15 Minute City

Radical times call for radical measures. As the end of forced restrictions starts to inch tantalisingly into grasp, the rubber will soon hit the road on whether we are going back to the old normal or on towards a new one. People across the globe have now had a year of try-before-you-buy on some new ways of doing things, and many will be keen to ensure that all is not forgotten.

The events of the last year have shone a spotlight on some of the inadequacies of the modern world; none of which require a PhD in anthropology to diagnose. I’ll name a few. People don’t like wasting their time and money commuting. People don’t like paying more than half of their net wages on housing. People want to spend more time with their families. They rue the loss of community that their parents enjoyed. They want more flexibility, choice and equality in how they live their lives, including how they work and where they shop. And they increasingly don’t like to be on the losing side of environmental destruction, both in a global and a local sense.

There exists a unique moment in time, where the contract might be rewritten and a new model adopted. A candidate solution that has garnered significant attention over the past year is ‘the 15-minute city’. Advocated by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno (watch his TEDTalk), and adopted into policy by Parisienne Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, the quarter-hour-city concept seeks to move us back towards a more intimate community-led society that addresses many of the issues highlighted above. It also flies in the face of some fairly fundamental economic principles and vested interests. In today’s blog, I consider: (a) what is a ’15-minute city’? (b) what is the historical context? (c) what are the merits and demerits? And (d) what is the likely reality?

What is a 15-minute city?  
Moreno’s prospectus for a 15-minute city is founded on the challenges highlighted above. In his words ‘we have accepted the unacceptable’, when it comes to modern urbanism. ‘We waste so much time adapting to the absurd organisation and long distance of most of today’s cities.’ His solution is to frame a new urban model based on the ability to find all things necessary for a human lifestyle within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. He sets out 4 guiding principles:

  1. Ecology (a green, sustainability city)
  2. Proximity (to live with reduced distances)
  3. Solidarity (to create links between people)
  4. Participation (to actively involve citizens)

These in turn require change which prioritises humans over cars, a rethink of how we use our real estate, and a transformation of neighbourhoods into places where we can live, work and play. Fundamentally, Moreno is not proposing a retreat to rural hamlets; but instead a vibrant, diverse mixed-used city.

Putting 15-minute cities into context 
These sound like nice principles; but let’s play through what this actually means. Firstly, let’s size a 15-minute city. A typical walking pace is 3 mph, which means that in 15 minutes one can walk ¾ of a mile or 1,200m. That is the equivalent of a walk between Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street stations, or from Manchester Piccadilly to the Arndale Centre. These are considerable amounts of ground covered with lots of uses in between, so the concept feels eminently workable. However, there are a few complications. Firstly, in a new urbanist grid, like Manhattan, you have a square-of-the-hypotenuse issue. If you can only travel in straight vertical or horizontal lines, the total distance to traversing a diagonal is ~40% longer; meaning you need to cram your 15-minute city into a significantly smaller space. Secondly, consider outer areas of cities, to which this rule also needs apply. You could easily walk 1,200m in a straight line in a housing estate like Bransholme (in Hull) without seeing a single building use that isn’t residential. It is precisely these suburban estates that sit in the sweet spot of necessary change under these proposals. Finally, the ‘or-by-bike-ride’ thing feels like an incredibly significant after-thought. Cyclists typically move 4x quicker than walkers, which means that the 15-minute city balloons in size. However, cycling isn’t possible for everyone (older, infirm, very young), which means that a city designed on 15-minute cycling principles isn’t going to work for a significant percentage of society. Once you get to the point of making policy decisions, this degree of uncertainty is intolerable. So, which one is it Carlos?

The historical context 
We should reflect on the fact that at one time ‘15-minute cities’ meant all cities. For instance, the boundaries of London’s famous square mile remained pretty much unchanged from the Romans until the seventeenth century. And even after this point people would typically affiliate with, live, work and play in either the City or the new settlement at Westminster. These were genuine mixed-use communities. People would often work in the ground floor of their house or in the street outside. For many such people, living in London’s slums, trips outside their immediate environs were very limited – 15 minutes was the known universe. Only rich people had greater geographic mobility, and often moved outside the 15-minute city in search of lower density, healthier surrounds.

The gamechanger, and the root of all present problems lies with the railway. When the passenger train allowed London’s middle-class workers to find a cheaper, roomier place to live, cities became forever altered. In solving the problems of hygiene and affordability, urbanites inadvertently created faceless dormitory suburbs and ripped up communities that had stood for centuries. For the first time in history, the railway disconnected living and working, and then when cars came along and we started building out-of-town malls and leisure parks, further disconnections were created between living, shopping and playing. In pursuing this course, we have actively dismantled our communities and made travelling long distances a daily necessity. 

The benefits of the status quo  
The reason that we haven’t course corrected is that the present system actually has many economic benefits. Cities work on the basis of throwing huge amounts of people into a melting point, creating chance encounters, and encouraging the kind of work specialisation and trade that drives the economy. Agglomeration has been proved to work, both in stimulating innovation and also facilitating economies of scale. If you want to be able to visit a shopping centre with over 100 shops, you can only achieve this in a central model. If you want to be able to access one of the world’s largest job markets without regularly moving home, you can only achieve this in a central model (at least for now). The necessarily decentralised model of the 15-minute city will lead to poorer choice, weaker agglomeration and a dampened economy. It will also increase real estate investment risk and weaken the economic case for development. But that doesn’t mean that it’s flawed. Some will prefer to make these trade-offs to achieve the benefits posited by Moreno. This is the big question that we as a society now face – do we really want a new normal?  

The benefits of the alternative 
The 15-minute city addresses benefits that are increasingly being elevated to sit alongside the more traditional priorities of the economy, consumer choice and work stability. Especially following last year, people will increasingly question how much free time they have, how they fit into their local community, how we save the planet, and what bearing the quality of their urban environment has on their lives. The shift is one from a life measured by wealth and an economy measured by GDP, to a life judged by happiness and an economy evaluated by sustainability. The 15-minute city delivers on these new criteria.

At its heart, it reduces the time wasted by travelling. In the UK people spend an average of 60 minutes every day travelling (more in London). Not too much? Think again. Out of a 24-hour day, we spend 8.5 hours sleeping, 8 hours working and about 4 hours cooking, eating, shopping, doing housework and looking after ourselves. This means we have just over 3 hours of leisure time each day. If you didn’t have to travel, you would have 1/3 more leisure time. What is more valuable than that? Perhaps cutting the 25% of CO2 emissions caused by commuting?

Perhaps even more valuable to some is feeling connected to a community; another factor addressed by the 15-minute city. Only 11% of Americans, whose cities tend to be designed on opposing principles, report strong community membership, a factor closely linked to happiness and health. This is less pronounced in small (often rural) communities than cities, partially due to their more clearly defined boundaries. People are most likely to feel a sense of community when there are restrictions on the size of the group, and where they are more likely to have frequent encounters with other community members. ‘Savannah Theory’ suggests that the optimum community size is a core of 150 people, up to a maximum community of 1,800. Beyond that, the size becomes destructive to community. Let’s face it, this is going to be difficult to achieve in a modern urban setting; however, even repeat encounters with a few anchor ‘familiar strangers’ such as your shop-keeper, barista, religious leader or gym buddies can help to support a sense of community in larger, more anonymous settings. This is in evidence in the financial and social success of ‘urban village’ concepts since the turn of the Millennium.

The future of the 15-minute city 
Not everyone is going to agree that community, free time and the environment outweigh the economy and consumer choice, but policy makers will need to make an assessment on behalf of everyone. The biggest existing problem, and the most difficult solution is to be found in urban edge residential estates. They critically lack 15-minute infrastructure, but are the places where is it most difficult to deliver it. The economic case for amenity, be that a GP’s surgery, a shopping parade or a park, is highly contingent on the amount of people that will use it (the more the better). When you define the size of a catchment through a 15-minute travel time, the only variable to play with to increase the amount of people (and hence justify the economic case) comes in the form of housing density. The 15-minute city is hence necessarily a vertical city. And this gets to the crux of the issue. The 15-minute city can only stack up in high density areas; whereas the places that stand to benefit from it the most are low density suburbs.  

There is much to like about the idea of the 15-minute city; and personally, I’d love to live in one. The marketing sell is easy; brochures of people walking down tree-lined pedestrianised streets on the way from their live-work unit to their local independent family run cafe, with time to stop and chat to friends on the way, having ditched their commute. However, for most people this will never be a reality. The length of time to overhaul the planning system will be dwarfed by generations of necessary physical change, including the compulsory purchase and demolition of existing housing estates to be replaced with new high-density mixed-use developments.

The concept, however, is likely to have immediate application in the mid-zones of London and the other global megacities such as Paris, provided that the market shares the same view. Central planning is one thing; however, the market is often the more significant determinant of use allocation within a city. The opportunity will fall on large-scale, high-density regeneration sites where the developer has a degree of control over the whole use mix of the 15-minute plot. Looking further forward, the 15-minute city will also serve as an exciting blueprint for the future, taking the baton from Ebenezer Howard in setting a new aspiration for the prototypical city.