Close to home is best

Canberra is compartmentalised with different parts specialised, providing goods and services found nowhere else. We live in Gungahlin, work in Tuggeranong, buy furniture in Fyshwick and school our kids in Red Hill. Vast distances are travelled for things we could do locally. The 20-minute city is where we have all this at our doorstep. Fewer mega-stores, mega-schools, and mega-department-buildings, for a more decentralised approach! Think local.

Sins of commission and sins of omission

The challenges Canberra faces have as much to do with what we are not doing (omission) as much as what we are doing (commission). We tend to forget the opportunity cost in our decisions. Every decision for one option (commission) means that we forfeit another (omission). Our paradigm for a fast and efficient city gives us a car centric city design that separates what belongs together. Reversing this trend, we put together that which belongs together and exclude that which does not.

The downward trend of our urban culture is due to two types of sins, sins of commission and sins of omission. Broadly speaking, the sin of commission consists of our actions to separate from each other all those urban elements which, for the cities to work, belong into intimate commingling with each other. The sins of omission consists of our neglecting to separate from each other, those activities which disturb and destroy another. The sins of commission and sins of omission are causally interrelated. We are separating activities which belong together from each other because our omission to separate those which are disturbing to them, makes it impossible to operate otherwise.

Victor Gruen speech at the AIA, San Fernando Valley Chapter, undated. 1964. University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Centre (AHC), YouTube, accessed 6 January 2022.

Red pill or blue pill

A study “Designing suburbs to cut car use closes gaps in health and wealth” (The Conversation, 18/10/2017) considered the effects of car dependence on people’s lives. The study concludes that providing good public transport, walking and cycling choices in new estates is essential.

Rising housing prices have forced many low-income families to live on the fringes of Australian capital cities. Residents of these sprawling outer suburbs often have worse access to public transport, employment, shops and services. They need one or more motor vehicles simply to get to work and take children to school.

Buying and maintaining vehicles in Australia is expensive. These costs have a large impact on household budgets. Household finances then affect health…

Designing suburbs to cut car use closes gaps in health and wealth, The Conversation, 18/10/2017

20-minute neighbourhoods

20-minute neighbourhoods are an interesting urban planning idea to decentralise the population from the city centres by making the local area more liveable.

The concept is not about travel by car. It is about active transport (walking, cycling) and the use of public transport. The goal is that this combination of modes would offer a reasonably sized catchment area in which people, jobs and services, including recreational opportunities and nature, are accessible.

People love the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods, The Conversation, 19/2/2020 

People generally loved the thought that most (not all) of the things needed for a good life could be within a 20-minute public transport trip, bike ride or walk from home. These are things such as shopping, business services, education, community facilities, recreational and sporting resources, and some jobs (but probably not brain surgery).

Creating a city of 20-minute neighbourhoods is a key policy direction of Plan Melbourne 2017-2050. As the plan states:

The 20-minute neighbourhood is all about ‘living locally’ – giving people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip of their home.

People love the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods, The Conversation, 19/2/2020 

Mix it up with density

Compartmentalising our city into areas by function is a form of district specialisation that has some areas for housing and some areas shopping and others for working, forcing us to drive large distances between these places to achieve that necessary in our day-to-day lives. Back in 1964 Victor Gruen pointed out how unproductive this thinking is. Rather we should mix many things together – employment, housing, schools and shopping – in one area so that the travel distances are short. Mixing things together creates a community.

Before we are able to apply the tenets of our planning philosophy successfully, we will have to rid ourselves from some deeply ingrown beliefs, concepts and prejudices.

You will have to throw overboard the prejudice that high density is in all cases a devil and low density therefore an all cases angelic. The low suburban densities arrived at by placing detached houses with useless side yards in length wasting manor on a subdivision can be diabolical. High density, on the other hand, is a prerequisite for concentrated activity areas. Our greatest efforts I believe, must go into the direction of inventing and developing methods of multiple length usage, by which the highest practical density of land can be obtained without infringing on the supply of air, life, mobility and privacy.

You must forget the idea that it is virtuous to separate human activities from each other… The encroachment, if properly planned is exactly what creates urban interest, variety and dynamism and ease of communication. Encroachment is the salt of the earth. The compartmentalised cities are unworkable and unliveable. The filing cabinet principle is not applicable to human life.

We must throw away the old wives’ tale that a free choice must be given everywhere to everybody between using length wasting private transportation and land savings public transit in highly developed urban areas. This is just like stating there should be a free choice between making an honest living or stealing from society. Wherever land is in short supply, it is an irreplaceable natural resource and misusing this resource is just like feeling… (we should not misuse this resource).

Victor Gruen speech at the AIA, San Fernando Valley Chapter, undated. 1964. University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Centre (AHC), YouTube, accessed 6 January 2022.

Testing 20-minute neighbourhoods

Would the 20-minute neighbourhoods work for the ACT? They could. We calculated with OpenRouteService the 20-minute area for each town and group centre. Most of the city is covered. The numbers show the location of group centres and town centres. Woden, Belconnen and Gungahlin are examples of Town Centres. Erindale, Kippax and Casey are examples of Group Centres. Group centres are smaller than town centres but provide services and work to the community. The GREEN colour is 10 minutes ride distance and RED shows the 20 minutes distance. Most of the city is covered. The distance travelled with a “normal bike”.

Figure 1: northern Canberra. Isochrone plot: OpenRouteService. Map: OpenStreetMap and contributors.
Figure 3: southern Canberra. Isochrone plot: OpenRouteService. Map: OpenStreetMap and contributors.

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