Thursday, March 23, 2023
March 23, 2023

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In Our View: Idea of 20-minute neighborhoods has value

The Columbian

The idea of 20-minute neighborhoods is not unique to Vancouver. But as city officials prepare for the future, they have embraced a concept that should become familiar to residents.

There are several examples. On Monday, the city council approved zoning changes that councilors say align with the idea of 20-minute neighborhoods. The goal for The Heights District development, centered on the former site of Tower Mall along Mill Plain Boulevard, is to “create eight new 20-minute neighborhoods.” And the concept is central to a proposed Riverview Gateway development at the junction of 192nd Avenue and Highway 14.

Which probably has some residents wondering what constitutes a 20-minute neighborhood.

In short, the idea is transforming city planning across the globe. Whether described as 15-minute neighborhoods or 20-minute neighborhoods, the concept is the same: to create areas where residents can easily access grocery stores and coffee shops and outdoor recreation and restaurants and a variety of retail outlets. As the city of Vancouver website explains, a 20-minute neighborhood is an area “where residents can walk, bike or take transit to meet their daily needs.”

As put it last year: “If you’re an urbanite, how long does it take you to get to a supermarket? What about a public park, pharmacist, or primary school? For proponents of the 15-Minute City planning concept, the answer to all of those questions should be ‘less than 15 minutes.’”

That concept might seem foreign to Americans. For the past 60 years or so, U.S. cities have been driven by the idea of a central business district, with the local population using automobiles to travel to and from suburban residences.

Now, efforts to reduce vehicle travel are transforming that idea. One reason is the demonstrable negative effects of gasoline-powered cars; if somebody can walk five minutes to a pharmacy rather than driving 20 minutes to one, that is better for the environment — and for their health. Another motivation is to reduce congestion in urban areas and ease the paths of travel. Yet another is to enhance the sense of community that comes with neighborhood businesses, promoting enclaves that create a sense of place.

Critics argue that governments are engaging in social engineering out of a desire to get people out of their cars. But city planning always involves social engineering; modern plans are not unlike when cities built vast freeway networks that led to suburban construction. And reducing single-passenger traffic has positive effects both socially and environmentally. There is nothing wrong with creating neighborhoods that reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

That, of course, is a lofty and precarious goal. Vancouver — along with other cities — must be cautious in approaching ambitious ideas to ensure they achieve the stated goals.

The latest zoning changes, for example, include an 8-acre site that houses the now-closed Lieser School. Plans include a fire station, a park, townhomes, 100 affordable housing units and a childhood development facility.

It sounds like an earnest plan, but it would be inaccurate to say it will eliminate vehicle traffic. Given that, it is difficult to envision how increased traffic will impact two-lane Lieser Road and a nearby intersection with Mill Plain Boulevard.

Overall, however, the concept of 20-minute neighborhoods is worth promoting. It promises to transform American cities — a transformation that will be for the better.