The 15-Minute City

Old-Fashioned Compact, Convenient, Mixed-Use Development for a Modern, Post-Pandemic, Walkable World

The 15-minute city harkens back to an era when the predominant mode of travel was by foot and people could meet most of their needs within a 15-minute walk of their residence.

Illustration: 15-Minute City

Illustration by Micael Fresque

The concept, introduced by Colombian-French scientist Carlos Moreno and being rapidly implemented by Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, has taken root in many urban areas around the world — including the United States.

In rapidly growing and urbanizing Charlotte, N.C., it’s the 10-minute neighborhood. In Louisiana, with more small and medium cities spread out and developed to suburban standards, the goal is the 20-minute neighborhood.

Whether the goal is focused on increasing a mix of uses and amenities citywide or in key neighborhoods, the 15-minute concept emphasizes meeting all needs on foot, via bicycle or by using public transit.

Because areas that are amenity-, activity- and transit-rich tend to become very expensive to live and work in, many cities are grappling with how they can ensure equity, inclusion and accessibility in these economically-powerful zones. See the “Inclusion, Equity And Accessibility — Ensuring The 15-Minute City Serves All” article.

The 15-minute concept emphasizes meeting all needs on foot, via bicycle or by using public transit.

For decades, smart growth policy, the movement of New Urbanism and other policies have tried to steer cities away from the high cost of sprawl and car ownership. The pandemic has accelerated the trend toward creating more pedestrian and bike space, ensuring each neighborhood has open/park/recreation space and greening streetscapes and more to create a healthier environment that fights obesity and other diseases contributed to by car-dominated lifestyles.

The rapid response needed to cope with COVID-19 has given many urban cores the opportunity to quickly convert traffic lanes into pedestrian-bike space. To cope with social distancing while preserving main street businesses, the transformation has often been at a warp-speed pace — compared to the usual array of public hearings and months of review by myriad agencies.

“Using only paint and screw-in markers, nearly 100 miles of Parisian roads were temporarily reallocated to cyclists in the early months of the pandemic — a revolution in urban reprogramming. It was later announced that the changes would become permanent,” wrote Carlo Ratti, co-founder of the international design and innovation office Associati and director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, and Richard Florida, professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management in Project Syndicate.

Moreno, father of the 15-minute city and Hidalgo’s special envoy for smart cities, is scientific director and professor specializing in complex systems and innovation at Paris - Panthéon Sorbonne University.
“Cities should be designed or redesigned so that within the distance of a 15-minute walk or bike ride, people should be able to live the essence of what constitutes the urban experience: to access work, housing, food, health, education, culture and leisure,” he said in an exclusive interview.

Moreno has four guiding principles of the 15-minute city:

  1. Ecology: for a green and sustainable city.  
  2. Proximity: to live with reduced distance to other activities.  
  3. Solidarity: to create links between people.  
  4. Participation: actively involve citizens in the transformation of their neighborhood.

“This is in the tradition of Jane Jacobs,” Moreno said of the legendary urban activist-author who published “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961. “She developed this idea for livable cities — very vibrant, with green public space, social uses, different activities. The internet, technology and economic system is very, very different than her times, but this is still relevant today.”

Moreno said people are living in hard times of a pandemic, job loss, income disparity, long commutes and other pressures. He said making cities more livable is the medicine for urban ills.

“I call this the new happy life, the happy city. It also is healthier because of a low-carbon impact,” he said.

While Paris, which developed long before the car was the primary means of transportation, already is a 15-minute city to a large degree — Moreno points out that it still benefits from turning parking lots into greenery, making traffic circles pedestrian and bike friendly, and decentralizing the city. That means more medical centers spread through the neighborhoods and affordable housing introduced into wealthy neighborhoods, so support workers don’t have to live far outside the center.

Moreno acknowledges that increasing the livability of a big city can add to housing woes. This is particularly true in Paris — where a one-bedroom, 600-square-foot apartment in the 11th arrondissement relatively far from the Notre Dame, the Louvre and Eiffel tower, still costs more than $1,000 per square foot.

He said Paris has committed to creating much more social housing, to allow people to age in place, to combat gentrification and to create rental properties for low-income workers. He said government also must take an active role in preserving mom and pop commerce, the low-rise density of the Hausmann architectural style, six-story city and the human scale of Paris.

Moreno said connectivity to the suburbs (which are much denser that those in America) will be boosted by Grand Paris Express, a $25-billion expansion of the century-old Paris Métro to be completed in 2030, and the system will have gained four lines, 68 stations, and more than 120 miles of track. Moreno noted that the lines will boost inclusion for people with disabilities, as all stations will be wheelchair-accessible. (Currently, only three percent of the historic metro is accessible.)

Anthony Breach, senior analyst at the UK-based Centre for Cities, has some concerns that the 15-minute city is unrealistic in terms of thinking there ever can be enough affordable urban core housing for the millions of people working hard at jobs that don’t pay well.

“People live in suburbs not because they are stupid, but because of cheaper space outside the city center. If you force them to own within 15 minutes of where they work, they are priced out,” he said. “If you discourage commuting from farther out, their economic opportunity is cut off.”

Breach said he is skeptical that urban planning alone can produce equity. He said not all good jobs can be available to all people within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Breach said if car congestion and pollution is the problem, vehicles and driving could be taxed at a higher rate and transit could be expanded by making it more profitable — via land development rights around stations.

Charlotte, consistently one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, is creating the 2040 Vision Plan — a comprehensive approach to land use, transit, diversity, equity and dozens of issues related to a city of nearly 900,000 that is predicted to swell in population by upwards of 400,000 residents in the next two decades.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba, assistant city manager and director of Planning, Design and Development, said Charlotte is focusing on the 10-minute neighborhood.

A 15-minute city means more medical centers spread through the neighborhoods and more affordable housing.

“We’ve got right now a zoning code that is 1,000 pages. We want to reduce that number, so you can read the comprehensive plan and understand (the focus on) creating 10-minute neighborhoods,” he said. Some will have less density, some higher density — but regardless of where you are, you will be able to walk to different things such as childcare, schools, healthcare, jobs, services that meet daily needs.”

Charlotte is focusing on the 10-minute neighborhood.

Jaiyeoba said there are parts of the city focused on innovation, health care and manufacturing that need more housing developed close to them. It’s a move away from 20th century planning where residential was separated from commerce and job centers.

Charlotte’s CANOPY REALTOR® Association is working with city staff and elected officials to help guide the 2040 plan. CANOPY, which is working with several Charlotte builder and commercial REALTOR® groups, has stated “while we support many of the concepts being proposed, we are concerned about the costs and the impact of unintended consequences.”

CANOPY President David Kennedy, a property manager at T.R. Lawing Realty, said the 10-minute neighborhood concept could be helped greatly by reprogramming retail space.

“Retail, already hurting because you can get everything delivered, has taken a hit from the pandemic,” he said. “I think this is an opportunity for commercial brokers to turn a lot of retail space into mixed-use with multifamily. A lot of affordable, workforce housing could be built on the footprint of vacant retail. You just need to be creative and mindful of not clustering affordable housing. You want to mix in affordable with market rate, so everyone benefits.”  
Jaiyeoba said the city is fortunate to have 19 miles of light rail, where people can commute without owning a car. He said about half the corridor has good connectivity to stations, but more can be done with trails and sidewalks to improve transit access for all.

“We must calibrate our sidewalks to make sure they are not only wide enough to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, but complete — as in they don’t stop short of the destination,” he said. “You cannot have a series of 10-minute neighborhoods and promote walkability, if there are obstructions in the sidewalk or there are gaps in the sidewalk.”

“We have more than 10,000 people who are visually challenged. If they have to cross six or eight lanes of traffic, think how difficult and dangerous that is,” Jaiyeoba said. “You have to think of pedestrian safety, of connectivity for those who use a wheelchair for mobility, for those who do not have access to a vehicle — that is who you design your city for.”

Jaiyeoba said the city’s 2040 plan is founded on an Equitable Growth Framework.

“Like many American cities, Charlotte was not immune to redlining and segregation by zoning laws,” he said. “Our current makeup as a city is defined by this very thing. We refer to it as the crescent [arc] and the wedge. The wedge [South Charlotte] is where the predominantly white population lives.”

He said that area has the best schools, well-designed neighborhoods, plus the best-paying and highest number of jobs outside of Uptown Charlotte.

“The arc is where most black, brown and low-income communities live. It has the lowest life expectancy, lots of industrial uses and [least amount of] tree canopy,” he said, noting the 2040 plan has built-in metrics to measure the achievement of equitable growth. “One of the plan goals is achieving housing diversity through Charlotte, which means rezoning the city to allow different forms of housing everywhere including in the wedge. This means duplexes, triplexes and townhouses. While that would help achieve affordable housing goals, it also helps to undo the legacy of segregation.”

In Louisiana — where few parishes had master plans before Katrina, few cities developed in a compact pattern and there is virtually no fixed transit — the goal is the 20-minute neighborhood. The Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX), Louisiana’s only nonprofit planning organization, is leading the statewide effort to promote a higher quality of life through smarter decisions in the built environment.

CPEX teamed with REALTOR® groups throughout the state to do better block demonstrations.

CPEX has partnered with the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) for about 15 years — when Katrina rebuilding launched. During the NAR annual convention in New Orleans, some demonstration block improvements were done to spruce up neighborhoods and set an example of the value of walkability.

“We have teamed with REALTOR® groups throughout the state to do better block demonstrations — transforming spaces to be more bike-friendly, more pedestrian-accessible,” said Camille Manning-Broome, president & CEO of CPEX. “In Mid-City Baton Rouge, this led to a $13-million-dollar road diet.”

Jeannette Dubinin, director of Resilience and Adaptation for CPEX, created the 20-minute bingo card, to help everyday people identify shopping, health services, schools and daily conveniences within a safe, 20-minute walk.

“We are always trying to have education and awareness around the good, bad and ugly around the built environment,” she said. “[Bingo cards] give families a chance to go out and evaluate on their own what kind of assets can they get to and not get to in 20 minutes. The pandemic highlighted the ability to do anything within 20 minutes. We landed on 20 minutes because we are a suburban community, like most of America.”

Manning-Broome and Dubinin both noted that COVD-19’s silver lining was the move toward healthy activity. “Bike sales were going up like crazy. Restaurants were taking over parking spaces and bringing tables outside,” Manning-Broome said. The 20-minute city creates lots of opportunities to redesign for healthier living.”

The 20-minute city bingo cards encouraged people to take pictures of obstacles and to advocate for local improvements.

“People found sidewalks that end in the middle of something — or sidewalks with curbs too high, or no ADA curb ramps, or trees and barriers in the way. You can have all the sidewalks you want, if they are not usable, they don’t work,” Dubinin said.

Dubinin said intersections are not designed for safe walking to run errands or to get exercise. She said the 20-minute city must calm traffic and make it easier for people to get around by bike, on foot and via wheelchair. She said it is counterintuitive to drive to a nearby park, but with dangerous design and unsafe crosswalks, many people do.

CPEX also encourages development with more density and mixed use. It helps communities with land-use analysis, changing land-use patterns and rewriting zoning codes. It helped create the Louisiana land use toolkit, with model ordinances.

“NAR provided a support grant to CPEX and all eight Louisiana executive districts for REALTORS®. There were tours and REALTORS® doing workshops to unveil this model ordinances book to mayors and planning commissions,” Manning-Broome said. “The ordinances put in place decades ago prevent getting around a city in 20 minutes, so the intent is to undo regulations that created suburban sprawl.”

Norman Morris, CEO of Louisiana REALTORS®, is proud of the long partnership with CPEX and REALTOR® associations in every region of the state to promote building smarter, more walkable and accessible neighborhoods with a mix of business and residential.

“People want to walk to stores, shops and services,” he said of the value of the 20-minute neighborhood. “We target an area that needs some revitalization and improve a 4- to 6-block area. We clean up, paint, fix up storefronts — we create an atmosphere, an environment where [walking] can be done. It creates synergy, it enhances value of the corridor and the nearby residential.”

REALTORS® in Louisiana are working with key stakeholders to support complete streets and access for all. Morris said revitalization replaces blight and allows stores to stay open later — improving business revenue — because people feel safe on the street. The statewide association also received NAR grant support to create a toolkit for building better, especially in coastal areas to adapt to climate change.

From a developer’s standpoint, the 15-minute city makes sense to Two Trees, a Brooklyn-based, family-owned real estate development firm.

“The secret of placemaking is understanding what the local community values and how we can help infuse those values into the neighborhood and be real partners to our neighbors. To create a truly authentic place, you have to involve the community to gather input on what they need and want for the health and longevity of their neighborhood,” said David Lombino, principal at Two Trees. “We’ve worked to keep the human experience at the forefront of our work, always thinking about the social power of the built environment.”

Founded in 1968, Two Trees is best-known for transforming an aging waterfront warehouse district into the DUMBO arts and tech hub in Brooklyn.

“Domino Park, along the Brooklyn waterfront in the Williamsburg neighborhood, which Two Trees financed, constructed and operates, embodies this type of approach. In designing the six-acre waterfront park, we held dozens of community-based meetings and feedback sessions so we could understand what the local community wanted in a new public space,” Lombino said.

“More recently, Domino Park has served as a critical place for New Yorkers throughout the pandemic with painted circles that encourage social distancing on the lawn, which received international recognition and became a replicable model for parks around the world,” he added.

Two Trees — which has developed a portfolio worth more than $4 billion, including more than 2,000 apartments — agrees that the 15-minute neighborhood must include affordable housing.

“Two Trees has generated approximately 400 high-quality affordable housing units in Brooklyn and Manhattan. We have an additional 500 affordable units in the pipeline at our Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment site, and another 260 proposed units at River Ring, a new project,” Lombino said, noting that low-income units are identical to market-rate apartments, have access to all amenities and do not have separate entrances. (A controversial feature in other developers’ projects.)

Lombino said Two Trees’ philosophy of diverse community building includes supporting local businesses, artists and community groups.

“We make a concerted effort to curate small businesses that suit neighborhood needs and make an intentional decision to not rent to chains that can pay top dollar. We also regularly partner with community organizations on local hiring and public art installations,” he said. “We take accessibility very seriously at Two Trees — all of our buildings are ADA compliant and the vision behind the construction of Domino Park was to create an inclusive, accessible open space for all.”

Strong Towns Senior Editor Daniel Herriges emphasizes that the 15-minute neighborhood saves cities the high cost of maintaining sprawl.

“It’s important to remember that the cost premium for compact, mixed-use neighborhoods is largely a function of artificial scarcity, he said. “Fifteen-minute neighborhoods, and the kinds of housing that work well in them, are not expensive to create or maintain. They often have high real-estate values only because they are very popular and we haven’t built enough of them in the last few decades.

Strong Towns is a nonprofit focused on strengthening the urban core while eliminating budget-busting sprawl development.

“A trend I expect will grow among cities changing their zoning to allow more missing middle and walkable urban infill development — the kind conducive to a 15-minute neighborhood — is that of building density or floor area ratio (FAR) bonuses into the zoning code specifically for affordable units,” Herriges said. “The current gold standard for this with small-scale development is Portland, Ore., which passed its residential infill program (RIP) last fall. An analysis conducted by the city in consultation with several small-scale and affordable housing developers, including Neil Heller and Habitat for Humanity, found that significant affordability benefits would be achieved by the policy the city ended up passing, which provides a sliding scale of allowed FAR for buildings between four and six units — if they provide rent-reduced affordable units.”

Cristina Garrido — director of Innovation for CitiesToBe, an urban platform powered by Barcelona-based Smart Cities Consultant Anteverti — said cites around the world are embracing the 15-minute concept, especially as a reaction to the pandemic.

Milan and New York are widening sidewalks, pedestrianizing streets and increasing bike lanes.

“Milan and New York, for example, are already widening sidewalks, pedestrianizing streets and increasing bike lanes,” she said, noting that Barcelona has converted parking lots into civic space. “The pandemic has accelerated a change that had to be done if we wanted our cities to be sustainable in a mid/long term. From now on, cities will be more people-centered, and they will have more public spaces allocated for people.”

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