Apr 5, 2022

Welcome to the 15 minute city

If you haven’t heard the term 15-minute city before, the chances are you will do soon. We think it could well be one of the most exciting, transformative and simple ideas to emerge in urban planning over the last few years.

A map of a city with a small section highlighted

If you haven’t heard the term 15-minute city before, the chances are you will do soon. We think it could well be one of the most exciting, transformative and simple ideas to emerge in urban planning over the last few years.

What is the ‘15-minute city’?

The 15-minute city is essentially an aspirational measurement for urban planning in which basic human needs and desires are met within 15 minutes’ walk (although this has evolved to include 15-minute bike rides and occasionally bus rides too). 

The idea is that your basic essential and civic destinations like pharmacies, doctors’ surgeries, shops, libraries, parks, cafes and restaurants can all be reached under your own steam – roughly three quarters of a mile for the ‘average person’, or three miles if you’re fairly fit and on your bike.

Where did the idea come from?

The concept of the 15-minute city was first suggested by Professor Carlos Moreno of the Sorbonne in Paris. It’s since been championed by urban thinkers all over the world. It’s certainly a catchy name, and it’s easy to see why it has caught on, but in truth it doesn’t just need to be cities. Everyone everywhere needs access to the same things, and will find it easier to reduce their carbon footprint if they can walk to find them.  

This is very true then for the former commuter. These days if you can work from home, you can theoretically work anywhere. So having everything you need from your doorstep – including somewhere you can bust out your laptop and nail a day’s work – means you can take a serious bite out of your carbon footprint. 

Where is it happening?

Uptake in the USA has been significant, with many cities incorporating the 15-minute city model into their urban planning approach. Bellevue, Seattle, Portland and Ottawa have all embraced it in a big waywith Kirkland, Washington taking it even further with their 10 minute neighbourhood analysis tool. Here in the UK community principles are shaping how businesses and councils think, everywhere from the City of London to the new generation of business parks with residential capacity like Thorpe Park Leeds.

The world has been city-centric for some time, with commutable surroundings providing the work/life sweet spot for many. Since the pandemic, however – with technology empowering remote work more and more – the dynamics and economics of communities is changing. ‘Local’ isn’t just a nice to have buzzword, it’s a cornerstone of daily life.

It’s being called a paradigm shift, and certainly seems to offer one, replacing the familiar regimen of long fuel-burning journeys at the start and end of the day with family-friendly carbon-free goodness right around the corner. 

Healthy body, healthy planet, healthy community

There are both mental and physical health benefits to a walkable city, and the reduction in CO2 has obvious environmental benefits. A shorter (or obsolete) commute is a no-brainer, but it’s not just the individual who benefits. Empty urban spaces devoid of life during the day can flourish, and equity is promoted too, making sure no one is left out. Theoretically.

It is worth noting that a number of people have pointed out that ‘walkability’ is not an inclusive concept. And while the concept works well in many North American and European cities, it doesn’t necessarily translate as well overseas where urban areas may have very different layouts and histories

That said, the idea of accessibility and locality are without a doubt the key to robust and inclusive communities and putting feet on the ground. It’s just the kind of catalyst that the Great British high street, which has been languishing for decades, needs to stimulate footfall with benefits as far reaching as reduced food miles to reduced loneliness.  

So how long till you live in a 15-minute city?

Will the 15-minute city become a reality and a go-to concept for urban planners everywhere? Maybe. When it comes to simple pragmatic concepts that promote health, community and smaller carbon footprints it’s certainly a start. And if you’re inspired by the idea and want to see it happen in your city, the best thing you can do is get involved. Start a conversation with the people who make the planning decisions where you live. If there’s enough public support, it may only be a matter of time.