Imagine: kids playing on the street, people spilling out of a busy cafe, independent shops that stock local produce, a family-run pharmacy, cyclists whizzing past, trees providing much-needed shade from the blazing sun, picnickers in a nearby park. Birds chirp and animated conversations reverberate around you. Doesn’t that sound like a dream? Apparently not to climate change sceptics whose latest thing is to bash community-friendly urban planning.
A strange phenomenon has taken root in the western world. The right-wing commentariat in the US, Australia, Canada and the UK is at war with the concept of 15-minute cities (aka walkable cities). Jordan Peterson and co. are adamant that local governments are looking to restrict people’s freedom of movement and lock everyone into 15-minute bubbles. Worryingly, this whipped-up hysteria has resulted in some people protesting against 15-minute cities, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and other city planning measures alongside white nationalist groups.
Originally coined in 2016 by Carlos Moreno, an urbanist and professor at the University of Paris, the idea of the 15-minute city is simple: people should be able to get anywhere they need within a 15-minute walk or cycle from any point on the map. This includes work, shopping, education, healthcare and leisure. The concept is hardly new or groundbreaking, and many famous cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris have followed similar guidelines when erecting infrastructure.
But what is it actually like living in a 15-minute city? Is it hell on earth as some fear, or is it, in fact, lovely?
“Within 15 minutes of my apartment – and I live in a residential area – there really is everything from department stores and museums to gyms and tiny specialist shops,” says Freddie, a 28-year-old tech consultant living in Paris. “This has 100% had a positive impact on my life.” Freddie is passionate about walkable cities because walking is her primary mode of transport. “As soon as I moved here, I noticed that without even thinking about it consciously, I was walking way more than when I was based in London.”
As well as the benefit of better urban planning on her physical health, Freddie’s mental health has drastically improved too. “[Having] such easy access to things, [means] I do more and engage more in the world, rather than being centred only around the home, work and people I know, which instantly makes me feel less alone and part of something bigger,” she explains.
Urban planners in Paris, one of the most densely-populated capitals in Europe, are transforming the city for pedestrians and cyclists. Mayor Anne Hidalgo promised to turn Paris into a 15-minute city as her re-election pledge in 2020. She is pedestrianising large parts of the capital, creating “a bike lane in every street” by 2024, removing 60,000 parking spaces for private cars and revoking main road access to motor vehicles. Are such design measures limiting Freddie’s freedom, as some conspiracy theorists claim? “I don’t feel less free at all, or like I can’t go anywhere different if I want to. I still go to other parts of the city,” she says. “There are still cars, but some streets are pedestrian-only at the weekend.”
Clever urban planning gives people better access to the things they need and makes them happier and healthier, but it’s also good for the planet. The 15-minute city aims to reduce car traffic – and thus harmful pollution – and instead encourage more energy-efficient modes of transport. “It can positively impact surface transport emissions, which remain the UK’s largest single source of emissions. It’s a major challenge we’ve got to deal with,” says Jon Burke, an Environment Advisor to the Exec Member for Environment at Key Cities and the Climate Change and Decarbonisation Lead for Gloucester City Council.
As well as creating segregated cycleways, Burke believes that it’s important to implement other radical changes in the public space, like depaving large areas and planting trees and hedgerows for better air quality and shading. “Not only does that encourage people to walk and cycle more, but the literature is also clear that all people who live in green environments tend to spend more time in the public realm, producing a wide range of positive public health and social outcomes for the entire community.”
“You also need to support this work through other kinds of marginal infrastructure, delivering high-quality public conveniences, such as public toilets and water fountains.” Previously, Burke was London Borough of Hackney’s Cabinet Member for Energy, Waste, Transport and Public Realm. He delivered one of the most significant public drinking water fountain programmes in the UK, no doubt helping to eliminate countless single-use plastic drink bottles.
Good urban planning can also help regenerate rural or neglected areas with ageing populations, a lack of vital services and a heavy reliance on cars. “Once you’ve animated the public realm through fewer short-distance local car journeys to the town shopping centre because amenities begin to spring up, then the market is usually good at responding to that.” Burke explains that entrepreneurs will see new vibrant areas and seize the opportunity to place their businesses there, thus filling vacant units on dying high streets and generating business rates returns for the government and local authorities to be invested back into public services.
It’s not unusual for cities to go through mass urban planning projects to meet a population’s demands. Many people don’t know that Amsterdam wasn’t always the world’s cycling capital. It was in the 1980s that Dutch towns and cities brought in measures to make their streets cycle-friendly after a wave of people, including children, were killed by road traffic. In 1971 alone, vehicles killed over 3,300 people. Neighbourhood groups, environmentalists, road safety organisations and the cyclists union came together to form the ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (stop the child murder) campaign. They were successful, and today, over 40 years later, roughly two-thirds of daily urban transportation is done by bike, while 19% is done by car.
Lizzie, a 30-year-old freelance art director living in east Amsterdam, most appreciates the city’s cycling infrastructure. “My bike is my primary mode of transport; I pretty much take it everywhere,” she says, citing a recent bike trip to and from a nightclub. “I feel very safe and don’t come into much contact with cars. It’s nice not to always be on edge.” Having lived in Amsterdam, she can’t imagine moving somewhere where she can’t easily walk or cycle to get around quickly. “I think the whole joy of cities is having many things on your doorstep.”
As well as saving lives through fewer traffic accidents, urban design is crucial to tackling inequality within cities. It is often the most marginalised communities that suffer inside urban environments. A recent study found that people of colour in the United States are exposed to more pollution from nearly every source than white people. While in the UK, a similar pattern appears in London – 35% of areas with the highest proportion of Black and mixed/multiple ethnicities are in places with higher levels of air pollution.
For those who grew up in car-heavy environments, walkable cities feel like a different world. Bella is 27 and originally from Richmond, Virginia, but lives in Barcelona today. For her, the best part of living in a 15-minute city is the convenience and sense of community it creates. “Here, everything is so close; it’s purposely made accessible. [The city’s layout] has helped me create a strong foundation and base within Barcelona.”
Barcelona is famed for its historical urban planning. Much of the city is arranged in neat square blocks, and trees line the streets, boulevards and avenues. Until 2015, Barcelona’s air pollution was steadily climbing, but measures to boost sustainable mobility and cut down the number of vehicles on the road have reduced pollution by more than 30%. Part of this was thanks to the activation of the Low Emission Zone, which reduced 600,000 journeys by pollution vehicles, and the introduction of ‘superblocks’ – a strategic plan that will turn one out of three streets into green streets by prioritising pedestrians, introducing more greenery, and creating recreational spaces. Bella says that work on the superblocks in the Eixample district is already underway. “They’re cutting off all the roads, paving everything over, they’re going to be building a bunch of different terraces and making it pedestrian and cycle friendly.”
Superblocks are proven to work. North-west of Barcelona is a city called Vitoria-Gasteiz that has implemented superblock designs since 2008. Since then, there has been a 42% reduction in Nitrogen oxide, a 38% reduction in particle pollution, and increased economic activity. Most of all, they encourage people to be outside, tremendously impacting well-being. “Living here really does make people happier,” Bella says. “You’re out and about; you’re in the sun – we all need vitamin D!”
Adapting our cities shouldn’t take years; even small changes like phasing out polluting vehicles and creating segregated cycle paths on existing roads can make a big difference in people’s lives. In London, harmful pollution levels have nearly halved in the city’s centre since Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) were rolled out in 2019. There is also strong evidence that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have reduced road casualties since being introduced in 2020.
In the UK, disinformation about 15-minute cities has to be viewed in the context of the country’s widening inequality and local areas suffering systemic deprivation by successive Conservative governments. Towns in poorer regions of the country have been disproportionately hit by a combination of cuts to and chronic underfunding of neighbourhood services since 2010, and many of them have poor transport links. These places have been abandoned, local businesses can’t afford to stay open, and chains survive (only just). Most of the time, people use cars because they need them and they are convenient. The only way to get more of them off the road is to provide better alternatives.
The evidence is clear; 15-minute cities are not limiting their inhabitants’ lives but expanding them in every way.
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