‘The 15-Minute City’: Desirable, But Not So Easy To Pull Off

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Barcelona center (Image by Kristina Spisakova from Pixabay)

Over the last few years, a number of cities around the world have been taken with the idea of re-inventing themselves as “15-minute cities.” What this unromantic catchphrase means is offering places for people to live where nearly everything residents need is within a 15-minute walk, therefore reducing the necessity to have a car. Many articles have described the benefits of this form of urban development, including improved air quality, economic diversification, and personal health. A recent one can be found in the November 12 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek.

It seems to be the latest hot trend. My intent here is not to cast aspersions on this idea. Indeed, after having grown up in typical American suburbs, much of my adult life has been spent in a half dozen 15-minute cities, including where I now live in a small Italian town. I know that these cities and towns can work and that they can be wonderful.

My issue is that, like many short, sound-bite terms, the 15-minute city does not convey many important components of living that need to be in place for it to be a truly effective choice.

For example, let’s consider the notion that streets would be built or substantially converted to accommodate walking rather than automobiles. A number of cities around the world have done that in certain areas and have been doing so for decades without disrupting daily commerce. Truck deliveries can be allowed during certain periods of the day and night. And even cars can be accommodated on a limited permit basis for specific purposes, whether for shared rides, disabled people, or short-term deliveries. 

Here in Italy, many larger cities employ a method known as Zona Traffico Limitato (or ZTL), which allows local residents to drive in and park but not visitors or tourists. Camera kiosks capture violators and the fines can often exceed 100 euros – not something easily forgettable. There are many variations on this particular technique but the result is clearly quieter, safer streets. Some of the street previously devoted to moving and parking cars is then used for green spaces, public squares, and widened sidewalks for strolling and cafes.

However, roadway design and management is only one of many components that make a 15-minute city function well. (America is full of carless malls that haven’t worked.)  

Another factor is land uses, which are commonly mixed together. All land uses, from workplaces, to repair shops, to markets and various types of housing, exist side by side as well as over and under. There are no zones set aside just for luxury housing. In order to avoid concentrations of poverty, poor schools, and publicly assisted housing, people of widely different incomes live together in the same area. Not necessarily in the same building, but in proximity. And what this means, by extension, is that one’s neighbors might also be different in their race, ethnicity, type of family, clothing, and appearance. The 15-minute cities are not going to appeal to those who believe they have some inherent right to live surrounded only by people only like themselves.

Another caution: Residential density will likely be higher than many people are used to. It’s simple math. Certain businesses serving customers, like grocery stores, require a minimum number of people to support them. A full-service grocery store needs at least 4,000 households, or approximately 8,000 –10,000 people. If those people are arriving on foot or by bike, rather than car, doing the math translates to a minimum of 8-10 dwellings per acre. That’s nowhere close to places like Manhattan, but neither does it mean quarter-acre lots with freestanding houses. This is also the minimum density needed to support a basic public transportation system. 

In fact, this kind of community was built in many places in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were called Streetcar Suburbs. Many of these are revered today for their quiet, tree-lined lanes, charming main streets, and gracious public parks. So, the idea of a 15-minute city is hardly a foreign concept being foisted on Americans by rabidly fanatical Parisians. As the saying goes, “It’s as American as apple pie.”

Why we stopped building these wonderful 15 minute cities is a long, sordid tale involving the disruption of the pattern by the Depression and World War II, the advent of discriminatory zoning, school segregation, redlining, and the Federal subsidizing of outward development through tax favoritism. Many of these causes have by now fallen away though legal action and public policies, so it is certainly possible to recreate the model that worked well for decades and accommodated multiple generations of families.

Restoring this choice will require commitment to spending public monies differently. That includes rethinking what the urban school means (it certainly does NOT mean a sprawling, single-story structure surrounded by 10 acres of grass). It also entails providing public services differently. Here are two examples from Italy. Municipal garbage trucks here are the size of American SUV’s and can glide quietly through neighborhoods at all times of the day and night. Local police are friendly, helpful, and non-threatening in their crisply tailored uniforms that reflect pride in a noble profession rather than in an assault group of a military unit.

Finally, to make a 15-minute city work well requires a high regard for public spaces. Parks and squares and greens must be safe, clean, and well-monitored and well-managed. They can’t be allowed to be used for purposes that defeat a sense of community. This means that instead of homeless encampments, there need to be deliberate actions of home-building for people of all types, incomes, and capacities within the community. There must be a sense of shared responsibility by everyone, for everyone.

The 15-minute city can work exactly as I described above. I see it every day in my new hometown.

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