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The 15-Minute City: Hope, Hype and Hostility

The concept of having most needs met within walking distance remains beguiling as an urbanist vision, but it hasn’t gotten very far in the U.S.

Cleveland aerial photo
Cleveland’s downtown. Mayor Justin Bibb has committed to making Cleveland a leader in 15-minute city planning, but his idea remains more of a promise than a program. (Shutterstock)
It’s been almost a decade since the idea of the 15-minute city burst onto the field of urban debate, offering up the vision of a metropolis that promised the good life to nearly everyone who might live there. Residents would have within a short walk or bike ride just about anything they needed or wanted in their daily lives. Commerce, recreation, sociability, imposing architecture and clean air would all be present in a compact enclave capable of restoring the sense of community that the modern metropolis lacked.

It was an immensely appealing vision to millions of actual or potential urban dwellers who saw in it just the place where they would like to live. Paris was already reworking some of its historic neighborhoods to follow the 15-minute precepts. Other cities around the world, including some in the United States, were talking about it. To many enthusiasts, it seemed almost too good to be true.

Maybe it was.

In the past several years, the 15-minute idea has attracted a welter of opposition, much of it far-fetched but some of it bordering on plausibility. Critics saw it as an attempt to concentrate urban living in a rabbit warren of density where residents would be forced to travel on foot or by public transit, whether they wanted to or not. Some of the critics, citing the connection between the 15-minute city and environmental activism, called the movement a stealthy move toward “climate lockdowns” and a threat to personal freedom. The popular conservative essayist Jordan Peterson tweeted that the 15-minute city was the creation of “idiot tyrannical bureaucrats.” Opponents in Oxford, England — a seemingly improbable place for a mass demonstration if there ever was one — referred to the 15-minute city as a dystopia.

It’s unlikely that many Americans are taking seriously (or even paying attention to) tirades such as the ones that denounce the 15-minute city as a sinister United Nations plot to straitjacket their lives. But some of the language 15-minute proponents have used to promote their vision may be adding to the climate of skepticism.

That’s true of Carlos Moreno, the principal creator of the 15-minute vision, who has just published a book elaborating on his ideas, appropriately titled The 15-Minute City. Moreno, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, uses words like “topophilia” (an overwhelming sense of place), “chronotopia” (the intersection of space and time) and, perhaps most unfortunately, “hyper-proximity” (the reconfiguring of urban spaces as a lever for improving the quality of life).

Carefully explained, none of these are outlandish ideas. But even a believer in the 15-minute concept (me, for example) must concede that they sound like something out of science fiction. None of them will do anything to disabuse skeptics of the idea that the 15-minute city is a project of urban elitists whose walking, biking, anti-car ideology is not something they want to associate themselves with.

MORENO BEGAN ARTICULATING HIS IDEAS IN 2010, but their evolution goes back much further than that in the global debate over the urban future. For most of the 20th century, urban planners took their cues from the Athens Charter of 1933, which built on the ideas of the architect Le Corbusier to commit to an urban future dominated by automobiles and punctuated by rigid separation of uses. Cities were to consist of skyscrapers clustered together in parks, with no pedestrian activity on the street and commercial life sequestered in separate clusters far from the places where people lived.

The 15-minute city is the ultimate repudiation of the Athens Charter. Its genesis was the Brussels Declaration of 1980, in which a new generation of urbanist European mayors denounced skyscrapers in parks and called for a return to cities grounded in the preservation of older versions of the urban fabric. It was augmented in this country by the New Urbanism movement that launched in the early 1990s.

Moreno’s 15-minute city idea owed most to the revisionism of the Brussels Declaration. “The aim,” he writes in his new book, “is to create accessible and welcoming urban spaces where residents feel safe, where nature is present, and where essential services are within easy reach.”

It remains beguiling as a vision, but it’s fair to say that Moreno raises far more questions than he comes close to answering. Much of his urban blueprint is based on the creation (or re-creation) of bustling, pedestrian-focused village squares — but how exactly do we make these work? Many of those built from scratch in the last couple of decades have found it difficult to realize the goal.

Much of the success of the 15-minute city depends on thriving small-scale retail commerce. In the post-COVID era, that sort of commerce seems to be declining rather than advancing, even if there is some reason to hope that the growth of remote work might eventually bring it back to life.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. A disciple of Carlos Moreno, she has promised to make her city “more connected, more sustainable, more attractive, more inclusive and more resilient.” (Shutterstock)

IF THERE IS ONE PLACE that has taken Moreno’s vision to heart, it is Paris. Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a committed disciple and ally of Moreno, has made some important moves in the 15-minute direction. Under her leadership, Paris has created 746 miles of bike lanes and turned some of the roads along the Seine into green pedestrian walkways. The city government has worked to create business opportunities for more than 800 locally owned shops. “Paris,” Hidalgo declared a few years ago, “is destined to become more connected, more sustainable, more attractive, more inclusive and more resilient.” She has promised to make elementary and junior high schools the “capitals” of every neighborhood. Hidalgo built her 2020 re-election campaign around those goals, and she won easily.

As Moreno recounts, Amsterdam has established one of the world’s most extensive urban bike networks and is promoting the transition to electric and hydrogen-powered cars to reduce pollution. Milan is working on an “open squares” program, aiming at the “redevelopment of neighborhood streets and squares to make them places of social interaction, vitality and unity.”

Moreno has much less to say about experiments in American cities. He lauds the 20-minute neighborhoods program in Portland, Ore., and praises the city’s goal of having 80 percent of the city’s population living in “complete neighborhoods” by 2035. But the social and political turmoil Portland is currently experiencing would seem to cast doubt on those prospects. Moreno also cites Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s commitment to create “the first city in North America to implement a 15-minute city planning framework,” but aside from an investment in street safety, Bibb’s idea remains more of a promise than a program.

MORENO IS NOT SHY about boasting of his accomplishments. “I have carried this idea from scratch,” he writes, "to its current expansion, where it has become popular all over the world. … It continues to spread across the globe, taking shape in cities and territories of all forms, sizes and densities.” Based on the data in his book, this would seem to be an exaggeration, to put it mildly.

In a recent summary of Moreno’s efforts, Michael Friedrich of The New Republic wrote that “as yet the record is short on evidence and long on breathless public statements from mayors bedazzled by a new urbanist buzzword.” In his less euphoric moments, Moreno seems to understand that. “There are aspects,” he admits, “for which we do not have a solution because it’s a matter that’s up to private enterprise to change.”

A few weeks ago, when New York Gov. Kathy Hochul canceled the long-awaited congestion-pricing regime that was about to go into effect in New York City, some disappointed proponents of the plan labeled her decision as a serious threat to the future of the 15-minute vision. There wasn’t a direct connection, but by cutting down on the number of cars in Manhattan, making it friendlier to pedestrians and giving a possible boost to local commerce in the outer city boroughs, congestion pricing would have offered at least some support for Carlos Moreno’s grand idea.

Hochul didn’t kill congestion pricing for technical or policy-driven reasons. She did it because most New Yorkers, and especially suburbanites, didn’t want it — they were attached to their cars and saw congestion pricing as an intrusion on their personal freedom. The middle class wasn’t sold on it, and without their support it was likely to be a political liability for Hochul and for the Democrats she leads.

The weakness of the 15-minute city isn’t fundamentally the outlandish claims made against it by fanatical opponents — it’s the perception that it’s a favorite of urban elites that offers little to the beleaguered average homeowner. I wrote a few years ago that the 15-minute city may place supermarkets and drugstores and banks within easy reach but that it strikes much of the middle class as a cluster of storefronts that “house a disproportionate array of coffeehouses, wine bars, trendy boutiques and yoga studios.” It doesn’t really appeal to the denizens of Sam’s Club and the Cheesecake Factory. Its proponents, however creative and well-meaning they may be, have a serious task of persuasion ahead of them.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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