Waltham Forest – building a 15-minute borough

Environment Journal speaks to Waltham Forest Council’s deputy leader, Cllr Clyde Loakes on the work in the borough to develop 15-minute neighbourhoods.

The work includes the ‘Mini Holland’ scheme, which started back in 2013 to improve cycle routes and public spaces across the borough, but as Cllr Loakes explains, the lockdown has given the work fresh impetus. 

The concept of a 15 or 20-minute neighbourhood has been getting a lot of traction recently. Why is Waltham Forest a particularly good area to test the concept?

Cllr Clyde Loakes (CL): ‘I guess as a consequence of our Mini Holland work, which started back in 2013, we have been building what people are now calling 15-minute neighbourhoods. These are areas where you’ve got what you need on your doorstep. Within a 15-minute neighbourhood, you are bound to have a place of worship, you are bound to have a primary school and maybe even a secondary school. You will also have access to other forms of transportation to get you on longer journeys, so if you need the bus, there are bus stops and tube stations to get you wherever you need to go.

‘I think lockdown focussed people on the question of “what can we do for that hour that we are allowed out to exercise?”.

And our findings suggest that many people, who traditionally commuted into central London and left their home at eight o’clock in the morning, didn’t quite realise what was on their doorstep, but during lockdown when they were forced to work at home, they developed a greater appreciation of what was on their doorstep.’

A lot of the thinking behind the concept is about creating individual neighbourhoods, but Waltham Forest seems to developing a borough-wide approach?

CL: ‘The Paris mayor talks about 15-minute cities too. Ultimately, a city or a borough is a mixture of neighbourhoods. In Waltham Forest, we have between 60 to 100 fairly distinct neighbourhoods. Now, not every one of those neighbourhoods is going to have a secondary school in it, or an acute hospital and or a GP surgery.

Some of the blocks will have to be a bit wider than 15-minutes, but what you can do in those neighbourhoods is be a productive member of society. Increasingly as new technology evolves, it will enable more of us to spend more time in a 15-minute neighbourhood.

We will shrink back from central London, which will never be the same as it was pre-Covid. Who in their right mind, if they could work from home a couple of days of week, would go back to taking the tube every day?’

What are the key things that the council has put in place to sort of encourage the development of these kinds of neighbourhoods?

CL: ‘We’ve been bold and we’ve been radical. I’ve been in local government 22 years and I’ve tinkered with trying to affect modal shift, getting people out of their cars and walking or cycling for the bulk of that 22 years with very little, if no effect.

That’s because we always came down to the lowest common denominator in that we had to pander to the motorists’ needs. Pedestrians, cyclists and bus users all played second fiddle.

‘Our Mini Holland programme enabled us to introduce interventions at pace. It enabled these neighbourhoods to become residential neighbourhoods and not bypasses for major traffic routes. Parking was prioritised for residents in those neighbourhoods and visitors to those neighbours.

Parking is not there to facilitate anything else. As you get more people out, walking and cycling, you get more community cohesion and community ownership that we’ve seen flourish in these low traffic neighbourhoods. You can hear conversations with families meeting up on the streets. It’s been transformational.’

How important is it to get community buy in to get the public onside with all the changes?

CL: ‘It’s crucial. However, you have got to use evidence and you have got to hold a lot of people’s hands. But actually, the number of people’s hands you’ve got hold these days is a lot less, because people are accessing more information online, so they already know about the climate emergency and they’ve seen the changes we’ve put in place.

‘Everyone has a view on Mini Holland. And increasingly, people are living in spaces that are shaped by some of those kinds of intervention.

They can see it has made a positive difference even though occasionally, it may create some inconvenience to them.

But they have benefited from fewer vehicles to the residential streets, because they can see the planting, and they can now talk to their neighbours, in a way that they couldn’t do before. We are now getting community champions coming forward, demanding change.

It’s not just the council saying “we would like to do this”, we are being lobbied by groups of residents saying “can we have that level of investment and those interventions in our neighbourhoods as well?”.’

Do you get a sense that residents and voters are now looking at issues like the environment and air quality as more important? Is it rising up the political agenda?

CL: ‘There was some national polling done towards the end of the first lockdown, which showed that because people have spent more time at home, they started to realise what was going on around their neighbourhoods in a way that they hadn’t before. But there was a recognition that this was because people were not moving around in the same way and many people wanted to be kind of deserve that kind of tranquillity.

‘I think with any big historical intervention, like a global pandemic, you do start to question a lot about what you have been doing and how you used to do things. You can already see it with some Westminster politicians. They are talking about the climate emergency, environmental responsibility in a way they were not behind lockdown.

Photo Credit – Waltham Forest Council


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