Urban Transformation

The surprising stickiness of the “15-minute city”

Lisa Chamberlain
Communication Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
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Cities and Urbanization

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This article was originally published in Common Edge.

  • Urbanism trends come and go but the “15-minute city” framing of walkable, mixed-use urban development is a lot more than a fad.
  • The historical roots of the 15-minute city are connected deeply with the current moment—one we will be living with for a long time to come.
  • As climate change and global conflict cause shocks and stresses at faster intervals and increasing severity, the 15-minute city will become even more critical.

Urbanism trends come and go: Broadacre City, Radiant City, EcoCity. Yet the “15-minute city” concept—which implies having all necessary amenities within a short walk, bike ride, or public transit trip from one’s home—has demonstrated stickiness not just as an idea, but as a powerful tool for action – from Paris to Seoul, from Bogotá to Houston.

For longtime urbanists, the 15-minute city seemed to merely repackage the historic urban pattern of development: walkable, mixed-used districts. Old wine, new bottle, as the saying goes. But for a new framing to ignite a global urbanism movement, clearly there’s more going on.

The obvious, yet incomplete, answer is the pandemic. Would Paris's Mayor Anne Hidalgo have pushed for progressive urban design without this framing? Undoubtedly. But with COVID-19 and its variants keeping everyone home (or closer to home than usual), the 15-minute city went from a “nice-to-have” to a rallying cry. Meeting all of one’s needs within a walking, biking or transit distance was suddenly a matter of life and death. The pandemic created an urgency around equitable urbanism that sidelined arguments about bike lanes and other “amenities” that have roiled communities for years.

The term was coined in 2016 by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, who was given an Obel Award in 2021 for developing the idea. The graph below comes from a Google Trend search of worldwide usage of the term; the peak in the middle is approximately November 15, 2020.

Google trend analysis of searches for the 15-minute city.

When a new framing meets its moment, something more than a fad is emerging. Prior to the pandemic, few planners would have taken seriously the idea that “home” become the central organizing factor of all urban planning. Despite predictions of increased “telecommuting,” working from home remained an outlier. Indeed, work and commerce have always been the central organizing factors of urbanism, from the post-agricultural revolution to the industrial and technological ones.

Historically, most cities grew up around trade, which then developed into more permanent places of commerce. Cities reduced transportation costs for goods and people by bringing them closer together. By reducing these costs, cities increased productivity and thus further evolved the city as a multiplier of culture and innovation. (As Aristotle said, “The city-state comes into being for the sake of living, but it exists for the sake of living well.”) More than a century after the adoption of automobiles as the dominant mode of transportation, work still dictated urban geography, with increasingly longer commutes. Suburbia, the antithesis of the 15-minute city, couldn’t exist without proximity to an economic urban engine.

The creative destruction of cities

COVID-19 may now be flipping this on its head, which is why the 15-minute city concept is taking hold in a way that it would not have before the pandemic. As demonstrated by the illustration below, the 15-minute city puts home at the center of urban spatial relationships. The point is not to have every cultural amenity and human desire within immediate reach of one’s doorstep. New York can only have one Broadway theater district. But there’s no question that Midtown Manhattan will have to follow a similar recovery pattern that Lower Manhattan did in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack: diversification. And that is true of the suburbs as well, significantly beyond the extent to which they’ve already diversified.

Indeed, the decentralization of work is not going to kill the city, it’s going to save it. There will be a lot of creative destruction along the way, but that is how the city renews itself: from within. The cities that don’t decentralize work will struggle mightily in ways both known and unimaginable.

As climate change and global conflict cause shocks and stresses at faster intervals and increasing severity, the 15-minute city will become even more critical. Anyone who has followed Erik Klinenberg’s work knows that resilience is rooted in place. Specifically, communities that foster and maintain social and economic relationships don’t have to be wealthy, but they do need to be walkable and safe, with both residential and commercial buildings intact. And, I would add, for 15-Minute Cities to thrive, not just survive crises—and this cannot be stressed enough—they must also have plenty of mixed-income and equitable housing, as well as digital access.

This is how neighbors can know and understand each other: as local store owners and workers, colleagues, caregivers, educators, and friends. These are the people who come together when it matters most. The mutual-aid groups that appeared during the pandemic exemplify the importance of social cohesion in a crisis, which only works if necessities are within a reasonable distance of where people live.

People walking along the Seine - a wholly pedestrian area. Image: UNSPLASH/Yan Berthemy

And yet, 15-minute cities are not just a collection of autonomous medieval villages living in a constant state of crisis. The fractal nature of cities is what makes them dynamic places as a collection of connected neighborhoods with their own cultural histories that evolve over time and contribute to the identity of the larger city (such as the Harlem Renaissance, or the Latin jazz and hip-hop cultures of the South Bronx).

The word “connected” is doing a lot of work here. Yes, people need mass transit and other citywide services. But cities are as much an identity as a place. As historian Yuval Noah Harari might say, cities are a “fiction,” a shared concept that organizes society around cooperation (however tenuous that may seem at times). While Harari focused on nation-states and religion as primary human fictions, I would argue that cities are the most innovative human fiction of all.

Dystopia, utopia, eutopia

In stark contrast to the 15-minute city is the predominant urban trend of the 20th century that continues into the current one: namely, rapid urbanization, both dystopian and utopian. An estimated 1 billion urban poor (1 of every 8 people on the planet) live in informal settlements. Then there’s the dystopian ghost towns of China, where 130 million properties are vacant, which could house about 340 million people, surpassing the current U.S. population. The opposing trend is the ground-up construction of “smart city” utopias, such as Songdo City in South Korea and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, among others. Even though they’re largely considered soulless failures, hope springs eternal: Toyota’s Woven City is now under construction in Japan.

Between dystopia (bad place) and utopia (no place) is “eutopia,” a town planning term coined by 19th century Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes. It comes from the Greek origin of eu, meaning good, and topos, meaning place. Comprising “folk, work, and place,” eutopia is the best possible manifestation of a city.

To better quantify and plan eutopias, Geddes developed the concept of a “vital budget.” He argued that “society must transition from ‘money wages’—which tend to dissipate energies toward individual gains at the expense of both natural and cultural qualities—to a ‘vital budget’ which facilitates ‘conserving energies and organizing [the] environment towards the maintenance and evolution of life – social, individual, civic.’”

This sounds a lot like a 15-minute city, including the circumstances under which it emerged: through the cracks of creative destruction brought on by a technological revolution.

So, what’s new about the 15-minute city, then?

As a concept, not much, which is why I initially dismissed it as a fad. But as the “old wine, new bottle” framing went viral (pardon the pun) and began to spark real change, it became clear the historical roots of the 15-minute city connected deeply with the current moment—one that we’ll be living with for a long time to come.

“There is no such thing as a new idea,” Mark Twain once said. “It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

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