15-minute city musings

This blog post has in part been inspired by the recent coverage of 15min city concepts in the mainstream media (In praise of the ‘15-minute city’ — the mundane planning theory terrifying conspiracists | Oliver Wainwright | The Guardian) and the fears they have explored. It is also a reflection on how the concept may apply to more rural localities where distances between homes and services/facilities are inevitably greater than in a typical urban context.

Before this, the team at Diagonal had already been discussing the pros and cons of this type of planning concept. What do we need to think about and understand when considering equity in accessibility to services, facilities and opportunities? And what about the range of encounters, the diversity of offerings and quality of services that different people living in different neighbourhoods may be able to, or need to, access within a typical 15 min walk?

One thing is clear — some fears expressed are unfounded when you go back to the concept itself. No supporter of the concept is implying a restriction in access, or an inability to go beyond a certain boundary. No municipality has, to date, shown any ambition to patrol the ‘gates’ that may demarcate a 15/20-minute radius from a given centre.

However, the concept does seem to provide a sound platform to explore ways of improving the quality of life of people living in cities, with an emphasis on locality. Aside from recognising that developing greater relationships with one’s neighbourhood, be it shopping local, frequenting local parks and community centres, getting to know our neighbours can have positive effects on our mental health, it is also an obvious response to the climate crisis. There is clearly an urgent need to reduce and minimise car journeys. With that in mind, increasing the proximity between someone’s home and their point of interest seems an obvious starting point. This is not always practical. A shorter journey may not automatically mean a switch from driving to walking/cycling/wheeling etc. But with appropriate consideration and adequate local governance, adopting a 15-minute or similar principle, some positive things that may happen include:

  • if realistic, walking/cycling/wheeling instead of driving: positive knock-on effects on physical, mental health and wider population health through improved air quality
  • a better spread of services and facilities in any given neighbourhood: resulting in more vibrant places, more passive surveillance and therefore potentially safer places, more chance encounters and therefore reduced loneliness for some, more jobs closer to home for a number of people
  • increased footfall for local businesses: shop local, support small
  • generally more liveable streets, with the opportunity to replace car traffic with more street furniture, play opportunities, planting etc

The concept raises questions though, particularly if we ask ‘a 15-minute city for whom’? For example, could a barista in your local cafe afford to live within 15 minutes of their place of work? Or what happens when some parents decide the most walkable school is not good enough for their children and enrol them in a school a short drive or a 40-minute walk from home? How do these types of dynamics affect the concept and its real world application and sustainability?

The answers go beyond a concept that is not designed to solve deep-rooted political, planning, and behavioural challenges. In theory an equal spread of genuinely affordable housing should mean that a barista could live within walking distance of their place of work. Equally, if Ofsted ratings did not play such a big part in more privileged families’ decisions around schooling, and everyone just attended their nearest school, there would likely be more equity across the board in terms of educational opportunities. However, the chronic lack of affordable housing in the UK is always going to be a challenge; just as the implementation of school catchment areas is currently the only way to manage the link between homes and schools.

In addition, it is a tough call for 15-minute city concepts to undo the mass deployment of less sustainable but ubiquitous, car-dominated, edge-of-town estates. However, the aspiration for people to be able to access key services and facilities in a more sustainable (and potentially more pleasant!) way can only be a positive one.

And so, in my view, the concept needs to be supported by a wider strategy around mobility, one that focuses not only on more equitable access to key services and facilities, but also to education, work, play, and culture for all parts of the population.

It is not realistic to think that everyone is able to, or would want to, live within 15 minutes walking distance of an art gallery, or of high-earning work opportunities. But it would be naive to ignore the fact that access to certain opportunities is linked to income, education, and health outcomes. Therefore enabling those that want to, to reach those places relatively quickly and cheaply, through good quality and reliable public transport infrastructure, is key. And on top of enabling access to opportunities, proximity-focussed planning is about making everyone feel that, irrespective of their socio-economic background, they are aware of and are welcome to visit x museum, frequent x playpark, aspire to work or study in x location etc. Otherwise, the criticism that 15-minute cities would risk amplifying socio-economic differences may have legs.

Perhaps one of the greatest issues with the concept of ‘15-minute city’ or ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ is the ‘number of minutes’. This is why talking about the concept of ‘happy proximity’ instead is so attractive. Quoting Carlos Moreno in a recent interview with the Parkly team (Sustainable cities of happy proximities - helloparkly.com)

The question with 15-minute city and 30-minute territory is not the number of minutes. Sometimes people are almost obsessed with the number of minutes, and it doesn’t really matter if it is 15, 30, 17 or 35 minutes — that’s not the point of the model.

Thinking about more rural locations, Moreno’s view is that:

We should develop a sharing economy, such as sharing cars, and we could propose to small towns and ruralities new economic models supported by technologies, for example collective, shared mobility systems.

Instead of each small town having to try to invest in the same services for instance, we can think of a grid model for resources and create a shared territorial vision.

Happy proximity is contextual. While in some locations, it may be inappropriate and unrealistic for someone to have all their basic needs and wants within a 15-minute walk of their home, a balance can be struck whereby some of these needs are closer than others. But also for the services/facilities etc that are further afield, there should be room for innovation in terms of accessing these facilities more sustainably, or perhaps making those facilities mobile, or even sharing those facilities with neighbouring towns/villages. Mobile libraries are a great example of this, and not an innovation!

The point is, there is generally room for improving people’s accessibility to places of interest, irrespective of where they live — and this is even more important now, for a range of reasons, including:

  • climate change and the need to travel more sustainability
  • people’s physical health and mental health
  • the need to increase equity in accessibility
  • mixing up uses in neighbourhoods can add vitality to an area

In more rural areas, this may open the door to new opportunities such as:

  • opportunities for small localities to make joint business cases for new, shared facilities
  • opportunities for new businesses to start ‘on wheels’, reducing overheads and potentially reaching more people: eg bakeries, libraries, theatres, butchers, fishmongers
  • opportunities to seek investment for e-bike and e-scooter schemes

The idea for these opportunities to be tested as part of a ‘shared territorial vision’ is particularly exciting. It is something that Diagonal’s Skyline tool is designed to do, effectively and cheaply.

If you would like to know more, or if you have a project that you’d be intrigued to test, get in touch!.


May 2023