Is the 15-minute city the utopia people think it is?

Is the 15-minute city the utopia people think it is?

    Imagine you lived in a city where you could get anywhere you need within 15-minutes of opening your front door.

    Whether it be where you work, the dentist’s office, or even the newest pop-up bar to meet up with friends. You'd never need to jump in your car and deal with traffic (or navigate 5 public transport changes), to eat decent pizza or go to an art gallery opening ever again. 

    Instead, these places would all be within walking or cycling distance. Yep, it'd be that easy. 

    I know it sounds like a pretty utopian scenario, but this could be what the future holds for someone who lives in a 15-minute city. 

    So, what even is a 15-minute city?  

    Well, it’s definitely an idea that’s gotten urban planners all aflutter with excitement, as you might expect. After all, it sounds like you’d be living in one of those architect’s renderings of a perfectly-designed neighbourhood. 

    At its bare bones, it’s a city that’s been decentralised. Instead of a central area where everyone has to travel to for work, school, shopping and entertainment, cities are made up of smaller, self-contained districts. 

    These neighbourhoods will have everything that locals need, like workspaces, shops, schools, restaurants and healthcare. 

    In this world, people can access everything within a 15-minute walk or cycle from their home.  

    15-minute city

    Gone are the days of commuting. 

    No longer will we need to spend hours travelling across town to enjoy our city’s best bars and restaurants. 

    Cars will be a thing of the past! 

    OK, I got a bit carried away on that last point. But before I go any further, let’s lay out the three main concepts behind the idea: 

    • Cities should adapt to humans, not cars
    • Every square metre should be used in more than 1 way (for example, a school’s playground can become a public park on the weekend)
    • Neighbourhoods should be designed so we don’t have to commute out of the area to “live, work and thrive”

    Essentially, it would mean a complete redesign of the modern concept of a city - one where humans are at the forefront, we use existing space more effectively and have better access to facilities locally.

    A little more background

    So, where did this so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea come from? 

    Surprisingly, the pandemic didn’t play a part in its creation (but it’s pretty much the reason it’s blown up). While many aspects of the 15-minute city really seem to gel with the ‘new appreciation for the local’ ethos we have after going through several lockdowns, it was actually introduced by scientist Carlos Moreno years before Covid was on the scene. 

    When he came up with the idea (built on activist and author Jane Jacob's work), he was actually trying to solve urban density issues like displacement and increased pollution from traffic.

    After the past 2 years, though, the idea has really picked up steam (and even won an award) for an entirely different reason. The benefits of more green spaces, better access to services, and stronger ties between neighbours seem to be flooding the zeitgeist. 

    We all want a local park and better shops within walking distance. Of course, it would also be nice to know our local baker’s name and feel more like we belong to our community. 

    If you leave it at that, it’s easy to see why many supporters are happy to herald the idea as the be-all and end-all to our cities’ problems. 

    But, we happen to live in the real world, and things are never as simple as that.

    Is a 15-minute city actually possible? 

    Well, it definitely looks like it. The 15-minute city has already been introduced in a few places around the world, with Paris being the first to truly embrace it. 

    Mayor Anne Hidalgo won her 2020 re-election by using the 15-minute city as the key to rejuvenating Paris. While she's been in charge, she’s:

    The thing is, though, not every city is ripe for renovation. In general, it’s easier for European cities like Barcelona, Milan and Edinburgh (all of which have expressed interest in the idea) to work with their already pretty pedestrian-friendly streets, communal squares and tonnes of green space.  

    This is a valid criticism of the 15-minute city (with some people going so far as to suggest the idea is a holdover of colonialism). If your city is instead the product of urban sprawl, or a place where cars have ruled the roost for decades, you can’t just rip up people’s houses or motorways and start again. 

    That being said, city planners shouldn’t just put these cities in the ‘too hard basket’ and move on. Colombia’s capital Bogotá, notoriously one of the world’s most congested cities, has proven it’s possible to turn it all around. 

    To do it, they’re building on the pedestrian/cycle roads that were put in place during the pandemic and making them permanent. In the future, the city will eventually implement several Barrios Vitales where residents will be able to reach everything they need within a 20-minute walk, alongside an improved metro/tram network and over 200 km of pedestrian routes. 

    Bogotá was never going to be able to turn their major traffic corridors into a sprawling pedestrianised avenue like La Rambla - they had to do the 15-minute city their way to actually make achievable improvements. This goes for every city - planners have to apply the core principles in a way that makes sense.

    For example, in Ottawa, they’re focusing on their footpaths - not just in terms of how walkable they are, but also how many trees need to be planted to shade those paths on hot days.

    In Melbourne, they launched pilot programmes way back in 2018 across three suburbs, each with different focus areas. Whether it was encouraging more street trading or supporting housing diversity, they took into account exactly what the people in that area needed the most. 

    All around the world, cities are already introducing similar ideas: 

    So, more and more cities are putting their hands up and introducing these ideas into their urban plans. And that’s great...isn’t it? Well, we’re talking about some pretty drastic changes that will affect the way people live - for better or worse. I did say it wasn’t black and white... 

    Just because we can, does it mean we should? *Cue Jeff Goldblum

    The realities of a 15-minute city

    Well, there are three pretty compelling reasons why cities want to push forward with the idea: 

    • Greater accessibility for people who don’t have a car
    • More green spaces to improve mental health, reduce stress and encourage exercise 
    • Less pollution - something our planet really, really needs

    But, when you step away from the theoretical and jump into the real world, there are a few very valid criticisms floating around about the 15-minute city. 

    G-g-g-g-gentrification

    One of the main marks against the idea (for good reason) is that it’s a slippery slope to gentrification. 

    As an area improves and new shops, parks, schools, and maybe even a trendy café or two moves in, locals and their families who may have lived in this area for generations are pushed out when real estate prices inevitably shoot up. 

    This is a real concern for many inner-city residents around the world because it means that they may end up being displaced. 

    It can be prevented, though. As a start, city planners should take a leaf out of the book of the rising de-gentrification movement. 

    At its core, it is about giving people the choice of where they want to live without social or financial barriers. 

    One way to do this is to give people “the right to the city”, or the right to have a say in a city’s redesign. Other options may look like eviction bans, new legislation to neutralise rent prices, or even the creation of more affordable housing options.

    So, it may not have to be an inevitability after all. Remember, the 15-minute city, in theory, is about providing better access to all, not just those in wealthy neighbourhoods. 

    To be a true success, the 15-minute city must also incorporate these ideas before any changes are made. Otherwise, it’ll cause ripple effects that could mean millions of people end up losing their homes and community ties. Kind of the opposite of what we’re going for...

    Prioritising remote over essential workers

    It’s clear that the concept of working within 15 minutes of your house will only be possible if you can actually work close by. 

    But even in a Covid world, not everyone is able to work from home or remotely (with even fewer able to do it full-time). So, what does a 15-minute city mean for those who actually need to commute to work? 

    Well, because taking cars off roads in favour of pedestrianised streets or bike paths will likely make it more difficult for those who rely on them to get to work, it may eventually mean that only people who can work locally can live in a 15-minute city. 

    If we take Barcelona’s idea of creating more ‘super blocks’ as an example, we see that many roads currently used by traffic will be cut off. So, if your quickest commute to work is currently through one of these proposed super blocks, tough luck. Your commute has easily doubled or tripled as you work around the new street layout. 

    In some areas, we may see a mass exodus of people moving out of 15-minute cities and closer to where they actually work. Will this mean we see a return to some areas being known as ‘factory towns’ for particular industries, rather than offering a variety of opportunities? 

    The thing is, that would kind of go against what we’re looking for as well. 15-minute cities should encourage innovation, not stifle it. 

    Looks like some smart urban planning decisions will need to be made to ensure people who work outside the city will still be able to live there and enjoy the other perks. Things like traffic corridors and alternate modes of transport (like buses and trams) will need to be considered. 

    Essentially, we don’t want to see some people benefiting from better pedestrian access to the detriment of someone else who needs to use their car.

    An end to creativity? 

    To end on a bit of a lighter note, let’s talk about the creativity that cities inspire. Traditionally, people have been able to meet, mingle and share ideas in one central area. In the case of a 15-minute city, the concern is that these people may never cross paths.

    Well, sure, people are going to be able to stay local if they want to, but they’ll also leave their 15-minute radius if they want to meet up with someone across town. 

    In fact, it’ll mean that social links within local areas will be strengthened in a way they haven’t been for many years, potentially fostering more creativity than before. 

    Of course, people will be able to collaborate in areas other than the traditionally ‘arty’ ones in a city. Creative hubs like London’s Shoreditch or Alcântara in Lisbon will still be buzzing with people, but they won’t be the only place you can go for art or culture. 

    So, do you want to live in a 15-minute city? 

    Decision time! Just kidding - it’s a bit more complicated than that, I know.

    Most of what I’ve discussed here is either theoretical or in the early stages of being implemented in just a few places. If these concepts are introduced by city planners in different types of cities, they will likely have to sort out new and varied challenges we can’t even imagine yet.

    In other words, the reality of living in a 15-minute city would look different for everyone. So, it’s very unlikely it’ll be the perfect utopia suggested by some urban planners, or even play out exactly like I described at the beginning of the article. While it won't be that be-all and end-all solution to a city’s problems, it does come with a lot of benefits, and these would aim to improve the lives of many people around the world.

    Honestly, I don’t know if this is the way forward for every city, but at least it’s got the people at the top thinking more critically about how their cities currently work, and what could be changed for the better. And that can only be a good thing, don’t you think?