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The Elusive Dream of the 15-Minute City

The concept that everything should be within a short walk or bike ride keeps coming up, but making it a reality raises challenging questions.

Aerial,Photo,Of,The,Arc,De,Trioumphe,In,Paris,,France.
Central Paris, where the concept of the 15-minute city is a prime focus of the French capital's mayor.
(Shutterstock)
I grew up in a 15-minute city. Or really, to be more precise, I grew up in a 15-minute neighborhood in a city that was packed with them. The New York essayist A. J. Liebling dismissed Chicago in the 1950s as an endless and tedious stretch of “factory-town main streets.” He didn’t realize it, but he was paying the city a compliment. Every one of those streets was the capital of a small world in which a few thousand residents could meet all of their regular needs — physical, social and spiritual — within the space of 15 minutes.

I can’t help finding it ironic that in the 21st century some of the best minds in urban planning are striving to design the sort of communities that used to exist without anybody inside having to give them the slightest thought. But they are hard at work at the task, and they are winning converts.

The 15-minute-city movement was born, or I should say reborn, in Paris, where Mayor Anne Hidalgo, with the guidance of urbanist guru Carlos Moreno, has made it a focus of her seven years in office. Hidalgo built her successful 2020 reelection campaign on the 15-minute goal, and she has done quite a bit to foster it. Hidalgo is creating 900 miles of bike lanes in the city, some of them on the Champs-Élysées. She has banned car traffic from some of the pathways along the river Seine. She is converting schoolyards throughout the city into round-the-clock public playgrounds.

Whether these moves will make Paris a 15-minute city remains to be seen. What is clear is that a significant number of cities around the world are making or at least exploring similar moves. London has removed automobiles from some of its commercial shopping streets. Melbourne has a blueprint for a 20-minute city that will include substantial reworking of its suburban geography. In this country, Portland, Ore., has been working on a 15-minute plan for several years. Detroit, seemingly an unusual candidate, has a 20-minute plan that has increased its network of bicycle lanes from 13 miles to 240.

ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE PROMISING INNOVATIONS. But they raise some challenging questions. What exactly makes a 15-minute city, anyway? And is it a new idea or just a slogan that has been grafted onto some urbanist schemes that have been floating around for many years?

The place to start, I suppose, is with the simple idea that we should be able to buy or do just about anything we want by walking 15 minutes or less. I’m in favor of this goal. But it may not be so simple. Most people walk at a pace of 3 or 4 miles an hour. Even if they are brisk walkers, we’re expecting them to walk a mile or a little more to get to a bank or drugstore or wherever they’re going. I realize that many European city dwellers are used to doing this, but I wonder how many Americans will want to do it regularly. Most people that I know are pretty reluctant to walk a full mile to handle an errand, especially if they have a car available to them. That’s why some critics have said that if we are talking exclusively about walking, the idea of a five- or 10-minute city might be more realistic. It will also be much more difficult to achieve, to say the least.

But of course, we aren’t talking just about pedestrian excursions. Most 15-minute theorists include biking to major destinations in a quarter-hour as a key component of the 15-minute city. Here, too, there is promise but also a challenge. I may simply be a curmudgeon on this, but I think the number of bike lanes required to create a central element of the redesigned city are far more than we have built anywhere so far, even in the most progressive cities. And to attract the number of riders we would like to see, they would have to be dedicated lanes, protected from automobile traffic. I know this works in Copenhagen. I have trouble seeing how it could be done in most American cities without provoking a serious backlash from the still-powerful car-using constituency.

15-minute-city-paris-before-and-after-2.jpg
Before-and-after images, from Paris Mayor Anne Hildago's re-election campaign website, illustrating what could occur when cars give way to walking and biking. (Images: annehidalgo2000.com)
Beyond that, there’s transit. Another worthy 15-minute goal. But what does 15-minute transit really mean? If you’re talking about door to door, there really aren’t many transit trips that can be completed in 15 minutes. If you’re talking about a bus or train station within 15 minutes of home, it’s something we clearly ought to work toward, but it doesn’t suggest brief and convenient trips. Transit will need a lot of expensive help if it is to get us anywhere near the 15-minute city.

Cynics remind us that we have 15-minute cities right now — we can get in our cars and reach most of our desired destinations with a 15-minute drive. Of course, that’s precisely what we need to stop doing, for a variety of environmental and social reasons. It’s how we use up a large share of fossil fuels. I mention it only because it’s going to be a difficult convenience to tinker with, in just about any city in the United States. Not impossible, but very difficult.
PERHAPS WE SHOULD START THINKING about the 15-minute city in a slightly different way — not as an entity created with stopwatches but as a place where streets themselves are commonly regarded as places where people can gather and enjoy themselves, rather than as the speedways we have turned many of them into.

This is actually an old idea. It harks back to the European city prior to about 1900, and was the norm in many American cities up until the triumph of the automobile and the highway. In the Paris of the mid-19th century, to offer the most prominent example, the streets were noisy, narrow pathways crowded with pedestrians and slow horse-drawn carts and carriages. When the city was redesigned in the 1860s by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, most of the narrow streets were replaced by broad boulevards, but they remained places for people to stroll, sit in sidewalk cafés and have a good time, not intimidating speedways.

Vibrant street life has had its prominent advocates over the last century and a half, from Camilo Sitte in Vienna and Ildefons Cerdà in Barcelona to Clarence Perry in the United States, but the most influential modern advocate for something resembling the 15-minute city was Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities extolled the vitality and sociability of the sidewalks and streets of her Greenwich Village neighborhood. The New Urbanist planners of the 1990s built upon the intellectual foundation that Jacobs laid down.

But compact cities and neighborhoods have remained largely a boutique phenomenon in this country, despite the successes of a fair number of New Urbanist experiments. Now, however, something has brought them into prominence. That something is the coronavirus pandemic. Soon after the virus began sweeping across the country in the spring of 2020, sidewalk cafés became a much more common urban phenomenon, and busy streets in many cities were declared car-free zones geared to pedestrian recreation. As working from home emerged as a crucial facet of the virus-burdened city, prospects brightened for the revival of neighborhood commerce as a substitute for the downtown stores, bars and restaurants that stagnated under COVID-19 conditions.

HOW MUCH OF THIS CHANGE WILL PERSIST in post-COVID times is very much an open question. Some of it clearly will. That, of course, does not bring us to the 15-minute city. But it may bring us one or two steps closer.

Even if the next decade does make the 15-minute city more of a program and less of a pipe dream, there are some other difficult questions that we might want to start thinking about. The most important question is this: Who is the 15-minute city really for? And who will be able to afford it? The reasonable facsimiles that already exist in urban America tend to be expensive. Property within them has a significantly higher price point than property in car-friendly suburbs. And the businesses that make these compact neighborhoods attractive tend to be businesses catering to an economic and social elite. True, they have supermarkets and drugstores and banks within easy reach, but their storefronts house a disproportionate array of coffeehouses, wine bars, trendy boutiques and yoga studios. They aren’t home to many Dollar General outlets.

The residents of these neighborhoods comprise a reasonable diversity of colors and ethnic backgrounds, but not much diversity of class. To use the word that I hate to use but find it difficult to avoid, they are pockets of gentrification. When and if the 15-minute neighborhood becomes more common in America, we don’t want it to be that. Making them appealing to a working-class clientele doesn’t mean subsidizing convenience stores — it means providing places to live that a larger socioeconomic cohort can afford.

Keep the price of living in it affordable, and the 15-minute city will be a landmark achievement. It’s at least as important a goal as making sure the nearest transit station is less than 15 minutes away. More and more in urban America, it seems that whatever the question may be, the answer is housing. I’m pretty sure that is the case here.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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