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What can Thamesmead – once the ‘Town of the Future’ – teach us about 15-minute cities?

Putting everyday amenities within walking distance of where people live was at the heart of the project’s design – until the car took over

When I was seven, we moved to a new community on the edge of London that the GLC ambitiously billed as ‘the Town of the Future’ – a place where, in the initial stage of the development, no-one lived more than a 15-minute or so walk from the local shops, health centre, primary and secondary schools, library, social club and so on, centred on parkland that included a man-made lake.

The initial phase of Thamesmead – the backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange – bore the hallmarks of what planners would nowadays term a 15-minute city, with all local amenities within easy walking distance or a short bike ride away.

Meanwhile, the motor car was secondary. Sure, each house had a garage, and there was ample parking provision beneath the concrete tower blocks, but the roads mainly ran around the outside of the development and I wouldn’t even have to cross one in the 10-minute walk from home to the shops through a succession of tree-filled, traffic-free squares and across a footbridge over the lake.

Of course, my memories were formed as a child and it’s easy, given the passage of time, to romanticise them – though returning there for an afternoon last summer with two of my siblings to visit old haunts before they fall victim to regeneration saw us remember our childhoods with fondness.

But, the longer we lived there, the more pronounced and more noticeable the social tensions on Thamesmead became, it acquired a grim reputation in the years after we’d left for crime, drugs, gang violence and more.

Thamesmead 02 (copyright Simon MacMichael)

And while in many ways it was a terrific place to be a kid when we were there, our parents’ experience would have been very different, juggling bringing up the four of us while also dealing with long and awkward commutes each day to work in central London.

That latter point reflects one of the reasons why the vision the planners had in the early days never quite translated into reality as subsequent phases of the new town were developed – the Jubilee line station promised in the early 1970s never made it off the drawing board, and the area remains poorly served by public transport.

Instead the car, and the infrastructure needed to support motoring, including a dual carriageway cutting across from Woolwich to Erith, became more dominant in the newer parts of the town developed from the late 1970s onwards.

It’s a stark contrast that is thrown into sharp relief by the abandonment of the initial lofty ideal, but it reflects something that has played out more subtly across the country following the onset of the age of mass car ownership.

If you live somewhere that pre-dates World War 2, the likelihood is that your neighbourhood would have had most if not all of the daily amenities you need within walking distance, and in many towns and cities up and down the country, that’s still the case.

For example, it is often said that London is in essence a collection of villages, and residential parts of the outer boroughs aside, that’s still the case; where I live now is no more than a 15-minute walk to Chiswick High Road in one direction, and Acton High Street in the other.

But in many other places, local shops and other facilities all but disappeared as people were lured to out-of-town supermarkets and retail and leisure parks – and in the majority of cases, getting there by car.

And the primacy of that one mode of transport, in the past couple of decades, has had a profound effect on planning policy. When I lived outside Oxford, a major housing development comprising hundreds of homes was built on the edge of a village I’d regularly pass through on the bus.

What wasn’t built though, were the amenities to serve the people who lived in those houses. The village shop was long gone, and despite the increased population, the only local option was the small convenience store at a petrol station on the main road on the outskirts of the village – so many residents, old and new, would see little option other than to drive into Oxford, or at least retail developments on the outskirts of the city.

In its essence, the emergence of the concept of the 15-minute city in recent years within planning circles has sought  to redress that balance, by ensuring that people have the amenities they need on their doorstep – whether that be healthcare, education, space for leisure, or places to shop.

Whatever its opponents may claim, it categorically has nothing to do with some global conspiracy aimed at restricting movement, of forcing people to remain within a mile or so of their home.

No-one’s saying you can’t drive to the next town to do your weekly supermarket shop, or go into the centre for a night out.

But what it does do is give people the choice of whether or not to do that by having options available to them locally, while at the same time making the areas they call home more liveable, more attractive, and more human.

Is that really such a bad thing?

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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