back to the future city

As you look back in time, urban sprawl in the United States had its origins in the flight to the suburbs that began in the 1950’s, and has accelerated as each decade was placed in the history books. As suburban areas developed, cities expanded in geographic size, faster than they grew in population. This trend has produced large metropolitan areas with low population densities, interconnected by roads, mass transit and other transportation arterials. But what does Urban Sprawl mean for the traditional Inner-city of America? Is the traditional city officially dead? And equally important is the contemporary question of “have the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic” with the elimination of community gathering places such as restaurants, bars, places of worship, parks and even offices, altered the shape, design and characteristics of the traditional city? 

These questions, as well as the conversation that has occurred over the past couple months, has caused urban planners to reevaluate the future of some of the most vibrant, energetic and powerful cities across America. In fact, a dichotomy exists as many professionals have announced the death of modern cities, while others have not been so drastic and see change as a good thing for the citizenry of these major cities. After all, the secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

While this conversation has accelerated due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is more than one reason for things to change. Whether it be health, environmental or societal change, the “15-Minute City” is the way of the future.

In this article we will look at several important reasons for the evolution of the 15-Minute City.

What is the 15 Minute City?

The “15-Minute City” idea is based on research into how city dwellers use of time could be reorganized to improve both living conditions and the environment. Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris, the concept of “la ville du quart d’heure” is one in which daily urban necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike. Hence the name “15-Minute City”. In short, work, home, shops, entertainment, education, and healthcare would all be available within the same time that a commuter might once have waited on a railway platform. 

Within the 15-Minute City, the accent shifts from urban sprawl and territorial mobility to close and easy access. The strategy no longer focuses on pouring more and more concrete and opening roads more efficiently, but quite the opposite, by reducing displacements. Ideally, in a 15-Minute City, long-distance mobility is significantly reduced, and residents no longer depend on their private vehicles or public transportation such as trains or subways for daily commuting.

In the 15-Minute City, the streetscape actually becomes the spine of the community. It is the community’s core, the gathering place, the center of outdoor activities, a park and green space of sorts. Rescued from intense vehicle traffic, the streets come to life and become livable. These publicly owned and maintained pieces of concrete and asphalt welcome and invite children’s playgrounds, terraces, street art displays and shows, thereby increasing synergy and integration of the community. Put another way  “this” urban space of excellence starts to reclaim its humanity.

While the 15 Minute City has a new shiny name, it is just a step into the past. A time before people commuted up to an hour into a business center to work. 

Where Does it Fit Into the “New Normal”?

While this “urban evolution” was not initially intended to help with coronavirus protocols and “stay at home” mandates, it has fallen into its new role perfectly. With a pandemic and the resulting federal, state and local requirements that necessitate people staying in or close to home, a city plan that allows for all necessities to be reached within a short distance walk is ideal. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us call into question ways in which we can improve on the idea of cities and city spaces. Cities have been hit hard by the pandemic. People have talked about a “new normal” that has been thrust upon us all. This new normal involves less travel, smaller circles and more space. These are all things that the 15-Minute City promotes.

Travel has come to a halt because of the coronavirus, and transportation may be changed forever. While the 15-Minute City cannot deal with air travel and other long-commute problems, it can greatly reduce everyday travel and short-run commutes. One of the ideas of the 15-Minute City is to make it possible to work, live, play, recreate, worship, etc. all in the same area where they live. Contrast that with a 30-minute to 1-hour drive to a city’s central business district. This, and the effects of hindsight being 20-20 when it comes to the pandemic, would help slow the spread of the pandemic by lowering the amount on new interactions with people along with less exposure to large numbers of people.

Working conditions made an abrupt shift during 2020. While most jobs were previously performed in an office environment, an entire work force was forced to work from home as a safety measure to counteract COVID-19. This seems like an easy and understandable solution, but it had some consequences. For one, there are many people who do not have the space or resources to work from home. Some people simply do not have the luxury of a spare room to set up an “in-home” office. Some do not have family nearby to help with childcare, as schools were also shut down. Some do not have reliable internet connection. Unfortunately, there are just certain factors to working from home that disenfranchise everyone’s lifestyle, especially lower income people. While people transition away from big offices in the city, small offices in the 15-Minute City is a good solution. 

Everyone has heard of the “New Normal” and what that might entail. Many people will never see this new form of living as an upgrade or an improvement to their lives as it seems like a world of less freedom, less interaction and less gatherings. Yet, indoctrinating the 15-Minute City as the new normal can be easy, and actually very beneficial to those that are accepting of the new urban design characteristics. In fact, people will save money, be healthier, be more productive and rekindle a sense of community within their towns. While a post COVID-19 world certainly scares people, a world with a 15-Minute City can also be a panacea.

Environment

While it has not been the lead story in every newspaper during the past 4-year administration, environmental concerns are ubiquitous and are not going away. Unfortunately, in the past few decades the myriad of approaches on how to manage the environment has become very politicized. However, everybody should want cleaner water, soil and air. In short, everyone wants a cleaner world. Most of the arguments that moderate people have made evolve around the fiscal impact and the logistics related to its implementation. The 15-Minute City was designed with the very purpose of healing the environment, and in addition to alternative fuels, would be a great way to help clean the earth. As workplaces, stores and homes are brought into closer proximity, street space previously dedicated to auto congestion is freed up, thereby eliminating pollution, and making way for gardens, hike and bike lanes, sports and leisure facilities.

In current city planning, it is almost certain that most US citizens have to get in a car to get groceries, go to a restaurant, bar, movie, doctor’s appointment, grocery store, place of worship, etc. With the 15-Minute City, towns are being forced to be more sustainable, as less car travel will be necessary.  

85% of Americans commute to work and many of those travel between 30-minutes and one hour to their place of employment. This is a major problem for many environmental, societal, economic and efficiency reasons, Yet this is where an opportunity opens up for the 15-Minute City to work its magic. With the COVID effect causing most people in America to work from home, many companies have learned that they do not really need the expensive downtown offices anymore. Some, like British Petroleum, have decided to completely switch to remote working throughout London, while others have the plan to reopen but with mini offices located in these 15-Minute City environments. Both strategies are helpful to the environment as a whole and could remove so much unnecessary added carbon to the atmosphere.

Overall, the 15-Minute City will help the climate as it was designed by urban planners with that goal in mind. When it comes to environmental protection, many get hung up on the fiscal costs, subsidies and required investments. But the 15-Minute City is a supply-side economic benefit as it saves the ultimate taxpayer money in the process. With the 15-Minute City, streets can see a major decline in automobiles and fuel consumption, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. With the alternative land use and increase of garden and green space, the resulting photosynthesis increases oxygen production. The net result of all these factors is that we have both a cleaner environment, as well as an economic stimulus package due to the supply side economic benefits and a more efficient work force. Who could ask for more? 

How Does This Effect the Community?

Ever since the exponential rise in population and the effects of urban sprawl on big cities, we have slowly lost our sense of a community. We are no longer in Maybury RFD where people used to be able to bond with a common interest over a community goal, mission or project within their town. Sometimes chaos and crisis bring a community together. Yet as we have seen this year, chaos has not brought us closer together, but further apart. Due to the pandemic induced isolation, people have only been able to communicate remotely, and have had a lot of time on their hands to let social media accelerate a divisive wedge during a highly contested election cycle. 

The 15-Minute City calls for a return to a more local community, with a somewhat slower way of life, where commuting time is instead invested in richer relationships with those nearby. The urban planners are hopeful that the smaller geographic footprint, and the closeness that accompanies the 15-Minute City, might also bring back a since of civility that is so desperately needed. The COVID crisis show us the possibility for rediscovering proximity. Now, more than ever, we as people, need proximity. Not because of the potential vaccine, the environment, or any other issue, but for the act of human interaction and the overall humanizing of one another. 

In today’s master-planned, spacious society, you would be lucky to know more that a couple of your neighbors. People are so fixated on their day-to-day lives, and do not really know who they live around anymore. The world is too fast paced for things like a neighborhood cocktail or block party. What the 15-Minute City brings to the world is a return to simplicity. We have lost sight of what it means to be a neighbor and part of a community. It will allow us to slow down, no longer rushing to work or the doctor’s office, but maybe a nice walk or bike ride to simply get groceries.

Innovation Through Regression

The idea for the 15-Minute City is nothing new. In fact, in America it began with the first Settlers on Plymouth Rock and has been replicated repeatedly, from community to community. But now, it has been repackaged, branded under a new name and is being marketed as the 15-Minute City. Same strategy and goal, yet with a new fancy name. 

If you went “Back to the Future” in almost any era of US history, you would see that most communities had a “live, work, play, shop, learn, worship, recreate, etc.” environment in a close-knit community. Yes, transportation may have been by foot, horse, train, Model T or mass transit, but the effects of urban sprawl truly changed these communities, as well as society, and the effects of this change has been very far reaching. 

With the 15-Minute City, we bring back some of the old ideas to revitalize our communities, improve the environment, enhance our productivity and heal our society. After all, the secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. While we always look for the next big thing for the future, it is sometimes best to look in the past at an idea that we left behind a long time ago.

Written by: Jett Scarborough

Research Analyst