Implementing 15-Minute Cities: Where to Start?

Whatever steps your city might take to start implementing the concepts of a “15-minute city,” expect it to take a good bit longer than 15 minutes. Given the morass of regulations and ingrained economic and cultural habits to untangle, even 15 years might be ambitious in many places.

A corner restaurant with outdoor sitting next to a sidewalk

Photo courtesy of SDOT

The notion of having a wide range of housing types for all ages and incomes in such proximity that most can easily walk or bike to groceries, cafes, shops and services, healthcare, schools and open space is a 180-degree reversal from the way most American cities and suburbs evolved over the last 70 years.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the 15-minute city was simply how most people lived,” said Sam Assefa, Seattle’s planning director. In the United States, as elsewhere, the arrival of two innovations early last century radically altered that urban reality: the automobile and segregated land uses. Zoning principles kept shops and jobs well away from residential areas, and the car allowed a radical separation that made walking or rolling among them inconceivable.

Fundamentally, Assefa said, achieving the ideals embodied in the 15-minute city concept requires re-mixing everyday uses and reducing dependence on the car while remaking streets to be safe and pleasant for walking or biking.

Though many cities and suburbs have begun working toward those aims in recent years, they acquired new urgency post-pandemic, when health guidelines had us working from home and curtailing travel. Already a key focus of efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, cities are starting to see the ideas embodied in the 15-minute city as essential to adjusting to post-pandemic reality as well, said Hélène Chartier, head of Zero Carbon Development for C40 Cities.

Her organization connects 97 of the world’s cities, representing 700 million people and a quarter of the global economy, “to take bold climate action.”

C40 Cities is working to help municipalities in the United States and around the world to implement 15-minute city principles famously championed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, for whom Chartier previously worked as an adviser. “After Mayor Hidalgo won reelection (last summer) on a 15-minute city platform, we were already committed,” said Chartier, herself a Paris resident. “But during the COVID lockdown we really rediscovered our neighborhoods. We were not allowed to move more than one kilometer, and police would check where you live.”

“Post-pandemic, we think many of the changes will be permanent: More people will be working remotely more days of the week,” Chartier added. “They will need co-working space, and places to go nearby during the workday. We now know how much time we can win for ourselves by not making long commutes from residential to central areas that almost close down after work hours.”

If cities and their residents aren’t going back — or at least all the way back — what is the way forward? Here are some suggested early considerations and first steps:

Step One: Self-Assessment

Cities should start by asking themselves, “Where are we starting from?” Chartier said. “First, you map: What are the social needs, which neighborhoods lack access to services, good shops, work? Which neighborhoods are well equipped, and which are under-equipped?”

And as you map, you need to consider the scale at which to evaluate various components, from shopping to churches, daycares and larger institutions, such as hospitals and major employers, said Lynn Richards, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Anticipating the current discussion by a couple of years, Melbourne, Australia, in 2017, adopted a plan for 20-minute neighborhoods, based on research showing that people are willing to walk up to a half-mile away — a 20-minue round trip — for daily needs. But it’s also important to think about what jobs and services are accessible by a 15-minute bicycle or transit ride, Richards said. “Job centers might be a 15-minute drive or transit trip away. A day care, or a church or an urgent care might have to serve a bit larger area than a 15-minute walkshed.”

Bikers on a street closed for car traffic

Photo courtesy of SDOT

“Whatever 15-minute city means to a given neighborhood, it has to work as well for someone who is 80 as 30,” said Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP’s Livable Communities initiative. “In 2034, we will be a nation for the first time where there will be more people over the age of 65 than under 18. People outlive their ability to drive an average of 7-10 years.”

As part of its early assessment, she encourages cities to use something like AARP’s Walk Audit, “a tool to get people together to walk and identify the obstacles to feeling safe and comfortable walking in their neighborhoods.”

Achieving the ideals embodied in the 15-minute city requires re-mixing everyday uses and reducing dependence on the car.

Self-assessment also means setting reasonable expectations. In Bogota, Colombia, Mayor Claudia Lopez notes that a majority of working people today spend two hours a day commuting. “We have to plan our city better,” she told a New York Times webinar in fall 2020. “Not exactly to the 15-minute city like Paris, because the change from a 2-hour city to a 15-minute city is too big a change, but to a 30-minute city, where we can use sustainable forms of transport.”

Identify Pilot Neighborhoods

Start small, with a handful of receptive communities that have gaps in being full-service neighborhoods, Chartier advised. “No city is developing everywhere. They are all focusing on pilot neighborhoods. Most of the cities we work with are starting with underserved neighborhoods: Paris, Melbourne, Bogota, Buenos Aires.”

Seattle planners are starting with one neighborhood, Westwood/Highland Park, a commercial corridor of about 25 acres on the city’s south end that is racially diverse with lower incomes on average and a lack of parks and play spaces.

A residential area featuring a three-story house

Photo courtesy of SDOT

At the same, Seattle joins most other cities in including downtown as a near-term focus: How can they rejuvenate commercial cores decimated by the pandemic-driven exodus and turn them into complete communities?

“What is the future for offices?” Chartier asked. “We know there won’t be 100-percent remote working; people want to be in a place where they can work around other people. But the COVID experience has raised major questions about exclusively commercial cores.” Cities including Paris and Montreal already are organizing competitions for creative ideas to transform underused offices into housing, she said. However, she noted, “It’s not so easy to transform buildings designed for a specific use.”

Engagement: Listen First

Cities should expect to invest substantial time and money in listening to residents before they start planning changes to their neighborhoods, Chartier said. “Engagement is critical. Paris has dedicated a substantial budget for involving people in deciding where to go with changes to their neighborhood.”

“Change happens at the speed of trust,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director. Houston has chosen its pilot neighborhoods precisely because they are underserved areas where the city has been developing relationships and soliciting feedback for years.

Michael Hubner, Seattle’s manager for long-range planning, said the 15-minute city concept itself could be a good frame for starting the discussion with stakeholders. “I think it’s helpful for getting people to think in a fresh way. It’s not super wonky. The frame is ‘my experience of my community.’ It’s especially good for talking about things like biking and walking infrastructure.”

Planners need to be prepared to share examples and use images and visualizations as they engage neighbors in thinking about what they’d like to see, Assefa said. “People get uncomfortable about changes to their neighborhoods because they either don’t like ‘cookie cutter’ development or they have a fear when they don’t know what to expect. You need to be able to show people what the future result might be.”

A bus terminal in an urban area

Photo courtesy of SDOT

Residents in marginalized communities are likely to be concerned about gentrification and the possibility of their families, neighbors, businesses and cultural centers being displaced. Seattle has developed a map of displacement risk as well as relative access to opportunity that can help planners communicate about those concerns and the city’s potential policy responses. Seattle also has commissioned an outside analysis of the racial equity implications of the growth strategy the city has pursued for 25 years. “We think this is a critical starting place to have meaningful discussions with neighborhoods,” Hubner said.

Cities should plan on maintaining community relationships through many years of implementation.

Cities should plan on maintaining community relationships through many years of implementation. Because the 15-minute city idea is as much about building connectedness and belonging as it is about buildings and streets, city officials should encourage and support collaborative community projects such as gardens, shared nonprofit spaces and volunteer opportunities, Chartier said.

Consider a Grand Gesture Toward People-Friendly Streets

Many of the cities that have most enthusiastically taken up the 15-minute city challenge to create more walkable, climate-adaptive neighborhoods post-pandemic are building on big, bold moves toward people-friendly streets that have galvanized public support.

Barcelona made global news in 2016 when the city created a mostly car-free “island” by closing nine blocks to through traffic, creating what came to be known as a “superblock.” In the absence of fast-moving cars, the intersections then had the potential to become plazas or green spaces. In the wake of the pandemic, Mayor Ada Calau announced the city would create a much larger such zone for its core, 21 blocks in all. The newly created squares and the streets will be planted with trees to shade 16 acres of new green space in an urban oasis with 83 acres for quiet walking, free of car-safety worries.

A woman in a red dress riding a bycicle on a bike path

Photo courtesy of SDOT

To create more public, open space in its densest neighborhoods, “Paris decided to remove 50 percent of parking space in the street right-of-way,” Chartier said. “Now they are in consultation with residents about how to use the space.”

With the arrival of COVID-19, Bogota Mayor Claudia López added 52 miles of bike lanes to help people move around when transit use was restricted, a down payment on a four-year pledge to create 174 more miles of lanes for bikes, scooters and other mobility devices. The goal is for Colombia residents to make 50 percent of trips that way as the city creates more “30-minute neighborhoods”.

Zone for Walkable Density and Housing Diversity

OK, you’ve taken the preliminary steps. Now comes the truly hard part for most American cities: Zoning reform. There’s no getting around the reality that putting daily needs within walking or biking distance of where people live means more mixing of shops and residences, and greater housing density in general. “To achieve the goals of a 15-minute city, each neighborhood should have a Main Street,” said Chartier. “Without a certain density you can’t make local shops viable, you can’t make transit viable.”

“A critical question is, ‘Do you have enough rooftops to support the things you’re looking for?’” Seattle’s Assefa said. “It takes 35-45 dwelling units per acre to support a corner grocery store of, say, 10,000 square feet, as well cafes and other local-serving businesses within a walkable distance.”  

The rub, of course, is that most American cities and suburbs use zoning to segregate commercial uses from residential to a great extent. And the preponderance of land identified for housing is restricted to one dwelling per lot. In Seattle, whose mayor has declared an aspiration toward 15-minute neighborhoods, three-quarters of land designated for housing is zoned “single family,” effectively banning most rental housing. Seattle’s situation is more the rule than the exception among American cities.

Just as cities might want to start by creating pilot complete neighborhoods, they can begin the transition by promoting more housing within areas that are primarily shopping districts now, and by rezoning surrounding low-density areas to allow for multi-unit buildings of various sizes.

Neighborhoods that are making a transition from car-oriented to more walkable don’t necessarily need to start by adding high-rise, or even particularly large, apartment buildings, says Richards. “You don’t have to completely transform the form of the neighborhood to begin to add more housing options and the people that can support the businesses and institutions you want.”

She suggests starting by coding for what planners are calling the “missing middle”: House-sized buildings with multiple units, such as duplexes, four- and six-plexes and courtyard apartments. “Our neighborhoods often have the big houses — they are just limited to a single home, when it could be 3, 4 or 5. It’s about enabling more incremental development.”

Cities might also consider using an overlay of form-based codes in areas destined to become new walkable centers, Richards suggested. Rather than dictating the use of a building, form-based codes guide the placement, massing and features of buildings so that the sum creates a pleasant, active street. Establishing rules for the look and feel in conjunction with community discussions helps to codify what residents would like to see, which in principle could help them feel more comfortable with change.

Buildings within 15-minute neighborhoods might need to have multiple uses and flexible spaces — a municipal permit center some days of the week, say, and maybe a pop-up shop on other days. “We need to have a lot more humility about directing the uses of land and buildings,” Assefa said. “We have been discussing code relaxation for more flexibility to allow for reuses of buildings we haven’t anticipated before.”

Beyond Zoning: Incentives and Support for Local-Serving Retail

But zoning alone won’t make the optimal array of local-serving shops come to an area, nor help businesses owned by traditional residents stay afloat as rents rise or allow local stores to compete with online retail.  “Zoning can stop things from happening, but even when you have the zoning, it’s not clear whether things you want to happen will happen, without financial or other incentives,” Assefa said. “And you can’t be sure that the uses that come via the market will meet the needs or desires of the surrounding community.”

Nor will zoning changes necessarily reduce “the barriers people of color experience for them to be homeowners or developers, or commercial space owners,” he added.

In some areas, it will be important to develop public land, with local government creating the specifications for developer-applicants, Assefa suggested.

In other communities, such as Austin, Texas, the city provides an expedited permitting process and waives permitting fees for qualifying development, such as mixed-use developments.

Cities are shifting more street space away from the exclusive use of private vehicles.

“You can regulate the rent to make sure that smaller, essential shops can be located in the neighborhood,” Chartier said. “Paris has developed a public-private partnership that is supporting local shops, focusing on underserved neighborhoods. They have been working on this for 10 years.”

E-commerce and on-demand delivery “are a big, big problem” for local-serving shops, she added. Economic development officials in Paris are “trying to help smaller shops create ‘click and collect’ digital platforms,” so that customers can order online from nearby shops and pick up their goods down the street.

People-Friendly Streets and Public Spaces

As neighborhoods transition to become places where people can walk or roll for most or all of their daily needs, cities are weighing strategies to shift more street space away from the exclusive use of private vehicles. The goal is to create streets that not only are safer for people walking and rolling along and across them, but that also provide additional living space for urban residents, for strolling, dining, meeting, even gardening.

Strategies to do this could include requiring parking lots to go behind buildings rather than in front and adding or widening sidewalks where they are needed. Some cities in recent years have adopted a “complete streets” policy that attempts to address the needs of everyone who uses a street by adding sidewalks and bike lanes to city streets that have only accommodated cars. For cities looking toward 15-minute neighborhoods, that policy will need to be augmented by capital budgeting that actually devotes real money to those goals.  

In response to social distancing and stay-home orders during the pandemic, many cities closed some residential streets to through traffic and turned them over to strolling and recreation. Some are now considering making many of those changes permanent. Seattle already has declared that 20 miles will continue in operation indefinitely, with other streets are under consideration.

Fifteen-minute city proponents point to schools as the heart of the complete, walkable neighborhood. To encourage parents to walk kids to school rather than drive, provide more play and outdoor classroom area and a safe space for parents, family and kids to interact during the pandemic, Paris took steps to create calm, traffic-free “school streets.” The French version echoes a longstanding program of Safe Routes to School in the United States, which could provide a model and potential funding for cities as they implement 15-minute principles. In Paris and in some U.S. cities, school yards have been opened to the broader neighborhood outside of school hours and made available for community gardens.

Greening dense, urban areas is imperative if 15-minute cities are to succeed, not only for the human spirit and the sake of the climate, but also for economic benefit. Assefa cited studies showing that streets with significant tree canopy out-perform those without. A researcher at the University of British Columbia has suggested a 3-30-300 rule for urban trees: Each person should be able to see 3 trees from home, in a neighborhood with 30 percent tree cover and 300 meters (roughly 1,000 feet) from the nearest park or green space. Achieving that level of greenery will inevitably require planting on a substantial share of the public rights of way that are now paved.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, you’ve just gotten started on creating a 15-minute city! All kidding aside, though it will require years of time, attention and investment, but the result should be a more livable, equitable and resilient city, for all who live there, Assefa said. “This is an incredibly critical time to learn lessons from a pandemic, rising awareness around race and equity, and climate imperatives,” he added.  “We can expect future pandemics and lockdowns, even as our cities and suburbs add more people. This approach is becoming more and more important. In fact, it’s vital.”

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