The 15-Minute City: A Post-COVID-19 Utopia?
April 6, 2021
BA (Hons) Geography, University of Oxford
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The 15-minute city can be a guiding light to help us imagine a liveable, healthy, and sustainable post-COVID-19 urban future. However, we need to ensure that it works to improve, rather than exacerbate, social equality in cities. People can only benefit from the 15-minute city if they can, and want, to live in it.
Background: Introducing the 15-Minute City
Imagine a city where you could meet all of your daily needs within just a 15-minute walk from your home. A city where there are no long commutes, you know your neighbours, and every street is people-oriented, vibrant, and inclusive. This is the premise of Carlos Moreno’s 15-minute city: the idea that residents of urban areas can have a higher quality of life if they can access all the urban services they need within a 15-minute walk, wheel, or cycle from their homes.
Advocated by many urban thinkers and city mayors, including Paris’ Anne Hidalgo, this is an approach for designing just, sustainable, and vital post-COVID-19 cities, and offers an attractive alternative to the car-oriented, mono-functional suburbs of today. But is this a distant utopia or a feasible reality? This question is addressed below by examining the impacts and challenges of realising the 15-minute city or urban neighbourhood.
Evidence: The Impacts of Realising a 15-Minute City
Realising the 15-minute city carries a myriad of benefits, because the mixed-use, medium-density, and active travel interventions involved can make cities more liveable, walkable, healthy, sustainable, and economically productive. However, it also involves a suite of challenges and equity issues, meaning that the concept has to be implemented critically, rather than as a panacea for all our urban problems.
First of all, the 15-minute city can improve the liveability of streets and neighbourhoods, as the human-scale and pedestrian-oriented urban forms promoted by the model invite urbanites out onto the streets to walk, wheel, or cycle to nearby urban services. This means that people are more likely to bump into each other, develop weak ties, and build up a sense of community. For example, a study showed that residents who described their neighbourhoods as walkable in Galway, Ireland were more likely to know their neighbours, trust others, and take an interest in social/community life. These benefits are especially relevant for older adults, as creating spaces and opportunities for incidental social contact across the city can reduce experiences of loneliness in old age. However, it is important to note that too rigorous a promotion of community life can exclude, just as much as it can include, and strong social ties can result in conflict and irritation when there is insufficient distinction between public and private life.
Aside from generating a greater sense of conviviality and community, 15-minute neighbourhoods can also be inclusive by helping to deal with urban inequalities about who can, and who cannot, access urban services. This is because in a 15-minute city people can access nearby urban services regardless of whether they have access to a car, with particular benefits for non-driving low-income, elderly, and young groups, who may otherwise lack independent or convenient access to urban services.
Source: João Pimentel Ferreira – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36811123
Walking, wheeling, or cycling on the streets of a 15-minute city is also a more pleasant experience, as when streets are configured as walkable, wheelable, and bikeable, rather than for cars, active travel becomes a more attractive and popular option. Promoting active travel through good urban design carries a suite of health benefits, as a study in Atlanta, USA, found that each kilometre walked a day was associated with a 4.8% reduction in the likelihood of obesity. Another study in King Country, Washington, USA, found that a 5% increase in walkability was associated with 32% more time spent doing active travel, 6.5% less vehicle miles travelled per capita, as well as about 5.5% less NOx and Volatile Organic Compounds emitted per capita, improving air quality along walkable city streets. A modal shift from cars to active travel can also substantially reduce the amount of CO2 emissions from car travel, meaning that the walkable neighbourhoods of the 15-minute city can act as a stepping stone towards net zero and healthy cities.
The 15-minute city is also beneficial for the economy. Research shows that making areas pedestrian-friendly can increase the footfall of retail units bordering the street by up to 40%, and boost turnover by up to 25%, increasing commercial trading in city centres by up to 30%. An additional benefit is that pedestrians and cyclists tend to spend more money per month in retail areas than those arriving by car. This means that investing in making walking, wheeling, and cycling the default ways of getting around in the 15-minute city can offer high returns on investment, potentially providing £13 worth of benefits for every £1 of expenditure. Creating these walkable high streets through a 15-minute city approach could help businesses to recover from the economic slump of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the 15-minute city idea is not without its flaws and needs to be implemented critically for it to be an effective and just model for ‘building back better’ following COVID-19. A major challenge is equity, because well-intentioned plans to make neighbourhoods walkable, mixed-use, and accessible within a 15-minute journey from home can result in gentrification that prices out poorer residents into less-walkable areas of the city. This can rob low-income residents of the benefits of living in a 15-minute neighbourhood, as these areas become oriented towards high-consumption lifestyles. For example, in Buffalo, New York, USA, properties in highly walkable neighbourhoods are on average five times more expensive than in unwalkable neighbourhoods.
This means that it is essential to integrate adequate levels of affordable housing into 15-minute city plans, and to mobilise participatory planning mechanisms to ensure that people’s needs are met by the 15-minute city. This is being done in Paris, where 10% of city spending is currently determined by participatory budgeting practices, and where there are plans to get 30% of housing stock into the public domain by 2030. People can only benefit from the 15-minute city if they can, and want, to live in it.
The 15-minute city can be a guiding light to help us imagine a human-scale, liveable, and sustainable post-COVID-19 urban future. This is only possible, however, if we deal with the issues of social equity raised by the model’s application to real cities. We need to ensure that 15-minute neighbourhoods have appropriate levels of affordable housing and that people are involved in imagining the post-COVID-19 futures of their cities. If this is done, the 15-minute city could represent a paradigm shift in what we expect from our cities.
A scoping literature review was performed using the Scopus and Google Scholar databases to survey the most relevant literature to the 15-minute city idea, its potential impacts, and its potential problems. A series of keywords were used to conduct literature searches based around the ideas of the x-minute city or neighbourhood, proximate city, and compact city. Information was extracted using an Excel spreadsheet, and summarised in this blog post.
Zachary Elliott is a second-year BA (Hons) Geography student at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford.