What you need to know about: 15-minute cities

By Holly Hixson and Greg Lindsay | April 22, 2021 

 

Amidst a barrage of conversation on 15-minute cities in recent months, planners, politicians, policymakers, and residents have more information than ever about how exactly we are supposed to “right size” our urban form to include notions of proximity. Whether it’s creating a 30-, 20-, 15-, 5-, or even one-minute city, the formula for making a healthier, more sustainable, active, and vibrant place is simple: bring essential amenities and services closer to where people live, enhancing access and connectivity. These notions are most often viewed through the lens of European cities such as Paris, which have already built-in proximity through flexible zoning and high density. But is it a realistic notion outside of Paris? What do we risk when failing to take into account the hyperlocal and socio-political context surrounding the urban form?

In early 2021, NewCities held a four-week Masterclass, City on a Mission: Proximity City, which brought Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Mayor Claudia López Hernández, Carlos Moreno, Philippe Chiambretta, Dan Hill, Alain Bertaud, and Richard Sennett to the table with 15 participants from all sectors and around the world to discuss and debate the topic. Based on the frank discussions we had over the course of the program and our research into the growing body of work around the alluring concept, here is what you need to know about the 15-minute city today.

 

The 15-minute city isn’t about the minutes spent moving

The 15-minute city should not be seen as a blueprint for development, but rather an aspiration. Similar concepts have been packaged and popularized for decades, from garden cities to new urbanism, all offering planners of the time principles for creating the “optimal city.” Each has faced challenges accounting for diversity and conflict, and fall short of addressing social and economic issues through their focus solely on the design of space. The Proximity City will face a similar downfall if taken at face value and applied superficially; pasting a cookie cutter copy over the top of places manifested by years of path dependency and development history. Instead, as practitioners it’s crucial we view the Proximity City as simply a framework to uncover and explore the elements and amenities of a city, neighborhood, or street, that enriches our lives, and aim to create a relationship among these elements.

“Proximity is key but it’s not only proximity: it’s diversity, it’s vitality, it’s to have cultural, educational, labor, housing opportunities in around 30 minutes… the minutes is just a way to refer to that dream” – Mayor Claudia López Hernandez

At the core of a Proximity City is accessibility. Within a short distance walking or biking, residents should be able to work, dine, live, shop for essentials, and enjoy parks and recreation. For different locales, the numbers vary: In Bogotá, Colombia, Mayor Claudia López Hernández is aiming to reduce average travel time from 80 to 30 minutes, creating a 30-minute city. In Sweden, the Government is focusing on empowering residents to improve their individual streets, transforming the city into a collection of one-minute cities. In our masterclass, discussions uncovered how differing cultural, political, and social dynamics require the idea of a 15-minute city to shift and adjust. This leaves behind the fundamentals of what is to gain from the 15-minute city: all people should be better connected to the amenities and services that reinforce a thriving, healthy life.

 

Context Matters 

Would you walk 15 minutes in the summer in Dubai? How about in Fargo, North Dakota in January? As practitioners theorize about what will create livable and healthy places, we also have to grapple with unavoidable factors that shape life in a city (weather, political landscape, urban sprawl) as well as the forces that have shaped the city itself over time (segregation, redlining, auto-dependence). Often we celebrate European examples that are born out of vastly different socio-political histories than those of North American cities or those in the Global South. In reality, the forces which have molded the urban form and the distribution of the population over centuries will impact our ability to create connected urban amenities. Imposing these principles over fully formed cities risks exacerbating inequities and gentrification. As Jay Pitter warned at this year’s CityLab conference, the 15-minute city “doesn’t take into account histories of urban inequity intentionally imposed by technocratic and colonial planning approaches such as segregated neighborhoods, deep amenity inequity, and discriminatory policing of our public spaces.” Unfortunately, many cities in North America still struggle with stringent zoning regulations, low density and urban sprawl, in addition to segregation, deep inequity, and lack of political will for walking and biking.

This does not appear to be changing anytime soon. The Biden administration’s recent Infrastructure Proposal allocated zero funds explicitly to pedestrianization or cycling infrastructure, opting instead for promoting electric vehicle investment, public transit, and railways. Along with variation in the amount of time spent moving, there must be room for regional and cultural variations that are sensitive to the barriers to a 15-minute city in the first place. For example, is it feasible, or even helpful to the lives of residents, in areas with a high concentration of workers who cannot work remotely to transform into a 15-minute city? How does a 15-minute walk or bike change in places with extreme weather conditions that prohibit comfortable movement? And we must consider how incorporating elements of proximity can further reinforce segregation and siloing of neighborhoods.

 

Beyond Pop-Ups, Parklets, and Placemaking

The roots of Proximity City in the American context lie in Project for Public Spaces’ placemaking approach of “lighter, quicker, cheaper,” which eventually gave birth to tactical urbanism, pop-ups, and parklets. These and other pilots offered cities tools for field-testing public space redesign while leaving elected officials wiggle room to deal with angry residents — a strategy employed to great effect by former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to remake Times Square and smaller liminal spaces across the city.

But the pandemic has decisively demonstrated the limits of this approach when it comes to systemic change. While cities that installed temporary cycling lanes during the pandemic reported increases in ridership as high as 48%, COVID-related shocks to state- and municipal budgets threaten to curtail them prematurely. As Dan Hill, director of strategic design for the Swedish government’s innovation agency Vinnova is fond of noting, “the reason pop-ups can pop up so easily is because they can also pop down so easily.”

To that end, his team — which operates at the federal level — aims to leverage uniform national standards on such elements as street designs and parking space dimensions to create “a national kit of parts,” in Hill’s words, for building “one-minute cities.” Explicitly comparing this project to open source software, Hill describes both its modular wooden street furniture and new regulations as “codebases.” Just as open source programmers write code that can be tested and debugged by anyone, Vinnova aspires to create a flexible, extensible, systematized approach to tactical urbanism. By empowering the people who know the street best to rethink how it functions, this approach challenges urbanism to be less paternalistic and instead learn from people with lived expertise: “regulation at the top, but massive customization and adaptation at the lower levels,” Hill said.

Sweden isn’t alone. Back in New York, several civic groups have floated various proposals for a city-led “office of the public realm.” A successful Proximity City needs both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

“Our job as planners, designers, architects, policymakers, innovation teams can be to facilitate, host, and guide that process… the real expertise is the people who live on the street, they know more about the street than we do. We need to find a way of unlocking the dreams they have for it” – Dan Hill

 

Localizing Globalized Spaces 

A common critique of Proximity City by Pitter and others is that it attempts to smuggle a urban paradigm best-suited to the historic cores of European capitals to wildly different North American (and Global South) contexts. But what if this is less of an inherent flaw in the framework than a case of overreach in practice? Perhaps the model is best-suited for over-touristed, global draws.

For example, PCA’s Philippe Chiambaretta explained how his original inspiration to redesign the Champs‑Élysées ahead of the 2024 Summer Olympic Games stemmed from the disgust average Parisians felt for it. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed described it as “touristic,” “noisy,” and “artificial.” Polling by Chiambaretta’s team in early 2019 found that more than half of pedestrians strolling the boulevard were foreign tourists; only one-in-ten lived in Paris.

Given these numbers, Chiambaretta understood his brief to be the “re-enchantment” of the Champs‑Élysées for residents. This goal took on added urgency during the pandemic, when a large swath of the city center went offline due to both lockdowns and the absence of its intended tourist audience.

Seen through this lens, pandemic-era plans for cycling superhighways in Paris and car-free superblocks in Barcelona are less the product of European planners flexing their privilege than an attempt to repurpose streets, neighborhoods, and even entire districts that had long ago been handed over to global visitors, ranging from tourist traps to apartment blocks listed wholesale on AirBnB.

As these cities and others such as Lisbon and Amsterdam rethink their post-pandemic reliance on global tourism and the infrastructure necessary to support it, Proximity City offers a model to begin reclaiming and repurposing cities for residents rather than visitors.

 

Proximity City Is Already Here… And It’s Not Close Enough

By most measures, Paris is already a 15-minute city, urban planner and Order Without Design author Alain Bertain noted in our Masterclass. Whether it’s proximity to bakeries or schools — or even discotheques — central Parisians have it covered. But where the model falls apart, he argued, is when it comes to jobs.

Even in the city’s 4th arrondissement — which hugs the right bank of the Seine and includes the fashionable Marais district — a large number of residents forgo nearby job opportunities for far-flung employers. Absent a world of near-total remote work (a possibility that appears to be receding as vaccinations accelerate apace), non-proximity to jobs as a matter of individual preference is the 15-minute city’s Achilles heel. “The government has a limited number of tools” to match jobs with people, Bertaud explained. Build all the cycling lanes you want, in other words, and there will still be those who choose to drive to a suburban office from the city center.

“To me, the 15-minute city for jobs is a flying carpet,” Bertaud said — a seemingly magical object destined to never get off the ground.

But the goal of curtailing commuting times across the metropolis is still an admirable one. This vision is best achieved through improving the balance and throughput of transportation across multiple modes and routes throughout cities while eliminating restrictions on mixed-use development.

All people should be better connected to the amenities and services that reinforce a thriving, healthy life. Give the people what they want, no matter how many minutes it takes.

 

“The key is to place humans at the center of urban policy. We need to build a human-centered city.” Carlos Moreno