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Deep Sustainability

20-Minute Neighborhoods Could Solve Many of Dallas’ Urban Problems

Cities around the world are trying to adopt new measures to ensure that everything their residents need is available within a 20-minute walk or bike

Many of Dallas’s urban challenges can be summed up in a single term: land use. Whether we are talking about affordable housing or public transportation, income inequality or fixing streets, quality public schools or walkability, at its core, we are really always talking about land use.

Our massive investment in light rail doesn’t work? That’s because the city has developed with insufficient density around stations to make them useful. We can’t afford to fix the streets? That’s because our low-density development model means we have more street surface area than tax base to pay for it, and our highway system has made it easy for new investment to continually seek-out cheaper, under-developed locations outside the city. Our schools are underfunded? That’s because for 70 years land use decisions have allowed urban neighborhood to erode and an endless succession of competing suburbs to spring up to siphon off students, teachers, and taxes from the inner city. At the end of the day, all of Dallas’ urban problems are land use problems.

Which is why a new trend that is being adopted by a number of cities around the world caught my eye. It’s called the “20-minute neighborhood.” The concept is incredibly simple, and yet it promises to solve many of these problems listed above in one fell swoop. What if everything you needed from the city during your day-to-day life was located within a 20-minute walk or bike of your front door? We’re talking groceries, job, social centers, schools–everything. Twenty minutes away, tops. Sounds pretty convenient, right? It would be nice to walk to the grocery store, walk to pick up your kids from school, bike to a concert on a Friday night. But while 20-minute neighborhoods sound, at first, like convenient, fun places to live, their implications are much more profound.

That’s because the idea of 20-minute neighborhoods strike directly at the cause of so many urban issues: land use. What if cities began to regulate their land use so that every corner of a city was measured by their ability to ensure that basic daily needs could be met via a 20-minute walk? That’s the goal in Portland, which has set out to make it so 90 percent of Portland residents live in “20-minute neighborhoods” by 2030 as part of its climate action plan. The concept has been bouncing around for a long time. Back in 2010, The Atlantic looked at the effort not long after it was first introduced and pointed out that the idea was being tasked with taking aim at a whole host of urban challenges:

The 20-minute neighborhood plan is a part of Portland’s long-term strategy to manage the challenges that face many urban environments across the country, including rising energy costs, population growth, roadway congestion, and demand for expensive public transit to connect more and more distant suburbs.

As cities around the world create their own climate action plans to respond to the existential threat of global climate change, we’re seeing 20-minute neighborhoods pop up as part of that solution as well. Melbourne, Barcelona, London, and Paris all have some version of the 20-minute–or 15-minute, or “superblock”–as part of their short- to mid-term development goals.

What would such places look like? The Parisian plan sketches out a vision that would promote a hyper-local approach to all city planning:

Paris en Commun’s manifesto sketches out some details for what this future walkable, hyperlocal city would look like. More Paris road space would be given up to pedestrians and bikes, with car lanes further trimmed down or removed. Planning would try to give public and semi-public spaces multiple uses—so that, for example, daytime schoolyards could become nighttime sports facilities or simply places to cool off on hot summer nights. Smaller retail outlets would be encouraged—bookstores as well as grocery stores—as would workshops making wares using a “Made in Paris” tag as a marketing tool. Everyone would have access to a nearby doctor (and ideally a medical center), while sports therapy facilities would be available in each of the city’s 20 arrondissements.

To improve local cultural offerings, public performance spaces would be set up, notably at the “gates” of Paris — the large, currently car-dominated squares around the inner city’s fringe which once marked entry points through the long-demolished ramparts. Finally, Paris would be populated by a network of “citizen kiosks”—booths staffed by city employees that would offer not just information, but also community cohesion services. Think places where you can drop off and pick up keys, join a local club or buy compost for your balcony plants.

That’s all well and fine for Paris, which already today exists as an urban ideal and bastion of walkable urban living. But could a city like Dallas, for which sprawl is written into the DNA of its identity, growth, and long-range planning, attempt to adopt a commitment towards creating more 20-minute neighborhoods? Does a single 20-minute neighborhood exist in this city today?

I don’t think the goal is as impossible as it might at first seem. If anything, the idea of 20-minute neighborhoods help focus a city’s approach a whole range of issues on the single underlying root cause of many urban problems: land use. And while it can be frustrating to see all of a city’s problems through the lens of a single issue like land use, it can also be encouraging. Recognizing that land use is at the core of so many of Dallas’ challenges is to recognize that those challenges have been shaped by decisions, as opposed to being a bi-product of some uncontrollable factor, like technology or economic innovation.

In other words, the car didn’t make Dallas car-centric, just as the availability of epic quantities of open land didn’t make DFW into a region defined by mega-sprawl. Decisions around land use allowed these things to happen. Similarly, Dallas could decide to pursue land use policies drafted around the creation of more twenty-minute neighborhoods. This approach offers a vision for how new political decisions could refocus our ideas about growth towards something that is more humane, human-scaled, and economically environmentally sustainable.

Let’s start here: Dallas is currently working on creating its own Climate Action Plan. Local officials should ask staff to, at the very least, include the work that has been done by other cities around 20-minute neighborhoods in their own research around how Dallas can prepare itself for the coming decades.

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