Tag Archives: green spaces

What if we had 15 minute cities?

The idea of the 15 minute city appeared last year, in part I think as a response to lockdown.  It’s a simple principle – that if you live in a city, most of the things you need should be within 15 minutes walk of where you live. Work and schools, health care, food, leisure, green space and so forth.

Most of us can walk for 15 minutes, and those of us who can’t, would benefit from fewer cars on the roads. Many people would benefit from being more active. Reduced travel in our daily lives would cut carbon use, and give us more time back. So many people sacrifice so many hours of their lives to commuting, which is a joyless and literally toxic thing. We’d have better air quality for not doing that.

In a 15 minute city people would get to know their neighbours. There would be more social connectedness. We’d only travel for fun and to do unusual things that aren’t on our doorsteps. While it might be hard to organise towns and villages in the same way, the principle of having access to essential things with as little need to drive as possible, backed up by decent public transport, would make a lot of odds.

If most of us could walk or cycle to do most of our everyday things, we would need far fewer car parking spaces. As it is, the average car is only used for an hour or two every day. The rest of the time it sits somewhere, taking up space and requiring tarmac. What could we do with all that urban space? Imagine if we halved the number of car parking spaces and replaced the tarmac with plants. Imagine green and shady streets, fruit trees, and play areas woven into our urban spaces. Imagine benches, and sheltered spaces for sitting out in inclement weather. Imagine social spaces that don’t depend on paying to access them. Outdoor gym equipment, street pianos, safe places for children.

Children would benefit greatly from fifteen minute cities. With school close enough to walk to, children could exercise and socialise going to and from school. That’s much better than being trapped in a car each time, with no scope to let off steam. Children would be healthier and less stressed if they had a short trip to school in a green and playful environment. Take out some of the car parking and every child could have a safe play area really close to where they live. Every child could cycle and walk safely without the fear of traffic. With more people present in the streets, children would be safer from stranger danger, from bullying and generally less vulnerable.

Take out car parking spaces and put in green spaces, and we’d bring more wildlife back to our towns and cities. More trees and other plants means more insects, supporting more birds. It means biodiversity, and more space for wild things. We wouldn’t have to travel to encounter nature – instead nature would be something we’d encounter every day and that would be living and thriving around us.


Trees in isolation

I am lucky in that the living room window of my small flat looks out onto a view with trees in it. There’s a bit of sky. I sit at my computer to work, and I am facing a horse chestnut tree. Often that tree is full of birds. Over recent days, the leaves have been unfurling and they will be fully open in a day or two and after that will come the flowers.

I feel very fortunate. For many people living in flats right now, there is nothing good to look at outside the window. There is nothing to rejoice in and be uplifted by. We know that green space is good for our mental health, but the way we’re responding to the virus is overlooking this, especially for the poorest of us. What do you do if your home is small and overcrowded, with no garden, no space indoors to exercise, you can’t travel to a green space and there isn’t one where you live?

If we had plenty of green spaces, everyone could get out to exercise and take what care they can of their mental health and there would be no crowding of popular spots. In practice large gardens and access to green spaces go with affluence. There is a huge difference between staying home with a garden, and having no outside space you are entitled to be in. There is a huge difference between a view with some trees in it, and a view of other buildings. The mental health implications of being trapped with no green space, are huge.

What social distancing and isolation means depends a lot on where you are doing it, and that in turn depends on how rich you are. What’s happening now is that the impact of pressures and inequalities that were always there are becoming that bit more obvious. The lack of green spaces for many has always been a mental health issue. The cramped, inadequate conditions many people live in, have always been a problem. Mental health problems have been at an epidemic level for years. Stripped of our coping mechanisms and forced to stay in, many of us who were in challenging situations to begin with will be forced to suffer more.

Access to trees should not be a matter of wealth. Green space should not just be a middle class thing, it should be for everyone. Green spaces help us stay well, in body and mind and this has never been more visible than it is right now. Access to trees is a facet of social justice that often gets overlooked, but it is part of a great deal of systemic injustice that urgently needs changing.