How many minutes is your neighbourhood?

July 9, 2020

Shweta Gandhi
Urban Planner | Local Pathways Fellow, United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network, MSc Sustainable Urban Development, University of Oxford

Correspondence to

Fifteen-minute neighbourhood planning came into prominence in Canada when CBC News broadcasted ‘Welcome to the 15-minute neighbourhood‘, a news report about Ottawa’s plan to manage development by increasing the density of existing urban neighbourhoods, rather than expanding outwards into more distant suburbs was out. Many other examples of this approach can be found: for example, the vision for 15-minute neighbourhoods in Boulder, Colorado, and and most recently 20-minute neighbouthoods in Portland and Detroit and most recentluy Paris. These are a few of the cities around the world aiming to reduce the carbon footprint and increase the quality of life by transforming urban centres into ’15-minute neighbourhoods’. The concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods can be described as places where residents have easy, convenient access to many of the places and services they use daily. These include grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and parks, without relying heavily on a car. They are characterised by a vibrant mix of commercial and residential typologies all within walkable distance. They have higher concentrations of people and are complete with pavements, bike lanes and bus routes that support a variety of intergrated transportation options.

This approach focuses on urban intensification, with the intent to bring the daily necessities of urban living within more accessible reach of residents, without having to build new infrastructure. The time to implement this concept has been long overdue.

Before the COVID-19 took the spotlight, it was a challenging call for the majority of urban dwellers to move beyond  existing routinesand practices of daily activities, work, and urban planning. The pandemic, however, has forced us to make radical transformations with the help of advances in digital technology, while indirectly promoting new economic services.

In the case of Paris, a dialogue has been promoted within corporations to encourage a transformation in work style, and to propose a reduction in physical presence at workplaces. This involves a new distributed model for working to keep social distancing in mind and to minimise risk to viral exposure. This process of re-framing work may serve as a new road map for creating a sense of safe proximity in the office or factory space.

Urban lifestyles, for many, have become about how much time is spent, how efficiently, and where.. If the majority of basic and necessary services (and eventually even employment) are within a 15-minute radius of the home itself, the result will not  just be reduced pollution, but also the lowering of the time it takes for urban dwellers to complete everyday errands. Time spent shopping, commuting to school and work, may be given the opportunity, resulting in more scope for activities such as community engagement and added leisure time during the week.

Paris en Commun’s 15-minute city concept. From the top, clockwise, the headings read: Learn, Work, Share and Re-use, Get Supplies, Take the Air, Self-Development and Connect, Look After Yourself, Get Around, Spend, and Eat Well. (Paris en Commun)

More importantly, the 15-minute neighbourhood presents the possibilities for businesses, small and large, to step in and offer their incentives. By way of leadership, urban planners should inspire corporations to offer teleworking options, government-funded transit passes and eventually, move their headquarters closer to residential communities. 15-minute systems are also an excellent opportunity to apply automated vehicle services as a way to decrease the number of cars on motorways; a primary concern.

While it is not reasonable to say that each city can implement 15-minute neighbourhood plan immediately, urban planners and decision-makers can propose few modifications such as allocation for more space, for pedestrians, bikes, and green infrastructure. They may subsidise businesses in city centres with tax enticements. In addition single use commercial buildings could be retrofitted for multi-functional use. Amplifying the implementation of technology to guide drivers to available parking spots on specified streets, resulting in the reduced fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, is an emerging option.  The promotion of public transport can also encourage residents to reduce the usage of privately owned vehicles.

While the pre-COVID era may have labelled 15-minute neighbourhoods as a theoretical and aspirational aim, the post-COVID era has generated the driving force to make this form of planning a rational possibility and plausible strategy. On that note, how many minutes is your neighbourhood?

Shweta Gandhi is an architect and urban planner, and a Local Pathways Fellow with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She is currently pursuing MSc in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford.






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