You may have already heard of the concept of a ’15-minute city’, but what do urban planners really think about the feasibility of making cities time-scaled, is this mere design fantasy, or is this the future of sustainable mobility?
The philosophy behind the 15-minute city is a simple one: people should have access to everything they need within a short walk or cycle ride. This means that city life becomes more decentralised, reducing the need for car journeys.
The idea has gained a lot of momentum during the course of the pandemic. From Plan Melbourne where a series of 20-minute neighbourhood trials took place to Parisian mayor Anne Hildago’s manifesto, cities around the world are beginning to consider this time-scaled model as one that could potentially solve all of current struggles with sustainable urban mobility.
The vision clearly ticks a lot of boxes on paper, and much of the coverage on the topic has revolved around why designing cities around it will be the silver bullet to reclaiming urban spaces for people. But what exactly are the practical challenges, and what are the steps we need to take to transform a conceptualisation into a pragmatic solution? We spoke to urban changemakers in the field to find out the top 5 steps to get from concept to implementation:
Step 1: Get the Ball Rolling
One of the key things to keep in mind when discussing the topic of 15-minute neighbourhoods is that it is only the starting point for urban planning. It should not be considered a panacea that can be applied to every city in the same way.
“It’s a good way to start the conversation. Sometimes you hear about concepts that are just buzzwords – but the 15-minute city is a catchy idea that everyone can understand which also matches up with good urbanism”, said Melbourne based urban planner Andrew Amos. But ultimately, he said, “there is no one-size fits all.”
Urbanist and founder of the 15-Minute City Project in San Francisco, Dan Luscher, agrees that the vision “must be a north star”. “Everyone defines the concept in a different way. Once you have an idea of what you really want it to be, then you can make progress towards achieving it.”
Step 2: Don’t Make Plans That Sit on the Shelf
Luscher says that the key to the successful implementation of 15-minute neighbourhoods in a variety of places is about two key things: measurement and accountability.
“You can’t just write great urban plans that have nice concepts and sit on the shelf. You must make sure that you are carefully defining what you mean in a particular area by a 15-minute city”, he says. This definition in one place will be totally different than another. “We need to measure precise goals for proximity and access for people, and also take account for how these may change over time.”
“Measurement is key to knowing you are making progress, which will allow for political leaders to be held accountable for their decisions”, Luscher states.
Step 3: Don’t Oversimplify
On the other hand, urban change maker and creative strategist Jorn Wemmenhove warns that we also must be careful that the 15-minute timescale does not become a ‘checkbox’ for urban designers when it comes to planning cities.
“We must also keep in mind that the liberty to move around affects your identity as a person, and sometimes it can be a good thing.” For example, for children it can be essential that communities and neighbourhoods are shared to support development and encourage cohesion.
We should seek not to live our lives in an overly compartmentalised way but giving people the option to be able to live local is important.
Step 4: Get People to Visualize the Change
Progressing the 15-minute idea often has a lot to do with retro-fitting the existing urban fabric, but Amos explains that often “any change to an existing area that is not a blank canvas must be incremental. You may get change eventually, but it can be slow relative to the time we actually have to reduce carbon emissions.”
“We tend to have a bit of an anti-development sentiment, and a big land or housing development can really act as a catalyst to give people the chance to see how it works in real life and to get on board.”
“One of the things I have picked up working in architecture and design is that making strategies and concepts visible is quite a powerful tool – once the vision is expressed in a visual way, the ripples spread from there”, Amos continued.
One example of this is a project which Amos worked on in 2018 called SOHO village – the first true mixed-use village to be built in the low-density suburban growth area of Point Cook, Victoria Australia. This design aimed to illustrate that compact development with everyday essentials at your doorstep is a completely achievable and reachable goal.
When the development was first drafted, there was little demand for housing. But once complete, the apartments in the village were the quickest-selling aspect of the entire project.
Step 5: Support Policies That Allow 15-Minute Neighbourhoods to Happen
There are, in many areas, existing policies that act as barriers to 15-minute neighbourhoods; essentially making them illegal. Single family zoning and parking minimums serve as prime examples.
“We should always be trying to get rid of these policies”, Luscher says. However, Amos elaborates that when it comes to these barriers, what we can do is “accommodate cars in the short term but have a plan for what will happen in the long term as cars become less and less important. We should try to build structures and areas that can be used as parking while it is still required, but which can transition into another use.”
In conclusion, the 15-minute city concept is, at its core, about making cities that work well for people. It may seem like the vision is utopian, too futuristic or unreachable. But the reality is that reclaiming urban space is by no means a new concept, and there are steps that city changers can take to speed up the process by which we will see hyper-proximity serving as a sustainable mobility solution in the not so far off future.