Innovation That Matters

Why the 15-Minute City Concept is Gaining Traction

Trend Explained

Proponents of the concept believe that cities should be designed to reduce the distance that people need to travel daily

Imagine if everywhere you needed to travel on a daily basis – work, school, grocery store, park, café – was just a 15-minute bicycle ride from your home. How would your life change? What would you do with the extra time? How much money could you save?

These are the questions being asked by proponents of the 15-minute city – the concept that cities should be designed to reduce the distance that people need to travel daily. And the last point is particularly pertinent today as high energy prices are making commuting by road more financially painful than ever.

While many people may already live a close walk or bike ride from shops and schools, it is very difficult to find a 15-minute city – even in densely packed urban areas like New York. But the potential environmental, health and liveability benefits of the 15-minute city have led a number of prominent people to support the concept. It was used as a cornerstone of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful re-election in Paris, in 2020, and former US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has adopted the concept as a key part of his New York City mayoral candidacy this year. 

Advocates of the 15-minute city point to its many benefits, stating that: 

the need for transportation is minimised, which leads to less traffic and noise, reduced air pollution and fewer carbon emissions;

it encourages human-powered transportation, such as biking and walking, which have proven health benefits;

the easy accessibility to services improves the quality of life and promotes equality and diversity;

it can help alleviate loneliness by making it easier to meet and interact with neighbours;

shorter commutes mean more time for recreation and family, and more money saved.

This last point is particularly popular – and timely. In one recent survey, the majority of Parisians said that they would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a shorter commute; while in the UK, surveys suggest the average worker spend upwards of £130 a month, and around an hour and a half a day, on commuting. However, this also highlights one of the most difficult aspects of the 15-minute city – how to move jobs closer to workers.  

For many, such as those who work in manufacturing, delivery and warehousing, this may be impossible, but for others, a number of solutions have been suggested. These include developing neighbourhood co-working hubs and multiple-use buildings. Before the pandemic, the biggest hurdle for many jobs was convincing companies that employees can successfully work remotely. However, after two and a half yeras of remote working, many employers have begun to move, if not to full-time remote working, then to a hybrid system. 

Rewilding is another key aspect of the 15-minute city made even more vital by the pandemic. According to Arup, greenery and parks play an important role in making cities more resilient, “both by providing residents with a respite from tarmac and concrete and offering shade, natural flood defences and cleaner air.” 

Adding green spaces need not be expensive, either. Modular parklets using street furniture and planters can add greenery to individual streets, and provide reconfigurable outdoor seating for cafes and restaurants. Along with green space, community-friendly spaces can be built into everyday journeys using a design that gives objects purpose beyond their primary function. In Melbourne, parking garages are being repurposed as community gardens, and a number of cities are making plans to convert disused areas such as rail bridges and car parks to green spaces and community hubs. 

In the future, more neighbourhoods, and even entire cities, may look like Tirana’s planned Riverside area, which will feature co-working spaces, communal gardens for residents to grow food and pedestrian bridges. 

In fact, growing food locally could well become another key component of the 15-minute city. A US grocery chain has begun growing vegetables hydroponically in a shipping container in its parking lot, and similar concepts could be used to grow food hyper-locally. A planned New York affordable housing development includes an on-site greenhouse, and new ideas are allowing people to grow vertical gardens on balconies and even indoors. 

Perhaps one of the most distinctive facets of the 15-minute city is the claiming back of streets from cars. A lot of this can be achieved with low-tech solutions like instituting low-traffic neighbourhoods and building cycle lanes. Barcelona is developing a concept called ‘superblocks’, where all interior roads are closed to through traffic (remaining open to residents, emergency vehicles, delivery drivers, etc). Tech also has a role to play in this transformation. One day soon, autonomous taxise-cargo bikese-bikes, and e-scooters could allow people to get rid of their cars altogether, and repurpose streets for parks, play areas and community gathering places. 

Given the advances in transportation technology, as well as the multitude of benefits for health, well-being and the environment, we may all be living in a 15-minute city in the not-too-distant future. 

Written By: Lisa Magloff

This article was first published in August 2021 and reviewed on 21/09/2022