Pandemic Prophecies: 20-minute neighborhoods

Pandemic Prophecies: 20-minute neighborhoods


Editor’s note: The Foundation’s magazine, Currents, includes a cover story in which experts offer ideas and predict the future after the pandemic. This piece is part of the cover story, which you can read in its entirety at this link.

By Camille Manning-Broome
Public health, climate change and equity are the driving challenges of our era. They’re all connected, and community planning is an essential tool for addressing all three.

Camille Manning-Broome, Center for Planning Excellence
Camille Manning-Broome, Center for Planning Excellence

We have to shift away from business-as-usual when it comes to developing cities and neighborhoods. Smarter land use and smaller footprints help mitigate climate change, promote equitable access to housing and jobs and—as we are learning now—help preserve the natural environment and habitats that are needed to limit the spread of new infections from animals to humans.

Land use as a tool for building resilience isn’t just about curbing sprawl—we also need to think differently about community design within the footprint.

Our globalized economy creates many efficiencies, but it also creates huge liabilities, such as facilitating rapid spread of infectious disease.

If our cities were made up of a conglomeration of 20-minute neighborhoods—places where residents can get everything they need daily via a walk or bike ride that takes 20 minutes or less—containment during a pandemic would be much easier and economic losses far less devastating. Sheltering in place neighborhood-by-neighborhood would be possible because residents wouldn’t have to travel long distances to get what they need. Places that weren’t affected could be protected and their economies could continue to function, reducing losses overall and enabling those places that do have to shut down to bounce back more quickly.

It’s all connected: walkable, bikeable 20-minute neighborhoods reduce emissions and mitigate climate change; they promote healthier lifestyles and healthier, localized economies; and they cultivate social cohesion and equitable access to social capital and opportunity.

By designing our cities and towns around interstates and big box stores, and separating neighborhoods from jobs, commerce and cultural centers, we’ve lost sight of what’s important to the human experience: health, safety and community.

I hope that we are able to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic how the status quo is failing us and will continue to fail us until we choose to create places for people differently.

Ms. Manning-Broome is president and CEO of Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence, which provides community planning to cities, parishes, organizations and the state of Louisiana.

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