Ian McCall: COP26 and learning from the pandemic, walking and 20-minute neighbourhoods

Ian McCall from our policy team discusses how the places where we live and work can impact our travel behaviours and help to address climate change.

Kilmarnock Active Travel Hub

The programme for the COP26 conference currently meeting in Glasgow includes a focus on cities, regions and built environment on 11 November. This looks at action on the places we live, from communities, through to cities and regions.

This is a good time to explore the role of walking in addressing climate change, what we have learnt from the pandemic and what is meant by 20-minute neighbourhoods.

The future's on foot

Transport is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland. Research has shown that active travel (walking or cycling for transport) are the most sustainable and low carbon ways to travel. Given that 41% of journeys in Scotland are under 3km, it is feasible that walking or wheeling could replace cars for many of these shorter trips. Walking is also important as it is a part of most public transport journeys.

Learning from Covid-19

During the Covid-19 lockdown, we saw a rise in the number of people walking and visiting the outdoors and local greenspaces. People used this a way cope with the pressures of everyday life, to reach essential shops and services in their local area, and to connect with others and nature in a safe way. Many people said they were keen to maintain this as we emerge from the pandemic.

But we need to do more to make regular walking an enjoyable and accessible choice for everyone in Scotland, from all walks of life.

More investment in walking programmes and safe, attractive places to walk and wheel (wheelchair/buggy) can significantly improve the nation’s health, reducing health inequalities and pressure on our NHS and help address climate change.

The pandemic has also demonstrated that there is inequality in the sort of places people live in and how that affects our lives. It has shown us the value of local – for those able to work from home - but that is by no means the case for all of us.

Lockdown put a great strain on local path networks and demonstrated that in many places it is not fit-for-purpose. The transport, health and climate change agendas all point to us walking, wheeling, and cycling more but the current infrastructure is not able to cope and needs long term investment and maintenance.

Earlier this year we joined our partners Living Streets Scotland and Ramblers Scotland to call for the Scottish Government to ‘Walk Back Better’. The aim was for Scotland to become a “healthier, cleaner, safer and happier walking nation” by locking in the benefits of walking. This included a range of actions including the development of 20 minute-neighbourhoods.

20-minute neighbourhoods 

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, wheel, cycle, or local public transport trip from home. 

It is an idea that is gaining attention around the world. It also captures the renewed enthusiasm for localism in Scotland.

On many levels the idea has appeal – who wouldn’t want to live in a neighbourhood in which they could obtain all the goods and services they require within a twenty-minute walk of their home? This is about what makes a good neighbourhood, and why these features are so important for making safer, healthier places to live.

Our feeling is that the concept is two-fold. It is about infrastructure - and infrastructure that will be lots of small things across the country rather than big ticket schemes - and very much about behaviour change. The two come hand in hand.

These are not new concepts. The 20-minute neighbourhood is essentially about ‘walkable neighbourhoods’. It is about ensuring that everyday needs are within easy, safe walking distance of home: schools, shops, Post Office, parks, greenspace, paths, good public transport, etc.

What is different now, is that the Scottish Government is supporting efforts to turn these aspirations into reality. There is a developing conversation about what this means in Scotland – and in different contexts – so this is an exciting time to become involved. It is positive that 20-minute neighbourhoods are included in the current Programme for Government.

No one has all the answers on how to achieve 20-minute neighbourhoods, but here are some things to consider:

  • 20 minutes for one person is not the same for another – we need to consider age, disability etc. – if we get it right for the least mobile people, we get it right for everyone.
  • Existing neighbourhoods are not equally great places to live – we need to target and enhance the ones that need improvement.
  • We need to be clear about the motivations for deciding to walk, wheel or cycle. It is often not just about the travel but about health, community, etc. as well.
  • There is a cross-over between functional walking and walking for pleasure – including availability of parks, green spaces, local paths. Am I going for a walk because I enjoy it or to buy milk? It can often be both.
  • Not everyone has, or requires, access to a car so there is a need for reliable, affordable public transport as well as better opportunities to walk, wheel or cycle.
  • Many of us are trapped in car dependency – through planning, location of housing, etc. – and this can be an aspect of transport poverty - and once you have a car that changes your decision-making even over very small trips.
  • If we enable people to be less car dependent there are financial, environmental, social and health benefits.
  • We need to think about how to undo 70 years of doing the wrong thing…we need to plan for people, not cars.
  • It raises questions about centralisation of services, loss of facilities (schools, post office, bank etc.).
  • It offers opportunities for local economies – shopping locally, have alook at the Scotland Loves Local campaign which encourages people to support local high streets. 
  • Local infrastructure development can be an opportunity for skills development, training opportunities. e.g., our Community Path work.
  • Different approaches will be needed in different settings – what works in a city will be different to what works in a rural community.

Fundamentally we should celebrate the joy of living in people-friendly places and aim to ensure more people can benefit from that.

The benefits of 20-minute neighbourhoods will be felt by individuals as we will be enabled to go about our lives in active and healthy ways. It will also benefit our communities and local economies. Then there is the the wider global impact of our lifestyles and collective actions in reducing pollution and carbon emissions, to help us on our journey to net-zero.