Introducing the 15-Minute City Project

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This post was originally published on 15 Minutes City

Putting people at the center of urban transformation

Zürich, Switzerland | Dan Luscher

Everyone living in a city should have ready access to essential urban services. Access — to opportunity, to urban amenities, to variety, and to other people — is why people choose to live in cities. The easiest way to travel within an urban neighborhood is to walk or bike — no parking issues, no waiting for an Uber or Lyft, or a bus or train. We should all be able to access most of the places we need to go within a 15-minute walk or bike. Carlos Moreno of Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris calls this the “15-minute city.” It’s an appealing and easy-to-grasp concept. Simple, right?

Unfortunately, such neighborhoods are all too uncommon in the United States. My own San Francisco neighborhood of Noe Valley is one such place. I can walk to just about everything I need except my son’s baseball games and a proper work office, although as a “digital nomad” several neighborhood coffee shops have served as good office substitutes. Noe Valley has become a very pricey neighborhood, though; I certainly could not buy a house there at today’s property values. It has become expensive because it is desirable and rare; not enough neighborhoods with this kind of walkability exist, and few are being built.

Walkable and bikeable neighborhoods need to be the norm, not the exception. They need to be accessible financially, not just physically. To make these places vastly more common, the simple yet powerful 15-minute city concept needs to occupy a central role in our urban discussions. It is the urban planning equivalent of human-centered design: start by looking at where an individual lives and where they need to get to, and figure out how to retool our neighborhoods and cities to get the kind of “hyperproximity” and ease of access that makes urban living great.

Discussions of urban mobility and “unclogging” cities often focus on travel speeds: enabling people to travel significant distances in short periods of time. This focus is misplaced. This history of cities — and of work commutes — shows that as travel speeds increase, our cities spread out. We end up spending as much time traveling as before, only at faster speeds over longer distances. There is even a name for this: The Marchetti Constant. And people unable to operate (or unable to afford) the faster mode of travel are left behind, able to meet fewer and fewer of their needs close to home. Access and proximity, along with safety, must be the concepts we build our cities around. If our planning focuses on REDUCING the need to travel, we may be able to avoid constantly ADDING costly transport infrastructure in a losing battle against traffic congestion and overcrowded buses.

What does a 15-minute city have?

Carlos Moreno’s 15-minute city framework highlights four key characteristics:

  • Proximity: Things must be close.

  • Diversity: Land uses must be mixed to provide a wide variety of urban amenities nearby.

  • Density: There must be enough people to support a diversity of businesses in a compact land area. Note that Manhattan-level density is not needed, as many low-rise neighborhoods in San Francisco and other U.S. cities prove.

  • Ubiquity: These neighborhoods must be so common that they are available and affordable to anyone who wants to live in one.

Paris 15-minute city concept | Micaël Dessin and Paris en Commun

The 15-minute city compels us to think about TIME first and foremost, rather than space. Moreno calls this “chrono-urbanism.” How do people spend their time, and how can we build and adapt neighborhoods and cities so that they spend less of their time moving from point A to point B — and then points C and D? And how can we make these conditions ubiquitous so you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg for an apartment in such a neighborhood?

How do we get there?

The 15-minute city concept works initially as a “North Star,” describing the cities we’d like to have, not the cities most of us actually live in. But we must find a way to make the 15-minute city more than just a hazy concept or an idealized unreachable goal. Making concrete progress toward this North Star will measurably improve the lives of many people, not only people who currently live in cities but the hundreds of millions of people globally who will migrate to cities in the coming decades. 

Cities as different as Paris, Melbourne, and Portland, Oregon are working to reimagine their cities using the lens of walk/bike travel time. Many more cities have long-term goals to increase walking and biking to improve urban life and reduce carbon emissions.

The 15-minute city framework is great for a long-term urban plan. But effective implementation — the difficult but gratifying work of transforming our cities and neighborhoods — is what really matters. For urban areas to reach their full potential, 15-minute city efforts must be widespread, ambitious, and effective. The following elements are critical:

  • Broad public engagement and buy-in: Diverse communities must be involved in developing and implementing 15-minute city programs. Legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs said it well in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

  • Detailed measurement and analysis: We must define and quantify who has access to what and where. It is a big data exercise that must be informed by an equally important community engagement exercise that identifies what should be measured. The question “what is important to access?” needs to be answered by city residents, not by planners. And measurement must be continuous, so that a city can measure improvements in proximity and access over time and hold leaders accountable for making that progress.

  • Engaging all types of actors: This is not a project just for urban planners or government agencies. Many organizations and groups of people must be brought to bear, including government, neighborhood leaders, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, investors, business organizations, and academia.

  • Cost-effectiveness: The 15-minute city represents an ambitious goal that will take time to achieve. The most successful efforts will make maximum use of free or inexpensive strategies such as flexible zoning requirements and creative reuse of existing street space. It’s important to work with market forces where possible, rather than fighting against them, while always recognizing that market forces will provide too little of many of the things that make cities great.

Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue | AA Photo

The pandemic in the room

This year has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and an urgent reckoning with systemic problems of racism and policing. There is a very robust and impassioned public conversation about what is most important in cities right now as they emerge from lockdown while grappling with deep-rooted problems. How can everyone — especially Black and Brown people — feel safe in cities? Whose voices are being heard, and whose are being ignored? How should space be used in cities? I’ll engage more about these topics in future blog posts but will make a few points here:

  • Broad public engagement and buy-in are fundamental to any worthwhile 15-minute city effort; everyone’s voices must be heard.

  • Ubiquity, a key aspect of the 15-minute city vision, helps create more equitable outcomes: diverse, walkable neighborhoods must be so prevalent that they are accessible to all.

  • Cities have emerged from prior pandemics and public health emergencies stronger and safer than ever. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has written extensively about this.

  • Density is a key part of the 15-minute city, but it is crowding, not density per se, that has contributed to the spread of COVID-19. (Vancouver-based planner Brent Toderian makes this case well.) Many dense cities — San Francisco included — have managed the pandemic quite well as of the date of this writing.

  • The pandemic has changed how we use street space almost overnight, and as cities gradually open back up, we have a unique opportunity to rethink how much city space is allocated to cars versus other forms of mobility. Many European cities, for example, are increasing their emphasis on bike infrastructure.

  • Economic stimulus packages notwithstanding, cities are likely to be severely budget-constrained for years to come as tax receipts drop dramatically. In this fiscal environment, free or cheap ways to improve our cities are likely to win out over costly infrastructure investments. Former Curitiba, Brazil mayor Jaime Lerner quipped: “If you want creativity, cut one zero from the budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeros.”

In short, access-focused concepts like the 15-minute city are now more timely than ever, enabling us to “build back better.”

The 15-Minute City Project

This project is an effort to do several things:

  • Develop a repository of information about 15-minute city efforts around the world to facilitate sharing of information and lessons learned. Note that these efforts go by many different names, such as “20-minute neighborhood,” “walkable city,” etc.;

  • Stimulate thoughtful discussion of the 15-minute city across many disciplines, including  economics, public policy, urban design and planning, entrepreneurship, and “smart cities” technology where appropriate; and

  • Advocate for, discuss, and help develop a data-driven approach to measuring and evaluating 15-minute city efforts.

The 15-Minute City Project is designed to help access-focused urban transformations be what they need to be: ambitious, inclusive, measurable and, of course, effectively implemented!

The project’s Twitter and Instagram accounts highlight relevant and inspiring efforts around the world to create 15-minute cities. Future blog posts will explore specific aspects and implications of 15-minute cities.

DUMBO, Brooklyn at night | Dan Luscher

I am an urbanist and long-time San Francisco resident with a passion for making cities work for everyone. I’ve directly observed and explored cities from Zürich to Phnom Pehn to Kampala to Houston. My decades-long fascination with cities has taken me from government research work on transportation, air quality, and land use, to a master’s thesis and academic paper on transit-oriented development, to the role of board chair at TransForm, an Oakland-based nonprofit that promotes walkable communities with excellent transportation choices to connect people of all incomes to opportunity.

The 15-Minute City Project will evolve over time, and I welcome ideas, feedback, and collaborators. Please get in touch!

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