What are 15-Minute Cities?

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What if you could get from home to your job to the grocery store to the park, all in 15 minutes? While some people are lucky enough to have this be the case, many urban cities around the world aren’t built this way.

Global cities like Melbourne, Paris, New York, and many others are hoping to take advantage of the quiet streets the COVID-19 pandemic has provided to redefine what life in their cities is like, one neighborhood at a time.

15-minute neighborhoods are the brainchild of Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, who envisioned hyperlocal communities where amenities, jobs, government services, shopping, green spaces, and entertainment were just 15-20 minutes away by walking or biking. He used the work of Jane Jacobs, who put forward the idea that neighborhoods are not just physical locations, but social networks as well.

A tool from Here, a geospatial company, lets visitor see if their neighborhoods offer amenities within a 15-minute radius.
A tool from Here, a geospatial company, lets visitor see if their neighborhoods offer amenities within a 15-minute radius.

Cut Commutes, Increase Happiness

By meeting residents’ needs in a 15-minute radius from their homes, residents spend less time commuting and therefore less time emitting CO2 from public transportation or cars. This can increase instances of people walking or biking to work which improves physical and mental health.

Studies show that access to tree canopy and green spaces not only has benefits for keeping neighborhoods shaded and cool during hot weather, but the chemical signals given off by plants and trees have numerous mental and physical health benefits for people. 

Willow Oak in City Park. Photo: USGS, public domain.
Tree coverage in urban areas provide many physical and mental benefits to residents. Willow Oak in City Park. Photo: USGS, public domain.

Additionally, 15-minute neighborhoods allow people to become invested in the people, businesses, and physical spaces around them.

Rather than traveling 40 minutes to the nearest mall or big box grocery store, neighborhoods could have access to regularly occurring fresh produce markets, restaurants and entertainment, schools, and more.

Many cities are modeling flexible use spaces, where buildings are able to be used by multiple groups or for different purposes throughout the course of the day or week. 

15-Minute Flexibility

As we are all experiencing, flexibility is continuing to be a key skill to practice as the pandemic alters how we go about our daily lives. Lockdown and pandemic restrictions are allowing us to see the ways in which our local community is taking care of our needs as individuals as well as the ways in which we can transform our communities into spaces that are supportive, functional, and profitable into the future.

More people are working remotely and may continue to work remotely into the near future, allowing them to spend more time at home and in their local area as opposed to commuting into a bigger city. 

The concept of a 15-minute city seems strange to many people in the United States, where 15 minutes might take them from their suburb to a freeway onramp or to the next town over. Urban areas in the United States and in many other cities around the world focus on a downtown center that is filled with industry and office buildings that people drive or take public transportation to from elsewhere.

Unfortunately this has led to ever-increasing commute times, pollution in the form of poor air quality, and a decrease in quality of life for many people. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the gap between the old ways of doing things and newer, more flexible ways of living and working.

When lockdown was enforced, residents of populated areas heard a decrease in regular city noise, experienced an increase in air quality, and took to the streets as walkers, runners, and bicycle riders.

Geoscientists with the Royal Observatory of Belgium reported that anthropogenic noise had dropped by a third after the lockdown was initiated on March 18, 2020.
Geoscientists with the Royal Observatory of Belgium reported that anthropogenic noise had dropped by a third after the lockdown was initiated on March 18, 2020. Source: Royal Observatory of Belgium, CC BY 2.0

Cities including Paris, Portland, New York, Shanghai, and Ottowa took this time to reimagine what their cities could look like as 15-minute models.

Practical Application

Of course, the theory of 15-minute cities is always simpler than the reality on the ground.

Cities like New York and others with clear historical income, social, and racial divides find that 15-minute cities and revitalization efforts could very well tip the scales in the direction of exacerbating existing problems, not making life better for residents.

So, how do you transform an existing neighborhood or a downtown area full of skyscrapers or empty condos into one that has a variety of housing types, room for businesses, space for government services, schools, and green spaces? 

City planners and advocates for the 15-minute city model are working to collect neighborhood-level geospatial data for the pilot neighborhoods in question. This data can be used to create maps that show residents what amenities they have within a 15-minute radius and what services might be outside of that zone.

The city of Portland, Oregon used GIS to assess the walkability of its urban areas.  Orange to white areas indicate areas of higher access to stores and other commercials services.  Blue to magenta areas have less immediate pedestrian access to services.  The city's Climate Action Plan "sets an objective for 2030 calling for vibrant neighborhoods in which 90% of Portland residents can easily walk or bicycle to meet all basic daily, non-work needs". Map: City of Portland.
The city of Portland, Oregon used GIS to assess the walkability of its urban areas. Orange to white areas indicate areas of higher access to stores and other commercials services. Blue to magenta areas have less immediate pedestrian access to services. The city’s Climate Action Plan “sets an objective for 2030 calling for vibrant neighborhoods in which 90% of Portland residents can easily walk or bicycle to meet all basic daily, non-work needs”. Map: City of Portland.

Urban planners could see if there are empty lots that could be turned into community spaces, if parks could be expanded into areas once designated for parking, and if there are empty buildings that could be flexibly repurposed to meet the needs of the immediate neighborhood.

Of course, a successful 15-minute city takes into consideration the needs, wants, and desires of the neighborhood in question.

While changes levied from higher-ups in the government can be seen as impersonal at best and harmful at worst, pioneering 15-minute cities like Paris and Portland are engaging with residents on a local level to determine what projects should receive public funds to move forward.

This engages community members and gives them power to put money (that they’ve already paid in taxes) to good work meeting the needs of their local area. 

The Future of 15-Minute Cities

The future of 15-minute cities depends in part on the pilot neighborhoods in Paris, Portland, Seattle, Ottawa, and countless others across the globe. What makes the study and implementation of ths idea so important is that what works for one neighborhood may be entirely wrong for another, even if they’re geographically located in the same area. 

The embracing of a 15-minute city model might be easier for some people than others; loosening our grip on ‘the way we’ve always done things’ to make room for a more inclusive, functional, and locally-focused environment might be just what we need to learn to adapt to our rapidly changing world. 

References

C40 Knowledge Hub. How to build back better with a 15-minute city. July 2020. Retrieved from https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/How-to-build-back-better-with-a-15-minute-city?language=en_US

Davidson, Justin. The 15-Minute City: Can New York Be More Like Paris? 17 July 2020. Retrieved from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/the-15-minute-city-can-new-york-be-more-like-paris.html

Peters, Adele. This map tells you if you live in a ‘15-minute city.’14 October 2020. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90563920/this-map-tells-you-if-you-live-in-a-15-minute-city

World Economic Forum. Paris is planning to become a ‘15-minute city.’ 9 September 2020. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/videos/paris-is-planning-to-become-a-15-minute-city-897c12513b

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