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15-minute cities are making a comeback

One result of our sustained stay-at-home situation is a heightened interest in staying close to home even after the pandemic subsides.

  • Enter the 15-minute city, a "complete neighborhood" that centers around the idea that residents can meet most of their daily needs by walking or bicycling a short distance — i.e., 15 to 20 minutes — from their homes.

Why it matters: Strategically clustering food outlets, doctors' offices, schools, pharmacies, banks, smaller-scale offices and places for recreation in a close proximity to the people who need them can shrink the "deserts" of essential services in distressed neighborhoods.

  • And making more services reachable by foot or bike will help address climate change.
"When we get beyond the single-use space that has traditionally dominated our neighborhoods, and by allowing for flexibility based on the scale of the built environment, we can identify what's missing, what's needed, what's in demand in a particular neighborhood."
Andre Brumfield, head of cities and urban design at architecture firm Gensler

Be smart: The concept of the "15-minute" or "20-minute" city has been around for 15-20 years. It was seen as the antidote to suburban sprawl and an argument for mixed-use, "walkable" development that encouraged people work and live in the same vicinity.

  • While a few cities embraced the idea, it was often limited to more affluent entertainment or new 'main street' districts.
  • The long-term shift to remote work could widen it, as companies also looking into smaller, more dispersed branch offices closer to where clusters of employees live.
  • And with a massive reshuffling of retail, restaurant and office space underway, re-zoning for more flexible land use could be important for cities trying to recoup lost tax revenue.

"It is possible to see far more rapid change in this area than one would have expected even six months ago," said David Miller, C40's director of international diplomacy and former Toronto mayor.

The state of play: A few cities around the world are moving in this direction as a priority in their COVID-19 recovery plans, per a recent C40 Cities report. Restricting car traffic and increasing paths and lanes reserved for pedestrians and cyclists are common features.

  • Milan, Italy plans to guarantee essential services within walking distance for all residents, and the city is working with businesses to encourage telework.
  • Paris is embracing the 15-minute city concept by adding offices and "coworking hubs'" and encouraging remote work. The city is finding new uses for existing structures — using nightclubs as gyms during the day, and turning schools into parks and play spaces on weekends.
  • In Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler has committed to a "2030 complete neighborhoods" goal, allowing 90% of residents to access their daily, non-work needs without needing to get in a car.

Between the lines: How a 15- or 20-minute city can boost sustainability has gotten the bulk of the attention. But Brumfield sees an even bigger opportunity to boost neighborhood equity as part of the COVID-19 recovery, by helping to put less advantaged areas on more equal footing with the amenity-rich ones.

  • "If we start to think about how to create more districts that connect and play off each other, we can start to see a different distribution of not only investment and wealth, but we can actually create more holistic neighborhoods across the city so people have more choice and flexibility in where they choose to live," Brumfield said.

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