The 15-minute city is not a city

The latest planning fad – one that the mayor of Paris, no less, is attempting to implement – is the 15 minute city. It is a catchy phrase, one that mobilises people and catches the imagination. What does it refer to?

“The “15-minute city” is an approach to urban design that aims to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within 15 minutes by foot, bike or public transit.

This concept puts an emphasis on careful planning at the neighbourhood level, giving each district the features it needs to support a full life – including jobs, food, recreation, green space, housing, medical offices, small businesses and more. And importantly, it’s a full life that doesn’t require a car.Patrick Sisson, City Monitor, 21st Sept, 2020.

This sounds idyllic. It sounds like a small village. But can a juxtaposition of villages be a city?

A city is a place of opportunity. It is a place where we can change jobs; where we have access to hundreds of restaurants; where we can participate in a myriad of cultural activities; where we can visit specialist stores and access specialist services; where we can seek out specific (or cheaper, or fresher…) foods …. All these opportunities exist because each city resident is NOT limited to their immediate neighbourhood. On the contrary, they can move around the city, allowing specialist stores, restaurants, cultural activities and services to operate.

Likewise, businesses locate in cities because they can draw from a large and ever changing workforce. Indeed, from an economic perspective, cities exist because people and businesses have access to a wide variety of jobs, workers and markets. This allows for good matching between (ever-changing) job opportunities and (ever-evolving) workers.

This does not mean that walkable neighbourhoods are not desirable; nor does it mean that providing neighbourhood-level services should not be encouraged. But it does mean that there are structural limits to the 15-minute city approach, which will quickly be reached.

A more realistic ideal for a sustainable city would be effective and rapid cross-city mobility, ideally resting upon public transport, active mobility, and effective mobility provision for people who are less physically mobile than others.

I have nothing against villages, on the contrary: but they have qualities quite different from those of cities. They allow for more closely-knit communities, for longer-term personal relationships, for better integration across social classes and professional occupations. They usually enable people to have more living space. People can grow their own food and explore other activities that require time, space and experimentation. They permit close exploration of nature, and the appreciation of subtle changes in weather, light, wind, snow-cover and vegetation.

But: villages are not cities. And cities are not (collections of) villages.

15-minute cities are impossible. If we succesfully reach this ideal (which we won’t) then our cities will have become collections of villages (but without even the advantages of villages!).

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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