The audacious vision of creating a “15-minute city” acted as a source of comfort for people in 2020. As the name goes, the idea is for communities to live, learn and thrive within a 15-minute radius by foot or bike. Thus, our attention shifted from making space for cars to replace the same by creating places for people. Carlos Moreno, the Franco-Colombian scientist and university professor, first proposed the model in 2016.
The concept gained tension with the recent political and policy changes in Paris. Mayor Anne Hidalgo took her bicycle out on the streets to promote her vision during the 2020 mayoral elections. On top of that, the pandemic escalated cities’ efforts to decrease the reliance on commuting for varying purposes. However, urban planners and professionals have tried to build cities around walkability for so long. Referred to as 30- and 20- minute cities, many cities have integrated the same in their long-term master plans. Rotterdam, Barcelona, Melbourne, London, Detroit, Portland, Ottawa, etc., are a few to name.
Neighbourhoods across the world
Over the years, we made diverse and compact neighbourhoods with varying names, yet the same principles at the root of all. In these neighbourhoods, amenities and facilities are accessible to individuals on foot or bike, including work and socialising spaces. For example, Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 identifies the effects of urban design on our health and focuses on building healthy communities through 20-minute neighbourhoods. It relies on research claiming that 20-minutes is the maximum time people are willing to walk for daily needs locally. Simultaneously, C40 Mayors Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery aims to give public spaces back to people, invest in essential public services, protect mass transit, and create green jobs.
Creating 15-minute cities is a prime objective for actions on health and well-being. We must permanently reallocate road space to walking and cycling, as per the C40 mayors, to give streets back to people. We see similar initiatives across the globe. Barcelona’s superblocks – 400×400 metre blocks of pedestrian plazas prioritise the quality of public spaces and leisure for the community over motorised vehicles. Detroit, a downtown designed for cars, is planning on using its density as an advantage for developing ‘20-minute walkable neighbourhoods’ since 2016. Similarly, Shanghai’s 2016 Master Plan included ’15-minute community life circles’. Likewise, in 2019, Singapore Land Transport Authority included ’20-minute towns’ and ’45-minute city’ in the 2040 Master Plan.
These concepts directly link accessibility to places, creating a need to emphasise neighbourhood planning. Incorporating 15-minute neighbourhoods demands detailed decentralisation, scratching and remodelling areas, especially in monotonous zones. A successful and favoured way is to look at hybrid spaces or creating multi-purpose, reusable spaces.
Changing the City Design
Carlos Moreno explains how, at its core, the concept revolves around mixing urban social functions to make Paris a place where the city’s rhythm follows people. It reduces the travel demand and gives room for the streets to serve individuals rather than cars. His purpose is to create human-sized spaces that focus on four major principles- ecology, proximity, solidarity, and participation. Under Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s aim for ‘La Ville Du Quart d’Heure’ (the quarter-hour city), Paris is now focusing on developing new services for each district. A new economic model for local businesses, reducing traffic and reclaiming streets as bike lanes and areas for leisure, and transforming existing infrastructure are on top of the list.
The newly appointed commissioner for the 15-minute city, Carine Rolland, is entrusted with creating a ‘city of proximities’. By the same taken prominent actions such as banning cars on certain routes, making pedestrian gathering spots along the river Seine, turning school playgrounds into parks are part of the new normal. Further, Hidalgo pledged 1bn euros per year to maintain and beautify streets, squares, and gardens. While it may serve the aspect of equality at the neighbourhood level; nevertheless, equity at the city-level ensuring that the initiative benefits every citizen still needs strategising.
Nevertheless, there are still challenges in planning around the traces of the existing zoning in the urban fabric. Urban sprawl and suburbs exhibit a wholly distinct set of issues and demands. Economic disparity and differences in employment patterns also seek to find their place in the neighbourhood plan. We need careful planning in creating diverse yet self-sufficient communities. Distinct features, including housing, employment, food, recreation, and amenities, should be accessible without dependence on cars.
What is so special about a 15-minute city?
Compared to past attempts, people resonated with the ’15 minute city’ concept. In the past year, people experienced city life at a local level and wanted more of it. Ambling while providing people with the opportunity to invest in more prosperous social relations amongst communities had a significant effect. Until now, more effective centre-level interventions subsided all initiatives done at the neighbourhood level. The need to travel, the sheer variety of social circles, and the ease of visiting places kept people engrossed in the fast-moving urban life. None was free to spare a moment and enjoy the resources and amenities available in proximity.
Amidst the pandemic, in the hour of need, the neighbourhood level amenities came to the rescue. The local business and parks finally caught appreciation when travelling long distance became risky. The pandemic turned a new leaf for our ways of looking at workspaces that emphasise living closer to where we live. It brought to our attention to local co-working hubs that enable individuals to collaborate under different circumstances. People saw an alternative way of living that was peaceful and fulfilling. Being connected to the outer world, making giant leaps professionally, and still staying close to home was a dream for many.
The 15-minute city concept, when introduced again in 2020, was something people could now relate to. They knew what the planners and practitioners were aiming for and how it benefited the community. People accepted the change wholeheartedly. The 15-minute city has shown the importance of local and equitable planning. Urban planning is now about fostering a flexible social and functional mix to ensure a better quality of life while keeping people at the centre.