15-minute city

Cities tend to be designed so that amenities and most services are within a 15-minute walking or cycling distance, creating a new neighbourhood approach. This is all about ’living locally’. Why is this idea relevant and how to ensure a successful implementation?

Urban planning model

The ‘15-minute’ city concept – developed primarily to reduce carbon emissions by decreasing the use of cars and motorised commuting time – is a decentralised urban planning model, in which each local neighbourhood contains all the basic social functions for living and working.

Many people argue that the concept of creating localised neighbourhoods in which residents can get everything they require within 15-minutes by walking, cycling or on public transport will ultimately improve the quality of life. Such spaces entail multi-purpose neighbourhoods instead of specific zones for working, living and entertainment, reducing the need for unnecessary travel, strengthening a sense of community, and improving sustainability and livability.

Local communities

Today most cities have ‘operation-based’ neighbourhoods, with separate areas used predominantly for business or entertainment; and fragmented urban planning results in a sprawl, with people having to travel long distances across the city to get to their destination. In contrast, compact cities of the future, or ‘hyperlocalisation’, prioritise strategies for urban infrastructure that aim at bringing all the elements for living and working into local communities.

Pedestrianisation

The ’15-minute’ city is an iteration of the idea of ‘neighbourhood units’ developed by American planner Clarence Perry during the 1920s. The theory of ‘new urbanism’, an urban planning and design concept promoting walkable cities, subsequently gained popularity in the US in the 1980s. Similar versions of ‘urban cells’ or 30- and 20-minute neighbourhoods have also emerged across the globe in the past decade.

The re-zoning model will gain further traction in future, boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic by new ways of working that require less transport. With climate change as a major global concern, C40 in its C40 Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery120 has recommended this model for cities worldwide, arguing that its pedestrianisation approach contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and supports environmental sustainability. Most notably, the ‘15-minute city’ was popularised in 2019 by Paris and is a flagship initiative in the current programme for the city.

Neighhourhood planning

The aim is to make essential amenities, different housing types and more green spaces available within a 15-minute walking or cycling distance. Some cities like Paris and New York, which are relatively more mature with regard to this concept, have launched participatory budgets to promote local engagement as a part of their city transformation strategy. Cities that focus on new urbanism and flexible concepts, such as Bogota, Seattle and Milan, are prioritising investment in walking and cycling infrastructure.

While this approach may not be entirely applicable to every city – for example it is probably more suitable for a big metropolis than for smaller cities – remote working and the digitalisation of services have increased the impetus to apply the principle of neighbourhood planning regardless of city size.

Why is this idea relevant for cities and their citizens?

Enhanced environment protection and sustainability

The ‘15-minute’ city strategy has focused on transit-oriented development, which promotes denser, mixed-used development around public transport services and pedestrianisation, accelerating a large-scale shift away from reliance on private motor vehicles. Increased travel sharing and use of non-motorised modes of travel help reduce carbon emissions from cars.

Increased convenience and sense of community

An article in the Financial Times reported how ‘15-minute’ cities cut down on unnecessary travel requirements and also promote local community engagement. They also provide open outdoor public space (such as ‘Streateries’ in Georgetown), reduce traffic congestion, and enhance the livability of neighbourhoods. There is faster fulfilment of essential needs, making living in cities more convenient and less stressful.

Paving the way for affordable housing

Real estate development in the past has often led to displacement of former residents and gentrification of the area. With multi-purpose neighbourhoods, however, and proximity between home and workplace, there will be an adjustment to housing prices, making areas more affordable to live in.

Improved resilience via multipurpose neighbourhoods

Establishing commercial spaces to encourage local buying and equality in living structures and professional opportunities, along with strong community acceptance of different cultures, act as pillars for resilient living.

As cities work towards recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the ’15-minute’ city concept can be an organising principle for urban development. It offers a socially concentrated yet highly functional blueprint for a new urban inclusive lifestyle that might find wide scale acceptance, particularly since lockdowns associated with the pandemic have forced people to re-orient their lifestyles to ‘go local’ and re-discover their neighbourhood.

How to ensure a successful implementation?

Not all cities are ready to adopt a flexible city concept. However, they should all take into consideration certain principles highlighted in the C40 Mayor’s Agenda to establish a strong flexible city.

Core principles

Core principles of a flexible city concept (such as a 15-minute neighbourhood) include:

• Ensure easy access to basic amenities including groceries, fresh food and healthcare in every neighbourhood.
• Build a multicultural neighbourhood that includes different housing types and levels of affordability, with the convenience for everyone of living close to the workplace.
• Have abundant green spaces to ensure access for everyone to the natural environment and clean fresh air.
• Establish smaller-scale offices, and retail, hospitality and co-working spaces, so that more people can work closer to home or in a virtual set-up.
• Create walking and cycling corridors to facilitate ‘soft’ transportation and reduce the convenience of travelling by car. (One-way roads in Barcelona and the removal of car p arking spaces in Amsterdam are just two examples.)

Correlate sustainability goals and urban planning initiatives

Develop a mobility infrastructure in every neighbourhood aimed at low/zero-carbon emissions through active modes of travel such as walking and cycling.

Ensure community endorsement

In some cities, a ‘compact city’ approach will require extensive changes and big costs, and this will demand substantial community endorsement and involvement. Although it is usually seen as a top-down approach to city planning, a 15-minute city design relies for its success on the endorsement of citizens, who need to be made aware of the benefits and embrace the change. At Georgetown University they refer to the need for a new governance structure which they call “Place Management Organization”.

Decentralise core services

Build smaller communities with community-scale solutions, particularly for services that would otherwise generate high traffic volume, such as healthcare, education and grocery retail. For example in 2019, as part of its Green New Deal, Los Angeles announced its intention to build a decentralised community-infrastructure in which all low-income residents live within half a mile of fresh food.

During COVID-induced lockdowns many cities experimented with decentralisation of communitybased services. In Lagos in Nigeria, closed schools were converted to smaller markets, so that residents had access to food and medicines near to their homes. Such decentralisation measures help in reducing longer distance travelling and avoiding large crowds of people in central markets.

Launch schemes to promote affordable housing in every neighbourhood

Cities can achieve this by establishing mandatory affordable housing requirements for any new development or by implementing concepts such as inclusionary zoning (instead of segregated zoning). Additionally, incentives or density bonuses can be provided to urban planners and developers, to encourage the creation of affordable and inclusive communities.

Johannesburg in 2020 emerged as an example of deploying the inclusive housing concept, with a framework for increasing affordable housing and addressing the lack of social mix in race and income across the city.

Allow flexible use of urban spaces and properties across neighbourhoods: Cities could promote diverse use of buildings and public spaces to derive maximum value from the infrastructure and boost community engagement.

Where to see this in action?

Paris, France

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, aims to decarbonise the city’s economy and make Paris a healthier place for its citizens through her programme La Ville Du Quart d’Heure (the quarter-hour city). The idea of a carbonfree city was one of the factors that inspired the launch of the flexible city programme in Paris.

Portland, USA

For Portland the focus is on developing long-term strategies relating to land use in an urban environment, targeting affordable housing, public transport, income inequality, city walkability, social/community-based engagement, and inclusion. A detailed plan to expand 20-minute neighbourhoods was developed as a part of its Climate Action Strategy. The plan included a target by 2030 for 90 per cent of the city’s residents to be able walk or cycle to meet all their basic daily, non-work needs.

Stockholm Sweden

While cities around the world are considering urban transformation based on neighbourhood-level planning concepts such as 15/20-minute cities, Sweden is pursuing a hyperlocal variation, a ‘oneminute city’, on a national scale.


Written by: Miguel Eiras Antunes Global Smart City, Smart Nation and Local Government Leader, Jean Gil Barroca Global Public Sector Digital Modernisation Leader, Daniela Guerreiro de Oliveira Smart and Sustainable Cities and Communities Team, all at Deloitte.

Source: ‘Urban future with a purpose’, by Deloitte.

Header image: Abby Chung.
Image in text: Si Luan Pham.

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