Guest post by Kyle Miller (@kyleplans):

As many cities aim to become more walkable, a new concept has been gaining popularity among urbanists: the ten-minute neighbourhood.

A ten-minute neighbourhood is a place where everything you need to do on a daily basis — getting groceries or a haircut, cashing a cheque, working out, catching a bus, filling a prescription — can be accomplished within a 10-minute walk of your front door.

Agricola Street (photo: Kyle Miller)

And actually, it’s not a new concept; humans have lived in ten-minute neighbourhoods for millennia. Only since the early 20th century did an alternative become widely available, i.e., a suburban residential monoculture mandated by zoning by-laws and enabled by the private automobile.

Entrance to Bicentennial Dr., 1963 or 1964 (photo: HRM Archives 102-39-1-573.7)

As always, we come to appreciate the wisdom of the ancients, and the benefits to living in a ten-minute neighbourhood are many. For one, car ownership becomes largely unnecessary. As society grapples with congestion, pollution, climate change, sprawl, rising rates of disease, and all the other negative externalities from car-dependency, it’s clear that encouraging more ten-neighbourhoods would be beneficial.

Moreover, in the context of North American cities where disadvantaged communities often end up being the most car-dependent, improving walking access to amenities becomes an ethical imperative. Of course, these kinds of neighbourhoods are also a boon to the 27% of Canadians who can’t drive — such as children, the elderly, and the visually impaired.

Gottingen Street (photo: Kyle Miller)

Ten-minute neighbourhoods are the antithesis of making monthly trips to Costco to fill the trunk of an SUV. You (or your kid) can run down to the shops and pick up some eggs — and because everything is so close, you can afford to be spontaneous. There are virtually no time or cost penalties to running an errand. Life in a ten-minute neighbourhood is simpler, less stressful, requires less forethought. Healthier, too, because you’re walking more.

a ten-minute neighbourhood (photo: Mike Spencer)

So what, exactly, should a ten-minute neighbourhood contain? There seems to be no real consensus, so I created my own list of amenities based on a bit of research and the data available to me.

Here’s what I settled on:

1. Arts/cultural space
2. Bank/ATM
3. Bar/pub
4. Barber
5. Bike shop
6. Bus stop
7. Café
8. Car share station
9. Community centre
10. Daycare
11. Fitness centre
12. Grocery store
13. Hardware store
14. Laundromat
15. Library
16. Liquor store
17. Park
18. Pharmacy
19. Recreation centre
20. Restaurant
21. Retail/boutique
22. School

I included bus stops, bike shops, and car share stations because all three are critical to living #carfree. The bus gets you to work or school. When your bike breaks, you need to be able to walk (or carry) it to the shop. And yes, having on-demand access to a car makes sense for those occasional trips to IKEA.

I wanted to see where HRM’s ten-minute neighbourhoods were. To do this, I gathered information about how each type of amenity was distributed across the municipality. Then, based on a map of every address in HRM, I counted how many of the 22 amenity types were available within a 10-minute walk. (Full details of my methodology are available in a footnote.)

The result is the following “heat map” (click to enlarge). Brighter areas have more amenities accessible within a 10-minute walk, and darker areas have fewer.

Access to amenities heat map

I thought that achieving all 22 amenities might be an impossibly high standard to meet, at least for a smaller city like Halifax, but in fact there are some very bright areas — these are HRM’s three ten-minute neighbourhoods.

In more detail:

The “Bloomfield Neighbourhood”, bounded by Robie, Charles, Gottingen, and Russell Streets

The bottom of Gottingen Street, from Barrington Street to Cogswell Street

Downtown Halifax and Schmidtville, bounded by Summer, Morris, Hollis, and Sackville Streets

These areas share some characteristics. To start, they really are neighbourhoods, with a good mix of residential and commercial uses. They have a lot going on, with people out and about at most times of the day and night. (Jane Jacobs would approve; lots of “eyes on the street.”) And whether you look at their streetscapes or demographics or socioeconomic profiles, in almost every way these neighbourhoods are the opposite of a “monoculture.”

Downtown Halifax (photo: Kyle Miller)
You would expect to see ten-minute neighbourhoods manifesting themselves in Census data as well. Indeed, an average of 68% of commuters in these areas get to work without a car. In one area, it’s as high as 78%. Commuting mode isn’t a perfect proxy for car ownership, but if you manage without a car five days a week, you probably don’t need one for the other two, either. Thus it seems many Haligonians are intuitively taking advantage of their ten-minute neighbourhoods’ walkability.

Downtown Dartmouth (photo: Kyle Miller)

While all three ten-minute neighbourhoods are on the Halifax Peninsula, one shouldn’t assume that HRM’s suburban areas are completely unwalkable. In fact, many suburban nodes — usually corresponding to the original town centres of their respective communities — achieve higher scores than large swathes of the Peninsula. To capitalize on this, HRM would need to develop its Regional Main Streets in such a way to improve these scores further, and encourage more people to live in these emerging suburban ten-minute neighbourhoods.

Spryfield: 16 of 22 amenities

: 19 of 22 amenities


Sackville Drive
: 19 of 22 amenities

Downtown Dartmouth is an interesting case study as well. With 21 of 22 amenities, it is poised to become a ten-minute neighbourhood, but is crucially missing a laundromat. With Downtown Dartmouth rapidly transforming, it shouldn’t be long before it reaches full ten-minute neighbourhood status.

Downtown Dartmouth
: 21 of 22 amenities

So what does it all mean? Well, for the time being, ten-minute neighbourhoods remain a rarity in HRM. The three that do exist are located in fairly desirable areas of the Halifax Peninsula, so they are also not the most affordable places to live. However, if you lived in one, you could safely forego the costs of owning a car (a not insignificant $8,000 per year, per CAA).

I hope I’ve made a case for improving access to ten-minute neighbourhoods. To do this, we could add more people to the existing ten-minute neighbourhoods — or we could remove the zoning restrictions that have prevented them from springing up elsewhere. And of course, people won’t walk where it’s dangerous or unpleasant, so new sidewalks, crosswalks, and even street trees will be important in emerging areas as well.

Something occurred to me while I was writing this: when I picture a “neighbourhood”, the images that come to mind are things like the brownstones of Sesame Street and Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Not just neighbourhoods, but ten-minute neighbourhoods. They are truly an archetype, what urban living is all about.

Work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

André Gorz, 1973


Methodological footnote

To create the heat map, I did the following:

  1. Collect point data for all 22 amenity types. I scraped The Coast’s business listings, and Destination Halifax and Yelp for restaurants and bars. GPS points-of-interest (POI) databases provided some information, as did OpenStreetMap. Parks came from HRM Open Data, with polygons converted to a series of points around each park’s perimeter. I georeferenced and digitized the map on the front page of CarShare Atlantic’s website. I didn’t include places of worship, doctors, and post offices in my list of amenities, nor did I include anything car-related such as a gas station or repair garage.
  2. Generate 10-minute walking isochrones for each point. I used OpenTripPlanner for this. OTP uses OpenStreetMap for its walking network, including pedestrian shortcuts where they exist. Otherwise, it uses roads, whether or not there are sidewalks. I would suggest that high-scoring areas without sidewalks today should be prioritized for new sidewalk construction. Anyway, each isochrone is not a simple 800-metre radius, but rather a complex blob shape determined by the local area’s porosity to pedestrians.
  3. Dissolve all isochrones for each amenity type, resulting in 22 binary yes/no layers showing whether or not each amenity is available within a 10-minute walk.
  4. Use a raster grid to sample all 22 amenity layers, summing the number of overlapping layers at each point. The result is a value from 0 to 22.

Yes, this is similar to Walk Score. However, having pulled together the data for HRM alone — a laborious process — I doubt that Walk Score (a commercial service available across Canada and the USA) includes the same level of detail. They are not very forthcoming about their data sources, but they seem to use just nine or so amenity categories. Here is my map compared to Walk Score’s:

A few final thoughts

If you don’t drink alcohol and therefore don’t care about bars or places to buy booze, your ten-minute neighbourhood would only require 20 amenities. In theory, the “teetotal ten-minute neighbourhoods” map should look a bit different, and might even contain more than three ten-minute neighbourhoods. But out of curiosity, I did check this, and very little actually changes. It seems liquor stores and bars are so ubiquitous that they do not “make or break” any ten-minute neighbourhood in HRM.

I think it would be neat to build an interactive version in which the user could customize which amenities are important and what amount of walking is tolerable. It could be handy when deciding where to live.

Someday it would be interesting to check for correlations between an area’s score and housing/real estate prices — to see whether 10-minute neighbourhoods are something people are willing to pay more for.

And I am tempted to re-run the analysis with smaller isochrones, like a 5-minute walk, to see if HRM has any “better-than-10-minute neighbourhoods.”

Kyle Miller is an urban planner in Halifax. Find him on Twitter at @kyleplans