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The 15-Minute City Concept

Bill is a freelance writer who has written for a variety of platforms.

The 15-minute city, a term first coined by Carlos Moreno of Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris, is an urban framework that believes in improving access by spatially orienting and developing communities to live within a 15-minute radius (typically on foot or by bike) of essential urban services.

There are four key characteristics to this framework:

  • Proximity: Housing and essential needs must be close.
  • Diversity: Land uses must be mixed to provide a variety of urban amenities in close proximity.
  • Density: There must be enough people to support a diversity of businesses in a compact land area.
  • Ubiquity: In order for this to be an equitable framework, these neighborhoods must be so common that they are available and affordable to anyone.
Olympia, Washington

Olympia, Washington

Let’s Take a Closer Look

There are several reasons for a city to implement this city-planning approach. One is to decrease the need for automobile use, thus diminishing the emissions from gas engines. Another is to promote neighborhood interaction, while still another is to promote small, local businesses.

Imagine a small town of, say, one-thousand people. Such a town is, in effect, a 15-minute city. Almost all of the residents, if not all of them, live within fifteen minutes of all necessities. Now imagine a large city, say New York, broken down into fifteen-minute segments, so that the people who live in each segment really have no reason to travel outside of that fifteen-minute zone. They work, they play, and they shop, all within a short distance.

That is the vision!

With climate change, COVID-19, and political upheaval all challenging the way we work and play, the hope is to refashion cities as places primarily for people to walk, bike, and linger in, rather than commute to. The 15-minute city calls for a return to a more local and somewhat slower way of life, where commuting time is instead invested in richer relationships with what’s nearby.

The idea in diagram

The idea in diagram

Historical Precedence

It is hard to call this a new idea. Think the Middle Ages. Think village towns protected by the imposing figure of a castle. Leap forward a few hundred years. Think company towns, all inhabitants working for the steel mill or the mining company, all necessities found in that town, no need to travel, mill workers working, shopping, playing, and praying within an area with a diameter of no more than a mile. Think small, rural towns in Arizona or Mississippi or Alaska, families looking out for each other, all they need within walking distance, close-knit communities connected by necessity.

And that is what makes this idea, ages old, worth considering today, the necessity of it all, a need to change, to find a new way, even if that new way is actually centuries old.

Why Now?

There are too many cars. There are too few public transport alternatives. There is a diminishing supply of fossil fuels. There are choking emissions and air too foul to breathe.

But it’s more than that. There is a disconnect in larger town and cities. There are neighbors who literally do not know their neighbors. There are gated communities for protection, and fewer civil conversations. Fear seems to be the default emotion of any day. A wariness pervades our daily lives. The population is rapidly increasing but the infrastructure is not keeping pace, and probably never in the history of mankind has there been a more appropriate time to look at alternatives to our current way of living.

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It is working in some major cities today

It is working in some major cities today

Is It Possible in Modern Cities?

The mayors of Milan, Italy, and Paris, France, believe it is! Amsterdam. Ottawa, Portland, Detroit, and Buenos Aires are moving in that direction, as is Glasgow. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of a world working remotely, and it turns out quite a few cities, and companies, believe remote working is the wave of the future.

Employment has always been the problem with the 15-minute city concept. How are you going to assure the citizens, within a fifteen-minute radius, that they will have jobs? Constructing restaurants and entertainment and shopping centers within a certain area is very doable, but what about employment?

Working remotely, from home, is at least a partial answer. 2020 has proven that it is a viable alternative for many major corporations, and we will most likely see more of it in 2021 and beyond. Naturally, not all people will find employment within the 15-minute space, but enough can, and will, to make a difference.

Interestingly enough, a study of driving habits within cities in the United States found that 60% of one-way trips were within a six-mile distance, and 75% of one-way trips were within ten miles. Our driving habits, in cities, already support this type of urban transformation.

San Diego has 620 miles of bike paths within its city limits. Tucson, Arizona, is close behind. You are more likely to be hit by a bicycle in Portland, Oregon, than by a car. Change is happening in the United States. More change is needed.

The Future of This Urban Approach

The future of this radical idea depends almost entirely on a willingness to make it happen. Changing the infrastructure of a city is not difficult to do. Yes, it costs money to do it, but it is money which simply has to be repurposed from existing city budgets, and changing infrastructure will create jobs, many jobs, quality jobs, and that’s a huge selling point. If a city the size of Paris can do it, any large city in any country can do it as well.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is in changing attitudes, and that problem looms large in a nation like the United States. Americans love their vehicles, and Americans are highly-resistant to major changes. There is no doubt that people living in remote areas, rural areas, need vehicles. The idea of a 15-minute city in rural South Dakota is the stuff of fantasies, but it also should be noted that vehicles in South Dakota are not the problem, nor is over-congestion in South Dakota a problem. The 15-minute city concept would be most effective in large, urban areas, where so many city dwellers own and operate vehicles, only to drive those vehicles in a very limited space.

This is not an attempt to eliminate cars and trucks, but simply an attempt to limit their usage to necessity only. This is not an attempt to force people to spend most of their lives in a fifteen-minute window of activity, but it is an attempt to bring people closer together while at the same time giving them a valid reason to stay closer to home.

Does the idea of “mingling with your neighbors” appeal to you? Does the idea of having more spare time for recreation appeal to you? How about less commuting time? More quality time? A better environment?

The problems facing any radical change are huge, but that does not mean we shouldn’t face them. Any nation capable of putting a man on the moon is capable of changing the infrastructure of its cities.

Can it happen? Yes! Should it happen? Most likely, yes! Will it happen in major cities in the United States?

Stay tuned! I personally cannot envision a day when the majority of Americans will give up their cars and trucks, but I can envision a day when they will drive less to benefit others and themselves. That day is already happening in dozens of cities across this country. The thing is, something must change in the U.S. and other industrialized nations. An economy based upon a limited fossil fuel is destined to fail.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Bill Holland

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