day is a proposal for a community to come together to restore / repair their urban realm.

Aka ‘a gala day with a paintbrush’, it promises to be a mix of fun and urban realm improvement.

This might double as a ‘festival’ run annually that allows ‘visitors’ to come and find out more / get involved.

More research needed.

Guest bedrooms

Instead of individual homes keeping spare rooms for occasional overnight visits by friends and family, it might be that any common house includes guest bedrooms – which can be booked by residents, perhaps for a fee.

More research needed.

I

Inter-generational

A community that is inter-generational has the potential for providing support to all ages, both old and young alike.

It also answers a concern about ‘succession planning’, when committee chairs, members, key volunteers, etc begin to decide they are no longer able to continue in post.

In Germany, there is a project (Living for Help) where young people receive inexpensive accommodation in exchange for providing caring support to older people.

As reported by the Guardian newspaper, here, in 2014: “Last week, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research urged Britain to adopt the Mehrgenerationenhaus approach to cope with an ageing population.”

J

Joining process

Joining a community that places considerable emphasis on a particular way of living – e.g. committed to neighbourliness, high environmental standards, volunteering a certain amount of time every week, etc – may appeal only to a limited number of people.

That said, it might be a relatively large limited number.

Some interview process might require to be drawn up, which kind of goes against the spirit of ‘affordable’ housing being automatically made available to those most in need.

A possible work-around is that applicants for ‘affordable’ housing might be relatively self-selecting, if they know that, in addition to standard-issue expectations regarding the likes of anti-social behaviour and rent arrears, there are other requirements too.

With every interview process, there is of course the risk of people being disappointed with the outcome, which would have to be sensitively dealt with.

More research needed.

L

Land

If the hope / expectation is that land is donated by the local authority to some form of charitable or similar trust, overseeing the regeneration of a housing development, then a legal contract would require to be drawn up.

If it is important to them, a local authority continuing to own the land should do little to affect their balance sheet.

More research needed.

Laundry

With each passing year, the technology of washing machines and clothes dryers becomes evermore sophisticated.

And in any community that decides to operate a shared laundry – perhaps attached to a cafe-bar, where the minutes can be constructively whiled away – it might be that the best technology available is the most appropriate option to pursue.

A shared laundry, in purpose-built premises, will save on moist air building up inside the homes operating their own laundry machine(s).

A handful of top-of-the-range machines in a shared laundry will reduce the per household cost, if the alternative is having to purchase one’s own laundry machinery.

That said, many new residents might have their own machine(s), from their previous home, which they might choose to keep or sell or donate to charity.

More research needed.

Legal structure

There are not one but two legal structures that potentially require deciding upon.

One would be for the organisation operating any revitalisation of a housing development. The other would be to provide for any community-managed elements of it, such as cohousing or co-operative housing.

More research needed.

Letting

The community council serving the Northumbrian village of Bamburgh managed to achieve it, and so others can presumably follow suit. Namely, the banning of new housing being made available for holiday letting.

More research needed.

M

Mental health

Mental health has become a pressing health issue, with the likes of loneliness considered a major cause of premature death.

To help ensure good mental health requires not just good housing design (eg lots of natural light), but social interaction, a sense of feeling valued, careful monitoring of those potentially at most risk and easy exposure to nature.

More research needed.

N

Non-compliance

The risk exists that a new resident – having pledged to volunteer within the community, as a prerequisite to being offered a property – then decides to not co-operate.

Some form of disciplinary procedure might require to be pursued, should early conversations fail to effect a change in behaviour.

The ultimate sanction would be expulsion, but really only in rental situations, not owner-occupier ones.

More research needed.

P

Parts inventory

Every new home should be handed over to its occupant(s) with an accompanying inventory of parts, to allow for the sourcing of spare parts, should a repair be required to be carried out.

It should be as detailed as possible, including paint colour reference numbers, door handle supplier contact details and white goods model numbers.

A spreadsheet-type inventory should include the following fields: common name of part, brand name, retailer, any reference number, retailer contact details, guarantee and warranty information and where the part is being used (eg in the bathroom).

It might be that a wider welcome book of the home is compiled, to include the parts inventory, plus tells the story of the house build: the philosophy behind it, expected energy performance, piping and wiring plan, insulation and ventilation kit, the team involved, etc.

More research needed.

Photography

A photographic record of revitalisation work undertaken on a housing development would not only be useful to illustrate any welcome handbook for new residents (and any souvenir handbook for already-existing residents), it might also provide wall decoration for any cafe-bar (perhaps in a similar vein to the photographs that adorn Tabac cafe-bar by Exeter Central rail station, in Devon), plus the bones of a perhaps travelling exhibition.

More research needed.

Place of worship

It used to be that the focal point of the village was the church. In these increasingly secular times, there is arguably less of a need. 

But there remains an obligation to provide a place of worship.

The question is, to what extent different faiths can operate within the confines of the same building?

More research needed.

Plastic

Any responsible community would seek to minimise the use of single-use plastic.

That might involve tough negotiations with prospective food retailers, the woo-ing of retailers already committed to being as plastics-free as possible (eg so-called ‘refillery’ shops) and would be assisted by the operation of a common fruit and veg garden (where produce can be distributed, ‘loose’).

It might be that food delivery services (operating to plastic-free standards) are actively encouraged, such as milk delivered in glass bottles.

Households might be invited / required to pro-actively separate plastic from their other refuse, so that it can be responsibly recycled.

More research needed.

Pond

Should the topography allow, it might be worth investigating the possible installation of a pond, which can provide sanctuary for both wildlife and people.

And it might be that the pond can be fed by not just rainwater (insodoing acting as a possibly effective rainwater run-off) but waste water from neighbouring houses.

Safety is obviously key – especially if there is young children about. Quite whether it could be used for angling and boating would probably require too big an expanse of water.

A possible source of design expertise is the cohousing community, LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds, which has a pond, complete with reed beds and a seating platform.

More research needed.

Property prices and rents

An area turned into a highly desirable part of town will be reflected in its property prices and rents. 

As explained elsewhere, it might be possible for an area to be deemed a so-called ‘rent pressure zone’, as a protection against the likely inflationary pressures on property rents (as charged by landlords), following efforts to regenerate it.

For already-existing residents who are owner-occupiers, regeneration is likely to be welcomed, for the upward influence on the value of their properties. And it’s unlikely there is any mechanism to prevent house price inflation among those properties already owned in the community being regenerated.

The assumption is that newly-built properties are made available by the ‘developer’ at ‘affordable prices’ and in perpetuity.

More research needed.

R

Rent

If the intention is to keep rent increases to a minimum, particularly as an area becomes more desirable, then it all depends on the who the landlord is. A socially-responsible one is likely to be bound by its own founding principles, to maintain modest rents. 

Meanwhile, a more free market landlord would probably require to be instructed to keep rent increases to a minimum.

This might be achieved via a so-called ‘rent pressure zone’ (RPZ).

Says the Scottish Government, here (https://www.gov.scot/policies/private-renting/rent-pressure-zones/): “Local councils can apply to Scottish Ministers to have an area designated as a RPZ if they can prove that:

* rents in the area are rising too much;

* the rent rises are causing problems for the tenants; and

* the local council is coming under pressure to provide housing or subsidise the cost of housing as a result.

“A rent pressure zone will only apply to rent increases for tenants with a private residential tenancy. Rent increases for tenants with a short assured or assured tenancy will not be affected.”

It will make sense for a RPZ to be created for an area ahead of anyone getting a sniff of plans to regenerate it.

More research needed.

Residents

In any regeneration plans for an already-existing housing development, there is likely to be existing residents and prospective new ones.

It might be that one group will find it difficult to integrate with the other.

If new residents are required to commit – as a prerequisite to securing housing in an area – to certain tasks within their community (eg an hour per week of voluntary effort), it might be that there will be pockets of resistance among existing residents.

Pockets of resistance leading to actual, physical sabotage – of course, for the most irrational of reasons.

It might be that resistance will be overcome by evidence of life becoming ‘better’ – to the extent that already-existing residents might choose to sign up to many of the tasks being carried out by new residents.

It might also be possible to head off resistance before it has had a chance to surface, by engaging in genuine consultation, including door-to-door detailed surveying, an on-site drop-in centre and other communication exercises. Especially if accompanied by reassurances about rent controls (existing home owners will likely relish the chance of their properties growing in capital value).

More research needed.

S

Sport and recreation

Depending on the availability of land, it might be possible to integrate sports facilities into a community.

For instance, a basketball court (one that doubles up as a small football pitch), outdoor gym equipment, a bowling green and a tennis court.

More research needed.

Strain on existing services

Intensification of a place that results in more households making up a community population risks creating additional strain on existing services, including nearby roads.

The ’20-minute neighbourhood’ is designed to minimise that risk, but that’s not to say it would do so entirely.

More research needed.

Street design

Within the bounds of building regulations (or a willingness by planners to be flexible on over-looking requirements), history tells us that the ‘most successful’ streets are those that are intimate, narrow and winding. Medieval town centres tell us that; so too the ‘high priestess’ of urban design, Jane Jacobs, and more recent urban realm thinkers, such as Peter Barber.

Of course, access for emergency and delivery vehicles needs to be factored in, plus for people with a physical disability, but it’s an anomaly that streets are designed in a way that allows for vehicles to be driven at high speeds, only to then ask drivers to reduce their speed. Roads should be designed so that maximum speeds are an inevitable outcome.

Cycle lanes, meanwhile, should be segregated from streets – for the safety of everyone. And where possible, any internal cycle network should easily link in with a more town or city-wide one.

The preference should be to encourage walking and cycling, with deliveries – for instance – using cargo bikes rather than cars or vans.

More research needed.

Street lighting

Edinburgh has been recently replacing its street lighting, with lighting that is said to be much less energy-consuming, while providing a ‘better’ quality of light.

Some additional facility in any new housing development is a power source for festivities and Christmas lighting.

More research needed.

Street names

New homes will require new postal addresses (street names and numbers, plus postcodes).

And various delivery and census services will require to be informed, including the Electoral Register, the Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey, online retailers and satellite navigation services.

More research needed.

V

Volunteering

There are several tasks requiring to be fulfilled if a community is to function cohesively, in the manner comprehensively described elsewhere.

It might be that a ‘community worker’ is employed to generate community activity, such as managing a common garden and the setting up of various book-reading, knitting, choir, etc clubs.

Alternatively, a network of volunteers (or a mix of voluntary and paid-for effort) might deliver exactly the same outcomes.

New residents would most likely require to commit to a certain amount of volunteering, as a prerequisite to moving into the neighbourhood. Perhaps as much as one or two hours’ per week (at the ‘intentional community’ of Lauriston Hall, in Dumfries and Galloway, it’s very much more: approximately 20 hours).

Already-existing residents would be invited to volunteer, but it would not be mandatory as it would be for new residents.

Volunteering tasks would include, among others: work on a common garden, taking part in communal cooking, managing a shared tools shed, managing a car club, litter picking and graffiti removal, recycling and plastics oversight, wildlife habitat management, production of a community newsletter and active involvement in any governance committee (such as conflict resolution, maintenance and repair, health and safety, and volunteer supervision).

More research needed.

W

Walks

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined at least one thing, already long known by dog walkers: that we all need to be able to get out and enjoy a good walk. A place without good walking and places of interest along the way is probably too sterile a place to call home.

More research needed.

Wildlife

Wildlife can be built into new homes, in the form of bird and bee bricks, but the expectation is the provision of space for wildlife – including tress and wildflower – to flourish, with the provision of the likes of ‘wildlife corridors’, for hedgehogs.

Wildlife is a recognised antidote for mental ill-health, and also a great educational tool for young people.

More research needed.

Work spaces

If the spirit of the ’20-minute neighbourhood’ is to be fully honoured, residents should not be required to travel very far to work.

It might be that local or near local employers are invited to establish themselves close to their workforce, with the creation of additional workshop and studio space for trades and artists.

Co-working space is also a possibility.

More research needed.

Y

Young people

For the very young, ‘play park’ facilities would be required – at the very least, outdoor provision – with The Guardian newspaper reporting, here, that ‘green play areas’ might boost children’s immune systems.

For older young people, the opportunity to volunteer would not just be a sign that they are valued and have potentially an important role to play in the community, it might also provide access to skills training.

A youth group would be an expected part of any community groups offering.

More research needed.

Mike Wilson is a member of the editorial team

Pictured: a community orchard, in East Linton

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