15-Minute Cities: What Are They and How Do They Work? | travel

As recently as two decades ago, more people lived in rural areas than urban areas. But that has since changed. About 56% of the global population is now at home in cities, and the trend is increasing. According to the United Nations, by 2050, two-thirds of the approximately 10 billion people living on Earth will live in built-up areas.

This continued urban sprawl has revealed serious cracks in their planning, highlighting issues such as social injustice and exclusion, inadequate public transport networks and smog-related health problems. One idea that is recently gaining traction as a path to a more sustainable, livable and healthy future is 15-minute cities.

The idea behind the concept is to build cities so that most daily needs and services are located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Carlo Moreno, an urbanist and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, first came up with the idea in 2016. He wanted everyone to have easy access to shops, schools, doctors, gyms, parks, restaurants and cultural institutions.

Many people living in cities today can only dream of that, and instead have to deal with traffic jams or poor public transportation to get where they want to go.

Human-centered design

Benjamin Büttner, a mobility expert at the Technical University of Munich, says that to create more sustainable cities, things like green spaces, sports venues, cinemas and shops need to be moved to where people live, not the other way around.

And this does not mean that they should be demolished and rebuilt, but that the already existing public space needs to be rearranged.

The 15-minute city also offers a mobility concept: fewer cars and more space for cyclists and pedestrians, spaces for children, disabled people or the elderly and social interaction.

“Cars are a problem, at least in urban centers. They take up a lot of space and they can hinder active mobility,” said Büttner.

From Paris to Shanghai: Rebuilding more and more cities

There are already 16 cities around the world that have implemented or are working to implement the 15-minute city concept or similar ideas. Approaches vary, with some cities looking to implement 20-minute concepts, others 10-minutes, and others either focusing on individual urban districts or redeveloping the entire city.

Among the pioneers is the French capital. After Carlos Moreno presented his concept in 2016, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, introduced it in her re-election campaign and began implementing it during the pandemic.

The core of the parish concept views schools as “capitals,” making them the center of each neighborhood. Schoolyards are being remodeled into parks to make them accessible for other activities after classes and on weekends.

Paris also wants to turn half of its 140,000 car parking spaces into green areas, playgrounds, neighborhood gatherings or bike parking spots. Streets across Paris will be bike-friendly by 2026.

In 2016, Shanghai announced a plan to introduce what it calls “15-minute community life circles,” which would ensure that all day-to-day activities are within a 15-minute walking distance. Another 50 Chinese cities are trying to implement the concept.

An initiative in Great Britain also aims to achieve a better quality of life for city dwellers. As part of its nationwide re-naturalisation programme, the UK government announced plans to make it possible for everyone to have access to a green area or open water within a 15-minute walk of their home.

Barcelona’s “Superilles” or super districts

The Spanish city of Barcelona has been using so-called “supervillas” or super districts. The concept takes several residential blocks and puts them into a super block. Only residents or delivery services can access with cars and the maximum speed limit is 10 km. (6 miles) an hour.

Many roads are closed to cars and are being used in various ways instead. The former parking lots have been given over to trees, vegetables and flowers, and now there are places where children can play and people can spend time on benches in the shade.

“Tactical urbanism” is what Büttner calls this approach. The concept is being tested for two to six months “to see if things get better or worse,” he says. “In this case you can still say ‘let’s go back to the way things were.’ But if it goes well, you can make it a permanent solution.”

Currently, 60% of public spaces and 85% of roads in Barcelona are used for traffic. More than half of the city’s residents are exposed to noise and hazardous air pollution, well above World Health Organization limits. New districts should reduce motorized traffic by 21%.

Does Low Traffic Hurt Business?

Studies have shown that more bicycle and pedestrian traffic in the city saves money because of less spending on road maintenance and health.

The positive impact of cycling is estimated at over €90 billion ($96 billion) in the EU alone. By comparison, moving traffic causes more than €800 billion in costs to health, the environment and infrastructure every year.

Many shop owners worry that the idea of ​​a 15-minute city will lead to a fall in sales because customers cannot reach them by car. But in the western US city of Portland, a 20% drop in car traffic resulted in an additional $1.2 billion in the local economy after the 20-Minute City concept was implemented.

15-minute city concept different for each place

In order for as many people as possible to benefit from the changing cities, and avoid any new imbalances and gentrification, experts emphasize the need to roll out the concept in different districts and ensure a good social mix of participants. That requires rethinking the rules and traditional planning categories, such as city centers, residential districts, suburbs and commercial areas that have led to inequality and exclusion in global cities.

According to Büttner, the political will and courage of politicians and administrations is essential, as well as dialogue with citizens and all parties involved. Because there is no one set solution for all cities.

Every place and every city has a different social, economic and ecological structure, says Büttner. So deciding which measures are best depends on the context.

This article was originally published in German.

Leave a Comment