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15-Minute Neighbourhoods: Don’t give an obviously good thing a bland name

Conspiracy theories of Hunger Games-style containment zones are pure fiction, but there is no connotation-free language, so bring on the cultural baggage of the suburb, writes Andrew Wood.

Crookes shops
Rachel Rae Photography

The word 'suburbia' has many connotations. It has different meanings for me depending on how it enters my mind. If it comes through a picture of a drab housing estate then it means something bland, a default dormitory estate. If it turns up in an American movie it’s somewhere between judgemental conformity (Home Alone) and desperation (Mad Men, Ghostworld). Sometimes, I’m transported to a joyously personal suburbia by an insightful writer (John Grindrod’s book Outskirts or Bill Forsyth’s film Gregory’s Girl) or by pop music that revels in its voyeuristic delinquency (Suede, Pet Shop Boys). There are as many versions of suburbia as there are stories.

You might think the term '15-minute neighbourhoods' is so self-explanatory and utilitarian as to be immune from connotations. Unlike suburbia, no-one has written a song, film or poem about them. There’s no cultural baggage. Yet the recent conspiracy theories of Hunger Games-style containment zones show that, if there is a way to misconstrue a word or phrase, then someone will. The distortion is pure fiction, deliberately brewed by those malign alchemists in Tufton Street to destabilise the moderate progressives they find so threatening. But is there a legitimate concern that they are tapping into?

I’ve always lived in 15-minute neighbourhoods, but it turns out that I’ve inhabited each one as a different person: a schoolkid, within reach of the park and the cinema; a commuter, living alone in a village with a railway station to get to work, a chippy for lazy evenings and a choice of pubs with lock-ins; a student, walking everywhere day and night to socialise on a tight budget. But I know other people see these places very differently. I now live in Crookes, possibly the ultimate walkable neighbourhood. I was shocked recently by a colleague who thought the best thing about it was its free on-street parking.

My pre-teenage daughter often walks to her friend’s house in Walkley, but I would advise her against making that journey alone after dark, and when I think of her cycling I imagine an ignorant, distracted or drugged car driver making it her last journey. Statistically, my fears are unfounded, yet these roughly-sketched predators and all-too-vivid vehicular idiots lurk even within my own version of neighbourhood. Just because the area is walkable and welcoming, that doesn’t make it a utopia.

My good fortune to have always lived in these places, where everything I needed was nearby, obscured from me how the language of the 15-minute neighbourhood might be misunderstood. When we reduce something to a concept, we imply that it can be described neatly and completely by the terminology. If suburbia is so many stories, it’s crass to think we could sum a place up and compare it with other places using a conceptual language based only on the time it takes to walk around it.

None of this should detract from the obvious point that it’s much better to have some shops, cafes, a park and a couple of pubs within walking distance than not to have them. But it turns out there is no connotation-free language, so maybe it’s better to weave the stories and accumulate the cultural baggage, rather than hide behind the concept.

On last week’s unexpected snow day we dragged our sledge to the park, picking up some takeaway Portuguese custard tarts on the way there, and a last-minute invitation to a friend’s house on the return leg. This kind of spontaneity should not be a luxury, because it’s fundamental to how we fill in our mental maps of our lives and the places we inhabit.

Our mistake with 15-minute neighbourhoods has been to give an obviously good, life-enhancing thing a bland and innocuous name. It suggests we have something to hide, when what we really want is surprise.

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