FHS professor Meghan Winters and her REsearch and ACtion for Healthy Cities (REACH-Cities) team consulted with more than 100 Surrey, BC residents during the summer of 2023 to discuss whether 15 minute neighbourhoods would be desirable and functional. Photo: REACH-Cities

FHS researchers engage Surrey residents on 15 minute neighbourhoods

April 08, 2024

by Sharon Mah

“15-minute neighbourhoods” have garnered attention in recent years as a possible approach to improve community connectedness and health outcomes in urban environments. The concept relates to planning communities where essential resources, services, and amenities are accessible within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from residents’ homes. By reducing reliance on cars, cities can curb emissions, promote physical activity, and facilitate social connections, while also addressing principles of equity and accessibility.

Would this idea work in Surrey – a city where cars are the main way most people get around? What do Surrey residents think about 15-minute neighbourhoods? These are the questions that Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) professor Meghan Winters and her REsearch and ACtion for Healthy Cities (REACH-Cities) team posed to Surrey residents in their research. Winters and her team – Research Manager Aman Chandi, FHS MSc candidate Aayush Sharma, and FHS PhD candidate Zarah Monfaredi hosted nine workshops during the summer of 2023. Through working with community partners, the team heard the views of refugees, newcomers, youth, older adults, low-income single mothers, urban Indigenous, and queer folks – residents whose voices are not always well-represented in civic issues.

Focus group participants were asked about their neighbourhoods, the barriers they faced, the opportunities they saw, and their vision for an ideal 15-minute neighbourhood. During these sessions, knowledge flowed both ways – residents shared their experiences, insights and concerns, while the research team shared urban planning concepts, maps of the city, and ways in which residents can actively engage in shaping their urban futures.

Taken from the 2024 report "15-Minute Neighbourhoods in Surrey: Does the the 15-minute neighbourhood resonate with Surrey residents?"

Overall, participants expressed a desire for 15-minute neighbourhoods in Surrey: they saw it as a means to enhance their quality of life by fostering improved well-being and a sense of belonging. From the conversations, there were four areas that needed to be addressed for 15-minute neighbourhoods in Surrey:  

  • Pedestrian life – increasing the safety and accessibility of pedestrian infrastructure
  • Transit needs and concerns – addressing the need for reliable, safe, affordable and diverse public transit options
  • Desire for spaces of belonging – creating spaces that increase belonging, emphasize integration and community connection, and provide culturally relevant amenities
  • Perceived concerns about 15-minute neighbourhoods – addressing possible affordability issues, overcrowding, and cultural displacement of existing services/resources

Winters notes that the idea of 15-minute neighbourhoods is currently written into the City of Surrey’s Sustainability Charter, as well as other community plans across the Lower Mainland.  She highlights that while the concept has faced recent controversies, a lot of those narratives contain misinformation. “These focus groups were a chance to hear directly from community members about their needs and concerns. Especially for populations who don’t have access to motor vehicles, having amenities nearby was essential. But also, these groups shared they needed more than the shops and services – they needed investments in sidewalks, more reliable transit, and safe environments, so they could be comfortable getting to their destinations.”

Sharma, whose Master’s thesis research explores how 15-minute neighbourhoods might make Surrey more accessible and inclusive, grew up in Surrey and recalls walking with his grandparents to the park, the grocery store, and to medical appointments when he was a child. “Studying the built environment and how it impacts health has shown me that many factors affect people's ability to walk to essential services, including safety, infrastructure, or health.” Data from this project has informed Sharma’s thesis, where he is developing maps based on a community-informed definition of 15-minute neighbourhoods – that is, one specifically relevant to Surrey.

Monfaredi’s work as a PhD candidate is centered on equity considerations in sustainable transportation decision-making. She underscored that creating integrated spaces to enhance belonging, integration and community connection is especially essential for Surrey’s population. “Many residents in Surrey yearn to build community and connections with their neighbours,” she emphasizes. “In our session with newcomers to Canada, we heard that new residents want to settle their families in Surrey for generations to come. Diversity is seen as a strength that brings people together, rather than divisive, and residents are curious to learn about different cultures.”

Chandi also created a visually-based report to share with the larger community, copies were requested by Surrey Libraries for their patrons. This report is also available online. The team has led workshops with the City of Surrey staff, as well as with community groups and public events.

REACH-Cities is a six-year, CIHR-funded project which aims to identify and implement practical ways to incrementally embed equity considerations into city planning processes and advance the work of healthy and equitable cities.