Could “20-minute neighbourhoods” help get us to a zero-carbon future?

A pedestrianised street in Darlington. Image: Getty.

The Sustrans manifesto. 

This year has brought a number of unique weather events to the UK: the highest temperature ever recorded, unprecedented flooding, and the prospect of a sub-zero general election. And while we might struggle to lay the blame for hiking to the polling station in crampons at the feet of climate change, our sweltering summers and increasingly unpredictable seasons are the result of greenhouse gases generated by human activity. 

We know that transport is the single largest contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions. This is hardly surprising: 68 pe rcent of all commuting trips are made by car, while even in London half of all car trips are under two miles, a distance which could be cycled in 12 minutes or walked in 40.

As climate concerns rise, solutions for reducing our transport emissions are proliferating. Given our fondness for new tech and our reluctance to change our habits, these are typically geared towards providing an engineered means for us to maintain our routines while reducing our carbon footprint – electric vehicles (EVs) being the prime example.

However, the continued use of EVs is unlikely to result in a low-emissions transport system due to their manufacturing process. A recent inquiry into decarbonisation by the Science and Technology found that:

“In the long-term, widespread personal low-emissions vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation…this should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required, for example by encouraging and supporting increased levels of walking and cycling.”

 That’s why Sustrans' Manifesto for UK Government calls for the next government to commit to creating neighbourhoods where people live within a 20 minute walk, or roughly a five minute cycle, of their everyday services and needs.

The design and location of where people live has a large influence on where they travel, either locking people into car dependency or making it easy for them to travel by foot, cycle or public transport.

In the UK, too many new neighbourhoods have been planned around car travel, at the expense of providing the local jobs and services that communities need to thrive. People with cars are reliant on driving to pick up a pint of milk, and those without cars are left with poor access to everyday items and services.

As the UK population continues to rise, it is critical that we stop building isolated estates, and instead build neighbourhoods where people can quickly and safely walk or cycle to work and for their everyday needs.

  • To help policy makers create 20-minute neighbourhoods, our manifesto recommends four specific actions for the next UK government:
  • Update the National Planning Policy Framework to incorporate 20-minute neighbourhoods as a central principle, where dense, mixed use developments are integrated with public transport;
  • Help local authorities more easily unlock sites for 20-minute neighbourhoods.
  • Develop new planning practice guidance to ensure that new developments must embed walking and cycling provision;
  • Complement the Transforming Cities Fund by introducing a Transforming Places Fund to support 20-minute neighbourhoods in smaller cities and towns.

As humans, old habits die hard. But ours are beginning to threaten the stability of our communities, natural environment and economy.

By  adopting the 20-minute neighbourhood principle we can begin to move towards a zero-carbon transport system, clean up pollution and create better places for people to live all at the same time. 

Daniel Gillett is a policy officer at transport charity Sustrans.



To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.