The 15-minute city: a London case study

There has been a huge amount written about the 15-minute city with the emphasis on glamorous city centres in global cities. The reality though is that the 15-minute city is perhaps less likely to find its fullest expression in those city centres where relatively few people live than in local urban high streets and town centres.

When we add the impact of the pandemic, with more people working from home and making use of local shops and services, these local centres have even greater potential to become the heroes of sustainable living.

Larger cities already have lower per capita emissions. If we build in higher levels of walking and cycling, London communities can take a vital step towards delivering the zero carbon goals that many boroughs have signed up to as part of declaring a Climate Emergency.

The key ingredients of a 15-minute city include:

  • large numbers of residents within walking/cycling distance of the town centre/high street;
  • the presence of core local amenities (shops and services);
  • good access to public transport; and
  • an easily walkable/cyclable high street and town centre – with wide pavements without clutter, frequent crossings, low-speed single carriageway traffic and protected cycle lanes where space allows..

The good news is that there are a large number of town centres and high streets across London around which we can create a highly sustainable city.

This can be downloaded as a pdf here

The London Plan identifies more than 200 town centres.

Here we take one of them as a case study: the Walworth Road in Southwark (just south of the Elephant & Castle), and look at the ingredients that make it a candidate for low carbon/highly sustainable living. We have included links to all the mapping (most councils will have their own versions of these maps (e.g. showing green spaces)). Do use these resources to put forward the case for changes in your area for your high street(s) and in surrounding neighbourhoods and streets.

1. Densely populated. The Walworth area is densely populated with some 45,000 people living in the three local wards. Almost all of these are within a 10-minute (half mile) walk of the Walworth Road at its junction with Penrose St and East St, the historic village centre.

Data on population (by ward):

This density is high but nothing particularly special for Inner London and this shows that many high streets and town centres can build a powerful story for having strong catchment areas for the local economy.

The communities that live close by are diverse and mixed including a large number of council estates. This requires a high street that can meet the needs of a very wide range of customers.

Southwark Council Mapping: (Housing Estates)

2. Car ownership. There are low levels of car ownership in the area. On average (as of the 2011 Census) 68% of Walworth households do not own a car (averages: Southwark – 58%; London – 42%; England – 26%). Clearly there is a reliance on public transport and walking and a strong potential to increase the use of cycling.

3. Local amenities. There are a large number of amenities locally (within walking distance) in the form of independent shops, supermarkets, street markets, banks (there are still two left!), a Post Office, pubs and other amenities such as a new library and leisure centre (nearby at the Elephant).

4. Green space. There is an array of green spaces locally which are made up of formal green and open spaces and large areas of green space that are part of the area’s many council estates. East Walworth in particular is known for its pocket parks and the East Walworth Green Links which tie them together with attractive walking routes. The Walk Elephant project is seeking to make the area more walking friendly and ensure that major regeneration projects also improve the lives of existing residents in the area. Walk Elephant also aims to make more of the Low Line railway viaduct that runs north-south through the area.

New Low Line walking route as part of the Manor Place Depot redevelopment

5. Greening streets. Local people have also used ‘Section 106’ and other forms of funding to initiate projects to improve local streets and make them greener and more attractive.

Pullens Estate – Crampton St SE17

6. A safer, more pedestrian friendly high street. In 2009, changes were made to the Walworth Road to make it more pedestrian friendly and safer with pavement widening, traffic calming, tree planting, decluttering, guardrail removal and improved crossings.

Going further and supporting the 15-minute city.

So…what more is needed? Following the initial lockdown, Southwark Council moved quickly to identify the area as a candidate to prioritise walking and cyclling and has created Healthy Neighbourhoods to the east and west of the Walworth Road.

…and much of this scheme has been implemented over the past couple of months.

In the longer term, there are opportunities for further improvements. To the north and south of the sections that were altered a decade ago, the Walworth Road is wide and fast and this has a significant impact on the number of people who choose to walk and especially cycle. The environment for shops in the southern section is far less attractive.

The two four-lane sections of the Walworth Road. Upper pic north of Browning St towards the Elephant & Castle; lower pic south Liverpool Grove around the Gateway Estate.

There are also roads that would benefit from (part) pedestrianisation and greening and rebalancing in favour of people. Here is the approach to Walworth’s only Grade 1 listed building, St Peter’s Church.

London’s town centres and high streets – pointing the way for the 15-minute city

In conclusion: there are large parts of London that can contribute hugely to a longer term vision of London as a sustainable city and its zero carbon credentials. Walworth, like these other places, has…

  1. Large numbers of residents within walking distance of the town centre
  2. A large number of local amenities
  3. Very good access to public transport
  4. Easily walkable/cyclable high street and town centre.

BUT in order to maximise the opportunities, a number of further actions can help to make these high streets and town centres more sustainable:

  • Improving walking and cycling routes into the local high streets (adjacent Healthy Neighbourhoods and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are ideal for this).
  • Improving conditions on the high streets – traffic calming, frequent crossings, wide uncluttered pavements, protected cycle lanes, trees and greenery.
  • Making the most of green space (allotments, community growing, wild meadows etc).
  • Creating attractive walking and cycling links to local parks.
  • Rethinking the design and purpose of neighbourhood streets (e.g. turning asphalt into greening as is being considered in many cities).
  • Rethinking the use of the kerbside – replacing car parking with more active uses such as pocket parklets and cycle parking.
  • Designing streets to be more climate resilient – Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUDS) and tree planting with canopy cover that reduces temperatures in hot weather.

The prize is huge, with many parts of London being able to support the drive to low carbon living and at the same time increasing wellbeing, happiness and the prosperity of the local economy.

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