- Published: 23 March 2023
Hélène Chartier, director of urban planning and design, C40 Cities, explains why the approach can create greener, happier, healthier and more prosperous global cities.
SmartCitiesWorld (SCW): The concept of a 15-minute city is no longer new but how do you define it today?
Hélène Chartier (HC): Past urban models – especially those developed after WWII – increasingly promote sprawl, car-oriented planning and over-specialisation of city neighbourhoods. Residential areas are separated from business districts, commercial areas and industry, and all of them connected by transport infrastructure that was mainly designed for cars.
This model has led to many of the challenges cities are facing today: long commutes, consumption of natural land, air pollution, as well as a lack of amenities and poor quality of life in many neighborhoods.
We urgently need to create a model of urbanisation that is built in harmony with people and nature. In that sense, the 15-minute city has been instrumental in accelerating the discussion, although, as you said, it should be noted that it is not a new concept. After the Modernist movement led by Le Corbusier, several urbanists such as the American-Canadian Jane Jacob, the Danish Jan Gehl and more recently the French-Colombian Carlos Moreno have promoted an urban planning model based on proximity and people-centred public spaces.
This 15-minute city model proposes a vision of a polycentric city made of multiple “complete” neighbourhoods, where everyone can meet their everyday needs in their immediate vicinity.
Neither does it mean though that these areas become too “intensive”; it just means there is a form of community, access to parks and nature, access to transport, culture, restaurants and key shops for people living in the neighbourhood, as well as well-designed streets and public spaces that can act as the “living room of the neighborhood” – a place where people can socialise and feel comfortable to walk around.
Many cities include neighbourhoods that deliver this, but they tend to be concentrated in central or wealthier areas. The 15-minute city is about providing such thriving local environments, for everyone in every neighbourhood.
SCW: In the UK, there is currently something of a backlash against the 15-minute movement and it has even been politicised. Many of the arguments centre around the view that it is an attack on cars – what is your response?
HC: I would not call it a backlash. What is happening is that on social media, a small group of alt-right extremists are building a conspiracy theory mostly based on nonsense and lies. They claim the 15-minute city is some sort of “climate lockdown” that keeps people from leaving their neighbourhoods. No city has ever imagined doing such a thing, and it’s very far from what the concept really is.
The 15-minute city concept does not mean isolation. Of course, if people want or need to travel, they should be able to, and we also support the development of public transport to improve connectivity in cities.
Around the world more and more people recognise that we need to transform our cities and studies and simulations illustrate the benefits of this. It is the most climate-friendly model for cities and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compact and resource-efficient cities, with co-location of residences and jobs, mixed land use and good access to public transportation, can help cut urban emissions by around 25 per cent.
There is a total disconnection between this buzz on social media and the reality of how “real” citizens and cities consider the 15-minute city concept. In Oxford, one of the places where this conspiracy theory spread, the local elections have comforted the local government that was promoting the 15-minute city. Meanwhile, a recent poll from Yougov has shown that 62 per cent of Britons would like to live in a 15-minute neighbourhood.
SCW: Can you give some examples of the approaches cities are taking?
HC: In Bogota, the city’s Barrios Vitales (Vital Neighbourhoods) include designated child-friendly areas and a system of care around schools and community centres in which people, including the elderly and low-income women caring for children, can access services such as education, preventive health care and recreation.
In Paris, where 15-minute principles have driven urban planning since 2020, 168 “school streets” have already replaced cars with play areas and greenery. They have also developed a programme called Oasis Schoolyards that consist of greening schoolyards and opening them outside the schools’ hours, for example in the weekend and during holidays. Paris thus created more than 100 new public parks in neighbourhoods that lacked green spaces.
Underserved neighbourhoods also receive support that has revitalised local economies, including the bakeries, craft shops and bookstores that have long been mainstays of their communities.
Los Angeles is improving one of its most disadvantaged neighbourhoods with a suite of coordinated projects including affordable housing, low-carbon transportation options, the planting of more than 3,300 trees, and the development of local amenities to respond to the needs of the community.
There’s also Vancouver, which has embedded this vision in its city-wide planning strategy. The concept of complete neighbourhoods is a key component of the recently approved Vancouver Plan. The plan includes land use policies to direct new housing choices to low-density residential areas that are rich in amenities, and to add opportunities for new amenities and services in underserved areas. It also plans to create an integrated network of public spaces, ecological corridors, greenways with active modes of travel.
SCW: Do you see cities becoming a collection of 15-minute neighbourhoods?
HC: Yes, in some ways, but the scale of the city, of course, www.smartcitiesworld.net/cities-climate-action-summit-2023 still makes sense. And it is important that each “complete neighbourhood” is connected to the rest of the city, especially by the public transport system. In fact, many cities that are planning their 15-minute city strategy consider the transit station as one of the key services that every resident should be able to access in their neighbourhood.
Fifteen-minute city policies and actions should be defined based on each typology of neighbourhood and around the need of the local communities. Many cities start mapping and establishing a baseline of existing amenities within each neighbourhood. What do they lack and what sort of usages do they want? How can public spaces be improved?
If you are in the centre of Paris or Barcelona, for instance, you already have the minimum density required to have viable services and amenities, so the focus is on creating more green spaces and redesigning public spaces around the needs of people, rather than cars, so people can socialise and feel safe walking and cycling.
On the other hand, Melbourne has identified three 20-minute neighbourhood pilots that are low-density residential, mostly composed of single-family housing. The focus is therefore to improve the quality of life of the residents by providing more housing choice through an infill development and revitalising main streets with more amenities and services.
SCW: Could towns also benefit from the 15-minute city approach, especially those which have lost a lot of daytime footfall to larger towns or cities because of commuting?
HC: Yes, I was discussing this with Chris Jones from the University of Berkeley, who mentioned that a complete neighbourhood is like a well-planned, mixed-use town. The way some towns have developed, though, means that there can be a lot of secondary or tertiary areas that have just been created as residential districts. People often leave these in the morning to commute to work and come back in the evening, making them almost dormitory towns.
This has been compounded by the trend for central stations in large towns or cities to become almost like shopping malls for commuters before and after work. This can have a negative effect on their neighbourhoods because they aren’t using the shops in them. The transformation of the workplace, though, means this is likely to change. Covid has altered the perspective and nobody thinks it’s OK to spend two hours commuting any more.
SCW: What is next for C40 in terms of amplifying the 15-minute city message and supporting more cities to create thriving neighbourhoods?
HC: We are now creating an international Forum of city practitioners for cities to exchange knowledge on how they can create green and thriving urban neighbourhoods. In three months, more than 35 cities across the world have already joined the Forum and 25 cities have proposed 15-minutes neighbourhood pilots that C40 will support them in implementing.
The idea is that we work with them in the coming years to identify a set of concrete actions – like school streets or the vacant shop programme – to see how we could improve the quality of life and sustainability. We have identified 10-15 types of action that we will propose and discuss with the local community aligned to their needs, and then support the city to implement them with a group of experts.
Discussion around 15-minute cities is happening everywhere from India to China and North to South America and around the world. We can learn a lot from global south cities who have kept some of the developments we are talking about here and where, for example, public markets are still very much a feature.
We need to help cities accelerate these 15-minute city ideas and integrate them into their vision and planning. The conversation between cities must continue.
Quelle/Source: Smart Cities World, 15.03.2023