Equitable Urban Planning May Mean Ditching the 15-Minute City

City planning experts at the recent Bloomberg CityLab conference questioned the notion of the “15-minute city” concept, warning it should not take the place of community engagement when designing streets and public spaces.

A digital illustration of a modern smart city.
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The urban and transportation planning space — like so many others — is awash with catchy buzzwords. The concept of the 15-minute city, an idea predicated on walkability and ease of access to the necessities, is one such example.   

But some experts question the wisdom of building cities based on access alone, and instead urge urban planners to design around real community need, taking into account equity and sustainability
principles.  

“I’m a champion of resilience and socially connected cities, of course. However, I am averse to this concept,” said Jay Pitter, of urban design firm Jay Pitter Placemaking, during the recent Bloomberg CityLab conference

The 15-minute city concept Pitter was referring to is a broad idea envisioning a city where work, services and leisure are all within 15 minutes of a resident’s home, reducing the need to travel. It is, in a sense, a response to the sprawling metro regions so familiar today where commuters spend hours in traffic or on public transit to accomplish daily tasks.

Paris has already adopted this planning concept, giving it momentum. But the COVID-19 pandemic opened up new possibilities around the future of work, carless streets and the overall benefits of living a simpler life.

“Many of us have been sitting in 15-minute cities for nearly a year, unable to kind of move in quite the same way as before,” remarked Dan Hill, director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency, during the discussion.  

But as a warning to cities and other groups pondering the 15-minute city concept, this does not erase the need to engage residents for their own vision of city planning and mobility, said Pitter, who generally questioned the theory.

“It’s presumptive, it’s not evidence-based, it has a cultural bias and the thinking is extraordinarily incomplete,” she offered, in a list of criticisms, adding, “it doesn’t take into account histories of urban inequities, intentionally imposed by technocratic planning approaches such as segregated neighborhoods.” 

Both Pitter and Hill stressed the need to plan at the “hyper-local” level and resist an urge to blanket a neighborhood or city with a top-down, technocratic approach to planning. Very often, said Pitter, what some experts see as obvious neighborhood improvements — bike lanes came to mind — are interpreted quite differently by residents, who may view these improvements as agents for gentrification and the eventual lose of affordable homes. 

“What we’ve been leading here is more of the one-minute approach,” said Hill, explaining this is a concerted look at how the community wants to use the street. 

“You let them design the street. You give them the tools,” said Hill. 

Pitter endorsed Hill’s idea to start “at the street level, and then working from there.” 

“What happens is we’ll have more authentic intensification,” she added. “So for some streets, in cities, neighborhoods, they will go from a 45-minute city to maybe a 20-minute city. And that may be significant progress. Some places will go from 16 minutes to 15 minutes, and that will be significant progress. And so, we have to have a spectrum approach here. We also have to think incrementally. And we also have to take an approach that is very hyper-local.”

It wasn’t just the CityLab conference where the 15-minute city concept garnered conversation. Several weeks earlier at the Micromobility World conference, Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner in New York City under the Bloomberg administration, and who now chairs the National Association of City Transportation Officials, weighed in on the idea as a planning effort to reduce traffic and increase the use of low-level transportation like biking and walking. 

“I really think that the smart mobility innovation of this century is not going to be using tech to reduce traffic congestion. It’s going to be building a city where you don’t need to drive in the first place, and I think the concept for the 15-minute city is a blueprint for that kind of city,” said Sadik-Khan, who also offered similar advice around understanding community and context. 

“To get to the city you want, you have to start with the city you have,” she said. 

And as a final warning, importing European city planning models may not be the best solutions to jumpstart in U.S. neighborhoods, said Pitter, who called them “presumptive and colonial.”

The 15-minute city concept “claims to be hyper-local,” said Pitter. “But it doesn’t acknowledge the hyper-local context of different cities in different places. And so, if we are really wanting to be hyper-local in our approach — which I think we all agree on — what that means is beginning by honoring, taking the time to learn and listen, and get a really strong sense of the local context.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.