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15-Minute City

Cities tend to be designed so that amenities and most services are within a 15-minute walking or cycling distance, creating a new neighbourhood approach.

This is all about ’living locally’.

The ‘15-minute’ city concept – developed primarily to reduce carbon emissions by decreasing the use of cars and motorised commuting time – is a decentralised urban planning model, in which each local neighbourhood contains all the basic social functions for living and working. Many people argue that the concept of creating localised neighbourhoods in which residents can get everything they require within 15-minutes by walking, cycling or on public transport will ultimately improve the quality of life. Such spaces entail multi-purpose neighbourhoods instead of specific zones for working, living and entertainment, reducing the need for unnecessary travel, strengthening a sense of community, and improving sustainability and liveability.

Today most cities have ‘operation-based’ neighbourhoods, with separate areas used predominantly for business or entertainment; and fragmented urban planning results in a sprawl, with people having to travel long distances across the city to get to their destination. In contrast, compact cities of the future, or ‘hyperlocalisation’, prioritise strategies for urban infrastructure that aim at bringing all the elements for living and working into local communities.

The ’15-minute’ city is an iteration of the idea of ‘neighbourhood units’ developed by American planner Clarence Perry during the 1920s. The theory of ‘new urbanism’, an urban planning and design concept promoting walkable cities, subsequently gained popularity in the US in the 1980s. Similar versions of ‘urban cells’ or 30- and 20-minute neighbourhoods have also emerged across the globe in the past decade.

The re-zoning model will gain further traction in future, boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic by new ways of working that require less transport. With climate change as a major global concern, C40 in its C40 Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery 1 has recommended this model for cities worldwide, arguing that its pedestrianisation approach contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and supports environmental sustainability. Most notably, the ‘15-minute city’ was popularised in 2019 by Paris and is a flagship initiative in the current programme for the city.

The aim is to make essential amenities, different housing types and more green spaces available within a 15-minute walking or cycling distance. Some cities like Paris and New York, which are relatively more mature with regard to this concept, have launched participatory budgets to promote local engagement as a part of their city transformation strategy. Cities that focus on new urbanism and flexible concepts, such as Bogota, Seattle and Milan, are prioritising investment in walking and cycling infrastructure. While this approach may not be entirely applicable to every city – for example it is probably more suitable for a big metropolis than for smaller cities – remote working and the digitalisation of services have increased the impetus to apply the principle of neighbourhood planning regardless of city size.

“I would like to live in a self-sustainable city. As an urban planner, I focus on the importance of neighbourhood planning and the 15-minute city offers you that self-sustainability.”

-Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat

Enhanced environment protection and sustainability: The ‘15-minute’ city strategy has focused on transit-oriented development, which promotes denser, mixed-used development around public transport services and pedestrianisation, accelerating a large-scale shift away from reliance on private motor vehicles. Increased travel sharing and use of non-motorised modes of travel help reduce carbon emissions from cars.

Increased convenience and sense of community: An article in the Financial Times reported how ‘15-minute’ cities cut down on unnecessary travel requirements and also promote local community engagement. They also provide open outdoor public space (such as ‘Streateries’ in Georgetown), reduce traffic congestion, and enhance the liveability of neighbourhoods. There is faster fulfilment of essential needs, making living in cities more convenient and less stressful.2

Paving the way for affordable housing: Property development in the past has often led to displacement of former residents and gentrification of the area. With multi-purpose neighbourhoods, however, and proximity between home and workplace, there will be an adjustment to housing prices, making areas more affordable to live in.

Improved resilience via multipurpose neighbourhoods: Establishing commercial spaces to encourage local buying and equality in living structures and professional opportunities, along with strong community acceptance of different cultures, act as pillars for resilient living.

As cities work towards recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the ’15-minute’ city concept can be an organising principle for urban development. It offers a socially concentrated yet highly functional blueprint for a new urban inclusive lifestyle that might find wide scale acceptance, particularly since lockdowns associated with the pandemic have forced people to re-orient their lifestyles to ‘go local’ and re-discover their neighbourhood.

Not all cities are ready to adopt a flexible city concept. However, they should all take into consideration certain principles highlighted in the C40 Mayor’s Agenda to establish a strong flexible city.

Core principles3 of a flexible city concept (such as a 15-minute neighbourhood) include:

  • Ensure easy access to basic amenities including groceries, fresh food and healthcare in every neighbourhood.
  • Build a multicultural neighbourhood that includes different housing types and levels of affordability, with the convenience for everyone of living close to the workplace.
  • Have abundant green spaces to ensure access for everyone to the natural environment and clean fresh air.
  • Establish smaller-scale offices, and retail, hospitality and co-working spaces, so that more people can work closer to home or in a virtual set-up.
  • Create walking and cycling corridors to facilitate ‘soft’ transportation and reduce the convenience of travelling by car. (One-way roads in Barcelona and the removal of car parking spaces in Amsterdam are just two examples.)

Correlate sustainability goals and urban planning initiatives: Develop a mobility infrastructure in every neighbourhood aimed at low/zero-carbon emissions through active modes of travel such as walking and cycling.

Ensure community endorsement: In some cities, a ‘compact city’ approach will require extensive changes and big costs, and this will demand substantial community endorsement and involvement. Although it is usually seen as a top-down approach to city planning, a 15-minute city design relies for its success on the endorsement of citizens, who need to be made aware of the benefits and embrace the change. At Georgetown University they refer to the need for a new governance structure which they call “Place Management Organization”.

Decentralise core services: Build smaller communities with community-scale solutions, particularly for services that would otherwise generate high traffic volume, such as healthcare, education and grocery retail. For example in 2019, as part of its Green New Deal, Los Angeles announced its intention to build a decentralised community-infrastructure in which all low-income residents live within half a mile of fresh food. During COVID-induced lockdowns many cities experimented with decentralisation of community-based services. In Lagos in Nigeria, closed schools were converted to smaller markets, so that residents had access to food and medicines near to their homes. Such decentralisation measures help in reducing longer distance travelling and avoiding large crowds of people in central markets.4

Launch schemes to promote affordable housing in every neighbourhood: Cities can achieve this by establishing mandatory affordable housing requirements for any new development or by implementing concepts such as inclusionary zoning (instead of segregated zoning). Additionally, incentives or density bonuses can be provided to urban planners and developers, to encourage the creation of affordable and inclusive communities. Johannesburg in 2020 emerged as an example of deploying the inclusive housing concept, with a framework for increasing affordable housing and addressing the lack of social mix in race and income across the city.5

Allow flexible use of urban spaces and properties across neighbourhoods: Cities could promote diverse use of buildings and public spaces to derive maximum value from the infrastructure and boost community engagement.6

Paris, France

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, aims to decarbonise the city’s economy and make Paris a healthier place for its citizens through her programme La Ville Du Quart d’Heure (the quarter-hour city). The idea of a carbon-free city was one of the factors that inspired the launch of the flexible city programme in Paris. The initiatives focus on reducing carbon emissions and prioritising pedestrians and cyclists. The ultimate aim is to build communities where all the essential needs of Parisians are met within 15 minutes of their homes on foot, or by bicycle or public transport.

The city council has made commitments to improve the quality of life for all its citizens. The priority areas include easy access to workplaces, stores, schools, clinics and cultural activities. This ecological transformation is based on four pillars: proximity, diversity, density and ubiquity − aiming to fulfil the basic social functions of living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying.

The city has adopted an approach of ‘hyper-proximity’ and ‘multipurpose localities’: this seeks to reduce drastically the number of car lanes to free up road space for pedestrians and bikes, and to utilise public spaces for purposes such as daytime schools serving as sports facilities and places for night-time leisure activities. Plans also include the creation of ‘children streets’ near schools. Other initiatives (focused on local commerce and local community engagement) enhance the city’s cultural offerings by setting up performance spaces in its squares that are currently dominated by cars, and to build booths across the region staffed by local employees offering community cohesion services.

As a part of transportation planning, the mayor has announced EUR 350 million of funding for pedestrianisation, that will focus on creating a cycle lane in every street in the region by 2024 and removing 60,000 parking spaces for private cars.

The successful execution of this transformational work is evident in a new public garden replacing a parking lot in the Minimes barracks. As a part of the same initiative, the surrounding buildings were renovated into 70 public housing apartments at a cost of EUR 12.3 million. These housing complexes include commercial spaces such as offices, day care facilities, a clinic, and a café staffed by people with autism. The Place de la Bastille has also been transformed as a part of the city’s EUR 30 million plan to increase green cover and pedestrian areas and cycle lanes.7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Portland, USA

For Portland the focus is on developing long-term strategies relating to land use in an urban environment, targeting affordable housing, public transport, income inequality, city walkability, social/community-based engagement and inclusion.

In 2009, only six per cent of the population of Portland were living in areas with a substantial presence of all three 20-minute neighbourhood factors - density, distance, destinations.12 A detailed plan to expand 20-minute neighbourhoods was developed as a part of its Climate Action Strategy. The plan included a target by 2030 for 90 per cent of the city’s residents to be able walk or cycle to meet all their basic daily, non-work needs.13

Currently the city is working on initiatives such as a shared-use parking permit pilot14, and pricing options for equitable mobility.15

It has been reported that the downtown area and the majority of Central Eastside already have one or more of the 20-minute neighbourhood factors. The city plans to continue prioritising improvements for pedestrians by building sidewalks and pathways, in addition to removing in the medium to long term barriers to walking such as steep slopes, freeways and difficult street connections.

The city is also working towards reversing the exclusionary zoning practices of the past by building more types of houses in the same locality and through better spatial planning. In a 2020 article, Mayor Ted Wheeler has stated: “I’m not going to pretend that the changes to the zoning code that we’re about to adopt rectify all of the past harms. They don’t.” The same article also commented, “He said he believes that letting more types of housing and mixes of incomes into neighbourhoods represent a critical step forward.”16, 17

Stockholm, Sweden

While cities around the world are considering urban transformation based on neighbourhood-level planning concepts such as 15/20-minute cities, Sweden is pursuing a hyperlocal variation, a ‘one-minute city’, on a national scale.18

In 2020, a plan was piloted by the Swedish national innovation body Vinnova and design think tank ArkDes. The approach focuses on "the space outside your front door — and that of your neighbours adjacent and opposite”. The ‘Street Moves’ project implements change on a single-street level, which is being tested in four sites around Stockholm.

As a result of this transformation, residents will be able to decide how street space is used and allocated, through community workshops and consultations.

The concept encourages every location to activate individual blocks using shared spaces. The models used in the transformation strategy draw inspiration from ’parklet’ models and contribute to Sweden’s commitment to become a carbon-neutral city by 2045.

The goal isn't to make everything available within one minute, but rather to reimagine the patches of street immediately outside the home as "critical connecting spaces for communities" and not just "places to move and store cars." If successful, Sweden plans to implement the programme in every street in the country by 2030.

“Companies are planning to have local satellite offices near where people live, that will reduce commuting. It may well end up with a lot of underutilised property in cities that could be converted to more affordable housing and in these suburban areas it will encourage the development of the assets of the city: villages, kind of micro cities. Cities can be a network of more livable resilient communities. This is an inevitable trend.”

-Kent Larson, Director of CityScience Group at MIT MediaLab

  1. C40 Knowledge: Cities, Coronavirus (COVID-19) and a Green Recover; The Case for a Green and Just Recovery. (2020)
  2. Financial Times: Welcome to the 15-minute city. (2020)
  3. C40 Knowledge: How to build back better with a 15 min city. (2020)
  4. Ibid.
  5. Edith Hofer, Stefan Netsch, Katharina Gugerell, Walter Musakwa and Trynos Gumbo: The Inclusive City of Johannesburg and the Challenge of Affordable Housing. (2020)
  6. C40 Knowledge: How to build back better with a 15 min city. (2020)
  7. Bloomberg Businessweek. The 15-Minute City—No Cars Required—Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia. (2020)
  8. Smartcitylab: Governance finance Paris-15-minute-city. (2020)
  9. Bloomberg CityLab: Paris Mayor: It's Time for a '15-Minute City'. (2020)
  10. The Guardian: Paris mayor unveils 15-minute city plan in re-election campaign. (2020)
  11. Financial Times: Welcome to the 15-minute city. (2020)
  12. Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, City of Portland: Status Report: Twenty-minute Neighborhoods. (2009)
  13. Ibid.
  14. City of Portland, Oregon: Apply for a shared-use parking permit (pilot). (2021)
  15. City of Portland, Oregon: Joint Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee Meeting. (2021)
  16. Portland Business Journal: Portland OKs largest overhaul to zoning code since 1990s. (2020)
  17. Sightline Institute: Portland just passed the best low-density zoning reform in US history. (2020)
  18. Bloomberg CityLab: Make way for the ‘One-Minute City’. (2021)
  19. Environment, Land, Water and Planning; State Government of Victoria: 20-minute neighbourhoods. (2019)
  20. Environment, Land, Water and Planning; State Government of Victoria: 20-minute neighbourhoods, Creating a more liveable Melbourne. (2019)

You may access the links to these sources, where available, on page 148 of the Urban Future with a Purpose study.

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