Fifteen minutes to paradise: cities for people

Over the last year the pandemic has brought home just how much time we spend – and waste – travelling. How many hours are eaten up stuck in traffic or on trains or buses, just going about our daily lives. Instead of responding to our needs, towns and cities demand that we shape our lives to suit them, and too often that means long, inconvenient, polluting trips.

How much better would it be if all the places you needed to visit regularly were within 15 minutes of your home: shops, cafes, restaurants, medical centre, park, playground, leisure centre, cinema and theatre as well as school and work. And all accessible without a car.

That’s the vision Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is following.

Hidalgo has embarked on a plan to reduce motor car use and cut air pollution in Paris. She has increased the cost of city centre parking, banned cars from certain areas on certain days, promoted cycle and scooter hire and taken road space away from cars to create 650km of new, safe cycleways. She wants to go even further, with plans to remove 72% of on-street parking spaces in the city and turn the Champs-Élysées into an “extraordinary garden”.

Anne Hidalgo is an early adopter of the 15-minute city concept developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne. Moreno says “The 15-minute city should have three key features. First, the rhythm of the city should follow humans, not cars. Second, each square metre should serve many different purposes. Finally, neighbourhoods should be designed so that we can live, work and thrive in them without having to constantly commute elsewhere.”

As Caroline Criado-Perez points out in her book Invisible Women, the design of our cities favours men over women and rich over poor. Men tend to make a single rush-hour trip to work, while women are more likely to have to make multiple linked trips – maybe dropping the kids at school and checking on an elderly relative before going to a part-time job. Women without access to a car are especially badly served, often having to spend long hours on buses.

One way to think about the 15-minute city is that it puts access over speed.

Traditionally we might say “David lives ten miles from his office, so we need to allow David to travel those ten miles as quickly as possible,” so we build a new bypass, widen a road or slap down an urban motorway. What if, instead, we said “We’re going to help David work within two miles of his home, so he can easily walk or bike to work, having a quicker, healthier and more enjoyable journey than he did before”?

It isn’t enough to create neighbourhoods where people can stay local, we also need people to want to stay local. The potential benefits are huge: happier, healthier residents, less pollution and strong, vibrant local centres. The 15-minute city is a direction of travel. There will always be people who have longer commutes and there will always be reasons for all of us to travel further. We aren’t trying to eliminate longer journeys or car use, simply to reduce them.

Here are my seven steps to creating your very own 15-minute neighbourhood:

1. Encourage local business and services. Local authorities need to build in the right places and offer support to independent traders. That will require taking an active role in the development of local centres, working with businesses and landlords as well as residents.

2. Promote mixed, mid-density neighbourhoods. Residential suburban sprawl guarantees more car use and more long journeys. New developments should integrate with existing areas or, in the case of New Towns, be large enough to sustain their own employment, shops and services. Discourage out-of-town retail and business parks that are hard to reach without a car.

3. Make cycling and walking safe and easy. Put people before cars, creating segregated cycle lanes on busier roads and slowing down motor vehicles on quieter roads. Recent research suggests that just marking cycle lanes with lines on the road is no safer than having nothing at all, while physical segregation with wands or barriers makes all road users safer – not just cyclists. Junctions are the most dangerous places on the road network so need special attention.

4. Promote public transport over the motor car. Train, bus, metro or tram should be the first choice to travel into city centres, with driving discouraged except for those who really need to.

5. Create high-quality public spaces. Ensure that there is public space for people to relax, eat, drink and have fun. This could be a public square or pocket park.

6. Make your area a pleasure to walk around. Too many suburban areas are just boring. If walking to the shops feels like a chore, people are more likely to jump in their cars. As a general rule, you can’t have too many highway trees.

7. Maintain, maintain, maintain! Keep your area clean, safe and well-maintained. This is often overlooked when setting initial budgets but is essential.

I will examine these elements in more detail in future articles.

Consider the different types of neighbourhoods in your patch. Wealthier areas may not be far off being 15-minute neighbourhoods already, but poorer localities are less likely to be. The easy win would be for councils to throw more money at well-off places to get them over the line, but it’s the more deprived areas which stand to benefit the most. People in those areas are least likely to have access to good jobs or to a car: they are the places where 15-minute neighbourhoods will make the most difference.

What can you do?

The single easiest way to improve an area is to keep it clean and tidy. Organise volunteer litter picks and support community groups. I recently got some litter pickers from the council and I’ve been giving them out to people who’ve offered to get out and do a bit of cleaning in their area. It doesn’t take much to start making a real difference.

Photo by Curtis Poe Flickr CCL

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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11 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Jan '21 - 10:43am

    I’m a non-driver. The problem this will bump up against is that car drivers by and large talk the talk about reducing car use but in practice will always find an excuse.

    Driverless cars are the game changer I suspect not some 15 minute fantasy.

  • If you live in cities most of the places you need are within walking distance. As a city dweller I can tell you that people in cities actually use bikes and walking to get around more than suburban and rural dwellers. Trains and public transport are a good thing. The people causing damage to the environment are the ones ploughing up great tracts of the countryside to build on and putting roads in to service those buildings because they drive everywhere, not just to towns and cities. Also lets stop pretending that the majority of the population actually wants to walk or cycle everywhere. I grew up in the suburbs. People there will drive to the end of the street to see a friend. They drive everywhere except in mostly pedestrianized cities and towns where driving is banned. In fact lots of people get in their cars just to go for a drive (let’s go for a drive) or invent reasons to drive(I’m just nipping out). They drive because they like cars, they like driving and they get bored of their surroundings . The idea that cars are just a means of getting from A to B and that people would stay local if they had a choice is a little naïve.

  • GLenn, you are right that people like their cars, but Iain points out that the aim would be to reduce car use, not eliminate it. Over time, many could change their feelings and be happy to make less use of their car. To have more of the essentials nearer to home would be a major step change, but this does not prevent people from enjoying that special trip in the car. If public transport was much improved, some of these special trips could be done by bus or train, including many more advertised coach trips.
    For the immediate future at least, there are many areas on the edge of big towns or out in the countryside where it would not be viable to have a sufficiently frequent bus service. The solution to that is to have more car parking areas on the frequent bus routes, so people can use the car for the first part of their journey only. This is not possible everywhere but as Iain suggests, we are looking for a mix of solutions that take us in the right direction.

  • This is great, I particularly like point number 7, building in maintainence, I visit (Used to visit) Germany a lot & the difference to here is striking, even in low quality housing. Old buildings look just as new as new ones, ignoring stylistic differences. Part of that is down to higher Taxes but I feel there are probably cultural differences as well.

    We are facing a huge battle over Public Transport this Year, the Government are already planning massive cuts.

  • Jenny Barnes 12th Jan '21 - 2:39pm

    In Holland the cycling/walking modal share is around 50%. Cars are still around, still useful, but no longer bully their way into every bit of road space.

  • I can see problems with this; the most obvious being, it’s fine if I live close to where I work — but then what happens when I change job, and the new one is farther away? Do I have to move house too, just because I changed jobs? That’s a massive hassle, isn’t it?

    There’s also things which need a large ‘catchment area’ to be viable. That an amateur dramatics group, for example. There’s very little chance that every fifteen-minute ‘zone’ will contain enough interested people for one of those, isn’t there? So for every such thing, it’ll be based in one place and people will be travelling much longer than fifteen minutes to get there. And each such thing will be in a different ‘zone’ so again you’ll have lots of people criss-crossing the fifteen0minute ‘zones’ all the time. So what have you gained?

    And then at a most basic level, people will want to see their friends, and the chances of everyone’s friends living in the same fifteen-minute block as them are, again, practically nil. Unless you imagine the people are like undergraduates with a social life that entirely revolves around their college, only substitute ‘fifteen-minute zone’ for ‘college’. But that wasn’t true even of undergraduates and it certainly isn’t true of people in general.

    This seems like one of those proposals that has been designed entirely theoretically and takes no account of how people actually live.

  • How many people belong to drama groups and similar organisations ? The proposal is intended to deal with a significant number of people which would ease the present problems. No plan could solve everything and it might not even be desirable to remove all variety.

  • How many people belong to drama groups and similar organisations ?

    Given that ‘similar organisations’ would include choirs, sports clubs, language classes, art groups, and so on, I’m going to guess at… practically everybody who has any kind of hobby?

  • Peter Hirst 13th Jan '21 - 1:36pm

    though not a city liver, where you live is crucial. Making your environment nicer just makes you want to stay there. Better to make moving house easier possibly be facilitating renting for those who change their place of work frequently.

  • Part of making the environment pleasurable live in includes, in my opinion, ensuring own planning and architecture are visually appealing. Part of he reason for he ‘boredom’ that people may experience is that everything looks he same and is not attractive o look at. Furthermore, the lack of grass verges, hedges and street trees etc planned into new estates always disappoints me as no only do hese hibgs make an area more ‘beautiful’ to look at and be in, but they also have considerable environmental benefits. Unfortunately, with these very large development firms who are motivated mainly by profitability, and LAs strapped for cash, I won’t hold my breath for significant changes.

  • ICMI
    A Government Funded group estimates that the Population of London has fallen 700,000 over the last Year due to Workers from Abroad leaving. Birth Rates have also fallen sharply.
    I would expect the current House-price Bubble to burst this Year.

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