I’ve been following the recent debate about the 15-minute city/neighbourhood with more than a passing interest. I have been researching post war housing development in Bristol, focused on the estate I grew up on, for a future publication. Bristol was very taken with the earlier version of this approach to urban communities. It committed to building 17 neighbourhoods around the city based upon this very model. So taken with it that it produced a book after the war which was circulated to every schoolchild in the city in 1945, which explained how this new approach would work: “To plan the city in self-contained districts called “Neighbourhood Units”, each with its own amenities, including a shopping centre, clinic, schools and churches, cinema and recreation grounds. Factories should be built in or near the “Neighbourhood”.
It didn’t take long for this grand plan to hit political and economic reality. Many of the areas the City wanted to build these areas lay outside the council boundary. Five years of lobbying by the city and resistance from the surrounding towns and villages led to over 90% of the planned extension being ditched. On my estate post-war austerity saw the range of facilities scaled back or dropped altogether, fewer shops, no pool, no cinema, the health centre for many years were doctor’s houses, the library arrived 20 years late, as did the factory (which closed after a fairly short time) and many planned recreation facilities were never built. This failure to deliver doesn’t in itself undermine the notion of a 15-minute neighbourhood but is a reminder that great plans require significant resources and enormous tenacity.
History has also not been kind to the neighbourhood idea. Some describe it as planning a city like a village. Living in the southwest one doesn’t have to travel much to see that many villages are struggling to maintain community facilities: schools, pubs, shops are often under threat, public transport is almost non-existent and village hospitals have been closed down as acute services have been consolidated in the cities and local police stations have largely gone. I doubt many of these ideal villages actually exist. The places which could be big enough to sustain such a range of services are the country’s market and industrial towns, however these too have seen services melt away and economies decline. In the case of the estate/neighbourhood unit where I grew up, it reached a peak of success and provision in the 1970s, then a combination of economic policy, public sector cuts and housing policy has seen the area decline and facilities closed or downgraded.
To make a 15-minute neighbourhood work you need high density living (the highest density areas in Bristol are not high rise estates but Victorian terraced areas) and a genuinely diverse population with people from a range of backgrounds and income levels. In recent years I’ve seen two remarkable attempts to create this, Wembley and Poplar both in London. I wish those communities well and am aware how much work is involved. However, I can’t help feel that many proponents of the 15 minute ideal need to take the rose tinted glasses off and learn from the areas where such an approach has failed.
 English City, The Story of Bristol: 1945 J.S Fry