A concept re-inspired by COVID-19 and a way to meet net-zero targets
The idea of a 15-minute city (or neighbourhood) is that everything a household needs, such as green space, schools, the workplace, healthcare facilities, and supermarkets, can be reached by bike or foot within 15 minutes. There are other variations that use a 10- or 20-minute radius. The six social functions of living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying, should be fulfilled in each neighbourhood.
The concept was first created by Carlos Moreno in 2016 as a response to both the climate crisis and urban sprawl[i], but was reignited during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, people came to depend on social links and community support, and because travel was restricted, they explored more of their local area[ii]. The 15-minute city can both be seen as a continuation of this kind of lifestyle and as a way to recover from the effects of the pandemic. C40 Cities is a coalition of international mayors that aims to address climate change and promote sustainable development. They present the 15-minute city concept as one of eight ways to achieve “a green and just recovery” from COVID-19[iii]. Small local businesses are supported through localisation, which bolsters the local economy, and simultaneously, pollution levels are cut. Urban areas are “the main engine of different economies” and contribute over 70% of the world’s GDP[iv]. Therefore, supporting the city economy is beneficial for the national economy. Urban areas are responsible for over 60% of global greenhouse gases, so cutting down emissions in any way by reducing the transportation of manufactured goods and people is vital[v]. Researchers working on the concept have suggested other benefits of 15-minute cities. These include increased community resilience, greater levels of creativity, and improved mental health outcomes due to the promotion of neighbourly interaction and a sense of belonging[vi].
Sixteen cities worldwide have implemented elements of the concept or are in the process of doing so[vii]. Notable examples are Barcelona, Shanghai, Portland, and Utrecht. However, the most talked about case study is Paris. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, made the 15-minute city idea the centre of her 2020 re-election campaign, and she has appointed Carine Rolland as commissioner for the 15-minute city[viii]. To facilitate the goal of a 15-minute city, Paris is repurposing around 70,000 car parking spaces for bicycle parking, meeting areas, playgrounds, and green spaces. It also aims to make all its streets bike-friendly by 2026[ix].
A cause for concern?
There have been some concerns about 15-minute cities and neighbourhoods. 15-minute cities promote active travel, and therefore the concept has been connected to other controversial measures that restrict car use, such as Ultra Low Emission Zones or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. These car restriction measures are often seen as limiting individual freedoms. There has also been a rise in fear and misinformation surrounding the concept, with claims that 15-minute cities could lead to a greater surveillance culture or restrictions on people’s ability to move between neighbourhoods. However, there is little evidence to support this[x]. Gentrification is a potential concern. Gentrification is when more affluent residents move into a poorer neighbourhood, leading to an increase in house prices that displaces the existing community. If 15-minute neighbourhoods make an area more desirable, this could lead to more people wanting to live there, potentially creating gentrification.
Another concern is increased segregation between the richer and poorer districts of a city. There are worries that facilities in the richer areas may improve, and the poorer areas will be left less socially mobile and unable to access these facilities. There is a worry in the US that 15-minute neighbourhoods could exacerbate the racial segregation embedded by city planning practices and redlining. Redlining was a discriminatory practice that began in the 1930s, where colour-coded maps were used to refuse mortgages to people in majority-black neighbourhoods. Today, there are higher rates of poverty, worse health outcomes, and less home equity for people living in those red-lined areas[xi].
To deal with these challenges, it is reiterated that the 15-minute city concept needs to be applied flexibly, considering the context of the specific city in which it operates. For example, some urban experts, such as urban designer Jay Pitter, have stated that whilst the 15-minute city model may work in European cities that were designed before the invention of the automobile, it does not translate as well to newer American cities that have been designed around cars rather than people[xii]. If there are socio-economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, improving these places first could be one solution[xiii]. It is also imperative to engage in dialogue and participatory planning with residents to facilitate more inclusion and support for a scheme. Jay Pitter agrees that a more bottom-up approach, whereby the community makes decisions on the redesign of streets and neighbourhoods, could be a more productive approach[xiv].
YouGov has found that there is support for 15-minute neighbourhoods amongst the UK population[xv]. However, there is a disparity between what people think should be included in their 15-minute radius and what currently exists. Banks, GPs, and pharmacies are the three amenities that most Britons desire that are not currently available. 55% of the UK population believe that banks should be within a 15-minute walk, whilst only 24% of the population have this access. For GP surgeries, 83% have this desire, but only 54% have the reality, and for pharmacies, this is 85% and 66%, respectively[xvi].
Several local governments have put forward plans to introduce elements of the 15-minute city concept. Cities with these plans include Oxford, Bristol, Canterbury, Sheffield, and Birmingham[xvii]. Ipswich’s local government also hopes that Ipswich will become the UK’s first 15-minute town[xviii].
Oxford’s 15-minute city plans, which are part of its Local Plan 2040, have sparked controversy and confusion. There has been some mix-up between the 15-minute city plan and other traffic-reducing measures announced by Oxfordshire County Council[xix]. By 2024, drivers will be fined for using city-centre roads at particular times to encourage the use of public transport and driving on the ring roads[xx]. Anger at both schemes has led to protests within the city.
There is currently no national UK policy to implement 15-minute cities. However, in the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023, the UK Government has made the commitment that “everyone should live within 15 minutes’ walk of a green or blue space”[xxi]. Furthermore, increasing active travel is something that is being considered. In the 2021 ‘Decarbonising transport: a better, greener Britain’ report, it was stated that £2 billion ($2.56bn USD) would be invested over five years so that half of all journeys in UK towns and cities will be walked or cycled by 2030[xxii]. As of the 1st of June 2023, Active Travel England will now be consulted on all planning applications for developments of or exceeding 150 housing units, 7,500 m2 of floorspace or an area of 5 hectares[xxiii]. Moreover, the recent relaxation of UK planning rules by the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, aims to increase the number of houses in the centre of cities by making it easier to convert empty retail units and betting shops into homes. Gove hopes this densification will lead to more "walkable, liveable communities"[xxvi]. This desire for more walkability and liveability is at the heart of what 15-minute cities are about.
In addition to the 15-minute city, Moreno’s work since 2006 on the ‘digital and sustainable city’ has been instrumental in developing research on the ‘smart city’[xxiv]. Some suggest that the localised, pedestrianised, and community-driven ideal of a 15-minute neighbourhood is antithetical to the fast-paced, techno-centric vision of a smart city[xxv]. However, it can be expected that there will be more research combining these two concepts in the future. For example, the smart city technology of adaptive street lighting could encourage walking and cycling by increasing street safety whilst reducing environmental impact[xxvii].
[i] BBC- How ‘15 Minute Cities’ will Change the Way we Socialise & Carlos Moreno
[xx] Timeout- The Small English City at the Centre of the Global 15-Minute-City Storm & DW- Fact Check: Are 15-Minute Cities a Plan to Create Lockdowns?
[xxiv] Carlos Moreno
Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”