With the world population increasingly concentrated in the metropolis, they need to be redesigned: the current urban expansion will not be able to handle the arrival of another 2,5 billion souls expected by 2050. Out of necessity, not choice, we are forced to revolutionize the structure of our cities: but sometimes good ideas come from necessity, such as the "city of 15 minutes".
How the idea was born
The idea of the "15-minute city" is gaining momentum. The principle is simple but powerful: to create cities where all daily services, from the grocery store to schools, from parks to means of transport, can be reached in 15 minutes on foot, by bicycle or by public transport.
Carlos Moreno, scientific director of the Panthéon Sorbonne University in Paris, first proposed this concept in 2016, adding elements up to the concept of "chronourbanism" in 2019. There are two main objectives of this urban revolution:
The first it's about improving people's quality of life, increasing the amount of time spent outdoors and strengthening the sense of community.
The second one, closely linked to the first, is to reduce the use of motor vehicles, thus limiting air pollution and the risks associated with road traffic.
It sounds easy said that way, but implementing this change will not be easy at all. It will take commitment, resources and time, and there is no universal approach suitable for all cities: for this reason the "key services" of each must be defined, and how to locate them.
Cities in 15 minutes, concrete examples
The construction sites that are already experimenting with this new 15-minute city approach are different. Let's make a quick point.
Utrecht, the Netherlands
It became a case study for research published in December 2022. Data collected between 2019 and 2021 revealed that 100% of the population of Utrecht can meet 9 basic needs (including food, education, green areas, entertainment and health care) with a 10-15 minute bike ride.
That's not all: the study also showed that there are no differences in accessibility by bike to city services of 15 minutes between various income groups: the solution also reduces transport inequalities.
It is one of the most dynamic metropolises in Europe, and is also at the forefront of experimenting with new urban planning strategies. We talked in detail (also about Madrid) about the dei model superblocks or "Superilles", in Catalan.
The concept of the Superblocks is revolutionary: it involves uniting several blocks into one large block, a sort of "condominium district" lived mainly by its residents, with many pedestrian areas, parks, gardens, meeting spaces and even urban gardens. If it works, it will be a replicable model.
Even the French capital is "revolving" around the idea of the 15-minute city. The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, was re-elected (also) proposing the idea again, and started implementing it during the pandemic.
The "Ville Lumière Edition" interpretation of the approach is to put schools at the center of each neighborhood and to redesign schoolyards into parks, making the space more accessible to the community outside school hours. We have already told you about Plan Velo: 140.000 parking spaces that become green areas for the community and a city fully cycleable by 2026. If they then succeed, as they would like, in reclaiming the Seine as well to make it swimmable...
Portland (and other US cities 15 minutes)
Experiences like Portland clearly show that the 15-minute city concept is not an abstract idea, but a real urban strategy that can be successfully implemented.
To be honest, in the US case just 5 minutes should be added. Already born in 2010, the strategy of the "20 Minute Neighborhood" is part of the city's Climate Action Plan. The goal is to create "lively neighborhoods" where 90% of residents can easily reach all basic daily (non-work) services by walking or cycling.
Given American habits, it's a lot of stuff. To the point that it gives Seattle to Baltimore, from Detroit to New York (with some snags e some goodies) many other "wannabe" 15-minute cities are adopting the concept by working to reduce the distance between residents and the services they need.
China is becoming an important hub for the development of the 15-minute city model. In 2019, the Shanghai Metropolis started a pilot version of the idea. It did so in 15 selected areas of the city, dubbed "15-minute community life circles." These circles they have been designed to include different services and infrastructure, including grocery stores, schools, hospitals, green spaces and transport infrastructure, all within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride.
Since then, the "Shanghai model" has attracted the attention of 50 other Chinese cities - currently the largest "feasibility study" in the world.
City of 15 minutes, let's clarify
This paragraph is written especially for those who will comment this news on social media with superficiality (and perhaps a little aggressiveness). I owe you a premise: I don't like "debunkers" or "conspiracy theorists". If anything, I love conspiracy ANALYST, that is, those who think it would be naive to think that the elites of the business and financial world do not have the will to directly influence politics and society. It's obvious, there's no need to speculate who knows what. It must always be kept in mind among the rules of the game, but it must not make us think that any research, discovery, technology, initiative has the purpose of eradicating the people.
We need to analyze, not fantasize.
Why do I say this? Because even projects that are born with authentically positive potential such as the 15-minute city are the subject of conspiracy fears. Fears whose cause obviously must be sought in social changes and not in the alleged "cognitive deficits" of conspiracy theorists. I told you.
What ISN'T a 15 minute city
A 15-minute city is not a dystopian concept that limits individual freedoms, nor a plan to create "concentration camps" or to put citizens under surveillance.
A 15-minute city is not a trap people can't get out of. It is not a question of forcing people to stay within defined boundaries, nor of creating artificial barriers that prevent individuals from moving freely.
It does not (and should not) imply the facial recognition at every corner, nor the imposition of permits to leave the city.
In reverse. The 15-minute city concept is meant to increase people's freedom and choice. The idea is to design cities where essential services are easily accessible on foot or by bicycle, thus reducing the need for long car journeys. This doesn't mean eliminating the use of the car, but providing more sustainable and healthy options for getting around.
I say more: even if there were some "elite" who want a "restrictive" interpretation of this idea, it is not by barking at the Moon that we would prevent it. We would prevent this by PARTICIPATING in the construction and preservation of an original and equitable vision of the 15-minute city idea. Also to analyze its defects. That there are, no one denies them.
15 minute city, what can be improved?
Despite the great prospects offered by the 15-minute city model, some critical issues also emerge. First of all, is the model really applicable in companies like the American one, which almost only design car-friendly suburbs, and even large ones?
Some are tempted to say that redesigning cities in 15 minutes somehow means reproposing neighborhoods and breaking down the differences between center and periphery, because there are so many "centers", but there isn't a drastic solution to the problem. It could take centuries, because it would be like doing all the big cities all over again, and from the inside out.
For this reason, in terms of practical solutions, perhaps the Parisian or Catalan model is the best one at the moment. It does not aim to destroy the differences between the center and the peripheries, but to restructure the latter. Perhaps by continuing to keep important institutions downtown (working so that they can be reached within 30 minutes, if not 15).
What matters is to understand that the old models no longer work, and that we need to do things differently.
I fully understand (to return briefly to the "conspiracy" theme) that change can be scary. And after the last few years, who wouldn't be afraid of such a radical change?
But this is an approach to be built by everyone, and it would be madness to continue with ever more chaotic, congested cities without logic. The 15-minute cities are an answer, a modular answer, which adapts to the needs of each population.
It is not a "one size fits all" approach, but a tailor-made solution. A solution that, despite the challenges presented, is full of creativity and can give us back, between one thing and another, control of our lives.