Focusing on making amenities more accessible to city dwellers comes with a host of benefits
If you’re an urbanite, how long does it take you to get to a supermarket? What about a public park, pharmacist, or primary school? For proponents of the 15-Minute City planning concept, the answer to all of those questions should be “less than 15 minutes.”
On first glance, the concept is very simple: to create neighborhoods and cities where a person can meet a host of their basic needs via a short walk or bike ride; larger cities also tend to include public transit in the mix. Exactly what defines ‘short’ varies from place to place. Copenhagen, for example, adopted a ‘5 Minutes to Everything’ model back in 2016, “A maximum 5-minute walk to all amenities and public transport.” For Melbourne the goal was a 10-minute threshold (or more specifically, a “20-minute return trip to all amenities”). Other cities including Glasgow, Portland and Hamilton (New Zealand) aim for 20 minutes. And while the specific time period differs, the central tenet – enhancing the accessibility of neighborhoods through design and active transit – remains the same. The concept, which is increasingly being generalized to the ‘x-minute city’, is revolutionizing the way we think about our urban homes.
The planning model was formally proposed by French-Colombian scientist – and Sorbonne professor – Carlos Moreno in 2016. Elements of it have been around since at least the 1960s (Morena credits Jane Jacobs as a major source of inspiration), and it shares many of the same principles as walkable, mixed-used urban design. But, Moreno’s ’15-minute’ framing of it grabbed public attention. In French, it’s called “La Ville du quart d’Heure”, and it’s in France that it was first put into practice, thanks to the support of Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris.
Moreno’s motivation for developing the model was to disrupt the traditional car-focused approach that dominates urban design thinking, and replace it with one focused on “hyper-proximity”. Not only, he argued, would this result in huge emissions reductions, it would also lead to more sustainable, human-centric urban environments. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests such neighborhoods promote everything from social cohesion to public health. His was a vision that Hidalgo bought into wholeheartedly – she made it a cornerstone of her successful 2020 re-election campaign, saying that, “My project is about proximity, participation, collaboration and ecology. In Paris we all feel we have no time; we are always rushing to one place or another, always trying to gain time. That is why I am convinced we need to transform the city so Parisians can learn, do sports, have healthcare, shop, within 15 minutes of their home.”
In some ways, this was a natural progression for Hidalgo. Since her election in 2014, prioritizing active transit has been a key focus. She has created hundreds of kilometers of bicycle lanes throughout the city. She’s closed off scenic stretches of the Seine riverbanks to cars – by one estimate, removing 73,000 car trips from the area. And two of the city’s plazas, Place de la République and Place de la Bastille were completely redesigned to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists. All those efforts seem to be paying off. According to the UN, Paris managed to cut its carbon emissions by 20% between 2004 to 2018 – a period during which either Hidalgo or her predecessor Bertrand Delanoë were Mayor.
Even so, the pace of change in the city since 2020 is staggering.* Urbanist Stéphane Kirkland was quoted in Politico as saying “Paris is the only city that has been so aggressive in creating infrastructure…People always assume it has always been a bicycle city, but it’s only been three years in the works.” The COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in accelerating this shift. Speaking to Town & Country Magazine, Deputy Mayor David Belliard said, “For the first time, people experienced the city without cars, and they understood we can live without cars and it’s better!”
The same thing happened in other cities too. As lockdowns saw workers stay home, once busy roads became quieter, safer, and cleaner. Within a few months, officials (and individual residents) started to take advantage of this extra space. Temporary infrastructure like parklets, playgrounds and cycleways started popping up….and some ended up becoming permanent. Access to outdoor spaces, as well as to local cafes, shops and other amenities was a lifeline for many during that time. Neighbors became friends….or at least, they started sharing their home-baking. For many, the pandemic fundamentally transformed their relationship with their local areas. Is it any wonder then, that people started paying attention to how well (or badly) provisioned their neighborhoods were? As Lisa Chamberlain of the World Economic Forum succinctly explained, “the 15-minute city went from a “nice-to-have” to a rallying cry…. The pandemic created an urgency around equitable urbanism that sidelined arguments about bike lanes and other “amenities” that have roiled communities for years.”
Global organizations, such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, took notice too. In July 2020, they published a framework for cities to “build back better”, and the 15-minute city concept was at the heart of it. The framework included a wide range of Case Studies, from Bogotá to Berlin, and Shanghai to Seattle. C40 have continued to champion the concept ever since. Just last week, they launched the Green and Thriving Neighborhoods program – a funded project that aims to develop “integrated climate actions at the neighborhood scale”, in cities across the globe.
Creating x-minute neighborhoods has become a goal for many urban areas… but how can we actually measure their accessibility? In other words, what’s the best way to quantify ‘x’? Researchers from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand have focused on this question in their latest paper. They write, “different approaches can ignore inequalities amongst residents; for example, if the average time is considered then, by definition, approximately 50 % of the residents will have to travel further.”
In the study, they look at 543 urban areas – the USA’s largest 500 cities and all 43 urban areas of NZ. The amenities they use are pharmacies, supermarkets, parks and primary schools, chosen based on data availability and alignment with established planning policies “that create health-promoting cities” (see my June story for more on healthy cities).
In general, x-minute statistics represent the cities access to all of the amenities under consideration. This differs from amenity statistics that evaluate the accessibility of just one amenity. So, if you live a 3-minute walk from a park, 4 from a school, 6 from a supermarket, and 8 from a pharmacy, your block would be assigned an amenity time of 3 minutes, but an x-minute time of 8 minutes. Aggregating those x-times for a whole neighborhood or city provides a broader picture of how accessible a neighborhood is.
But representing proximity through statistics is tricky. Do you choose the percentage of residents within x-minutes, the maximum travel time, the population weighted mean/median…. It’s a fairly long list of options, and each one offers benefits and drawbacks. For example, the metric you chose may obscure important information. In the paper, the authors discuss Perris, California. 40% of its residents are within 20-minutes of all amenities, which sounds great…but over 10% of residents live more than 75-minutes away, making those people amenity-poor. They also highlight damaging inequities in planning – Riverdale, a majority-black community in southern Chicago has been isolated from its basic amenities. There, a travel time of 1 hour to a supermarket is typical, and the effects can be seen in the health statistics, with 84% of residents at risk of food insecurity.
As part of this, the researchers have developed an interactive visualization tool that maps and measures the x-minute and amenity statistics for a range of amenities. The publicly available dashboard (available here) focuses only on NZ’s 43 urban areas, but their approach allows them to directly compare cities, and to investigate the impact of different metrics on defining proximity. They say that “Such data provides residents and policymakers with an enhanced understanding of how our communities perform thus allowing a better evaluation of future decisions and ability to monitor progress.”
Even so, there are still lots of measurement challenges involved in adopting the x-minute city approach. For example, where do you draw your geographical boundary? If the boundary contains a significant portion of rural residents, the statistic will underestimate access for urban residents. What amenities should be included? The types of amenities that communities require will vary across age, gender, culture and region. If that’s not considered, the authors write “we may unintentionally create mono-type communities… and therefore fail to realize the benefits of diverse cities.” And finally, what is an acceptable x? The goal of the x-minute city vision is to enable and encourage people to walk or cycle to their destinations. But the travel time that people consider feasible will vary by the individual and the amenity itself. You might be happy to walk 15 minutes to a pharmacy, but perhaps that’s too far to carry groceries.
The paper’s authors conclude that while the x-minute city concept is extremely helpful in discussions on how best to create inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities, the use of a single travel time is too simplistic, and could result in access-poor residents being overlooked. As the lead author, Dr Tom Logan, wrote in The Conversation, “The greater aim should be to improve accessibility as much as possible to reduce our dependence on cars and reclaim our neighborhoods for people. This will benefit our health, sustainability and communities.”
* Hidalgo’s decisions have not been universally popular. There are millions of tweets using the hashtag #saccageparis (roughly translating to “#vandalizedparis) that specifically oppose her policies.