• The 15-minute city aims to reorganize urban space around work, home, community and amenities – the idea is that every need is fulfilled within a 15-minute walk or short bike ride.
  • Various cities around the world have begun to embrace the 15-minute city approach.
  • But urban life is about more than access to amenities and the 15-minute model risks excluding disadvantaged communities.
  • Even if there’s a 15-minute baseline, great city centres with world class experiences should remain accessible to all.

At long last it appears that the worst days of the COVID pandemic may finally be behind us. Despite early predictions of a lasting urban exodus, people are heading back. But the pandemic has brought some lasting urban changes – including the attribution of streets once use for cars and parking to bike lanes, parklets and restaurants.

One of the biggest urban ideas to emerge from the pandemic is the idea of the 15-minute city or 15-minute neighbourhood. Developed by French urbanist Carlos Moreno, 15-minute city refers to a place where all the necessities of daily life – shops, schools, workplaces, doctor’s offices, parks, libraries, restaurants and other amenities – are located in a short 15-minute walk or bike ride from home. In this way, each neighbourhood becomes an ‘isochrone’, an area that can be explored within a given time, giving all residents access to their needs a convenient walk away.

The 15-minute city aims to reorganize physical space around the human experience of time. Workers can live near their offices or co-working spaces, eliminating the commute. Anyone can walk to a small, nearby park without having to hunt for parking spaces. Community building will benefit too: parceling a city into smaller units makes it far more manageable from a social point of view.

Various cities around the world have begun to embrace the 15-minute city approach. For instance, Melbourne is proposing self-contained communities within an 800-meter radius. Portland’s Climate Action Plan calls for more vibrant neighbourhoods in which 90% of the residents can walk or bike to fulfill their daily needs. But the most vocal proponent of the concept remains Paris, where the concept originated. Its mayor Anne Hidalgo has been championing the “ville du quart d’heure” since early 2020, and has embedded it into a broader plan to promote active mobility in lieu of cars: car speed has been limited to 30 kilometers per hours on many streets; automobiles have been banned along the Seine one Sunday each month; and plans to include a biking lane on every street by 2024 are also in the works.

Such experiments are unprecedented and exciting, and they stand on long-established planning principles. Since the crisis of monofunctional modernism in the post-war era, urban planners and designers have proposed mixed-use developments, where residences, schools, and shops stand side-by-side in diverse neighborhoods. The 15-minute neighbourhood provides a specific spatial scale and suggests a new model for the larger city, which is devolved into small, repeating parts.

What’s not to like?

It turns out, the concept is not always a fit. For one, the 15-minute neighbourhood doesn’t work so well for a suburban nation, like the United States. While it is easy to envision Paris, Copenhagen and Barcelona in small repeating parts – or even in certain places in the US like Manhattan and Brooklyn, or big slices of Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts – it is harder to imagine this kind of reinvention of far-flung sprawling suburbs where the majority of Americans live. American cities and suburbs might only make the 15-minute cutoff if this could be done in a car.

And 15-minute communities do little to alter the harsh realities of economic and geographic inequality. They promise close-by amenities and luxurious walkability for the well-to-do urban gentry. They are mainly a fit for affluent urban neighbourhoods and far less a fit in the disadvantaged parts of our cities. As Harvard University’s Ed Glaeser points out, less advantaged groups are hardly able to live their life in their own disadvantaged neighbourhoods, which lack jobs, grocery stores and amenities found in more upscale communities.

Many of our urbanist colleagues find themselves asking what is so new about the idea of the 15-minute neighbourhood? They see the construct as little more than a rebranded notion of urban neighbourhoods or “villages”. Village life has many upsides – tight-knit communities, a relaxed pace of life, easy commuting – but it lacks the dynamism of a real city.

The reality is that urban life requires the broad expanse of entire cities and metro areas. And it is impossible to replicate some of the most important institutions – great universities, great museums, great theaters at a neighbourhood scale. Cities thrive because they create a market for these incredible institutions and assets.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to support the Future of Real Estate?

While investable real estate has grown by more than 55% since 2012 (PwC), the COVID-19 crisis has underscored weaknesses in relation to human and planetary health along with drastic inequalities, leaving a stark reminder of the influence the built environment has on societies and the vulnerabilities that exist in times of crisis regarding how spaces perform.

Image: PwC

As the real estate industry looks towards recovery, the need for transformation is clear. Portfolios must be rebalanced, and distressed assets repurposed. Technology must be fully embraced, and sustainability and wellness must be at the core of design and operation. The affordable housing crisis that already existed pre COVID-19 must be systemically approached to ensure access to adequate and affordable housing. If the Real Estate industry is to deliver transformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that policy, financing and business solutions are aligned in delivering better buildings and cities.

The World Economic Forum has brought together CEOs from the Real Estate industry to develop a Framework for the Future of Real Estate to help drive the industry’s transition to a healthier, more affordable, resilient and sustainable world.

We might visit the coffee place around our block every day, but we’ll only take the subway to the museum or theater once a month. Indeed, research by one of us published recently in Nature shows that in everyday life, the frequency of our visits to a given location is inversely proportional to its distance from our homes.

Instead of a complete 15-minute city, we propose to think of something akin to a “15-minute baseline”. That more circumscribed term can serve to remind us of the important fact that the truly vibrant parts of the city often begin when the first 15 minutes end. With easy access to the essentials, we can save our longer trips for where we need them: to encounter and participate in that diversity and specialization that are only possible at the scale of a real city and metro area.

Great neighbourhoods are incomplete by definition, functioning as proverbial stepping-stones or starting-out place from which residents can strike out further. Great neighbourhoods are never self-contained but are always an outgrowth and function of great cities.