V&A Dundee

The Power of Nearness

How can new dialogues on design impact the places we live? Lee Johnstone responds to the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood.

Written by: Lee Johnstone

Partnership and communication are at the core of the collaborative ‘What if…?’ events series co-curated by V&A Dundee and the Scotland + Venice partnership. The What if…?/Scotland exhibition, produced by award winning Edinburgh based architecture and design practice 7N Architects in partnership with Architecture & Design Scotland, responds to the 17th International Architectural Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia theme which asks, ‘How will we live together?’. Through the pairing of designers and citizens, a dialogue is opened in order to understand the hopes and wishes of how individuals within Scotland want to live. These conversations encourage optimism and energy around how we might design neighbourhoods, civic spaces and infrastructure that puts people first.

"The advantage of more community based living takes pressure from the infrastructure of overloaded cities and nurtures a personal and more environmentally conscious way of living."

On Thursday 30th September V&A Design Museum Dundee hosted an online event titled ‘What if…/ we lived in places of small distances?’. We are introduced to the idea of the 20-minute neighbourhood which utilises the localities of neighbourhoods. Citizens should only need to walk 20 minutes within their neighbourhood in order to work, live and prosper. The power of nearness allows people more control over their time and how they wish to spend it. This nearness is not only in physical proximity but in the mindset of the neighbourhood too. The advantage of more community based living takes pressure from the infrastructure of overloaded cities and nurtures a personal and more environmentally conscious way of living.

Amongst the positives there are many things we need to consider such as how we might implement this concept in neighbourhoods which are rural and the communities are more sparse. There is also the difference of contrasting socio-economic areas which needs to be considered. From the experts on the panel it is clear that by talking and opening up a discourse for change we at least put that change on the table. When we consider more democratic processes of design and change making we include the voices of those who will actually receive and continue the legacy of that change. People become more invested when they feel like the process and outcome reflects their values and choices.

"Design led projects should be informed by what the people need, hope and wish for."

When following the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood it is important to develop a sense of place and the input of citizens is essential in that pursuit. The identity of the neighbourhood must reflect a purpose of being and the vision of its inhabitants. This is what forms the community and influences a desire to be a part of something. There is need for ownership in the creation of these neighbourhoods in which citizens are given the agency to actually inform the decisions that design their future. There is a responsibility that lies with those who hold the power to enact change to ensure that future design and city planning puts citizens at the heart of its purpose. Through either engagement or advocacy, design led projects should be informed by what the people need, hope and wish for from the initial project conception.

The autonomy of these neighbourhoods should allow citizens to make the choices which create a better life for those with whom they share their spaces. By designing more adaptable spaces the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood becomes an exercise of empathy, agency and advocacy building - imparting skills through the neighbourhoods we live in.

With all of this in mind the role of the library comes into view and its place as a community space. The library is a space which is at the centre of place making. Citizens can attend courses, community events and borrow books, seeds and tools. The feeling of growth and belonging can be felt in a space which allows citizens to exist in contentment. Perhaps we might use the idea of a library when we create our public spaces which encourage communication and pensive dwell time. In an era which is more increasingly being built for isolated experiences and digitalisation there is a clear hunger to belong. Through opening up the dialogue for a new way of living we are communicating an opportunity to design the legacy of our belonging.

Image credit - Bash Art Creative