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‘15-minute city’ planning is on the rise, experts say. Here’s what to know.

A bicycle lane on Rivoli street, in Paris, on Feb. 23. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

For many, living in a city means facing tedious traffic, packed subways and imposing buildings amid the sprawl. But the increasingly popular urban planning concept known as the “15-minute city” has revived the abiding idea that they should operate at human scale, envisioning a city where every resident can reach essential resources by foot, bicycle or public transport within a quarter of an hour.

City officials and urban planners have endorsed the 15-minute city as a way to tackle climate change, while the pandemic drove home the benefits of proximity to amenities and walkable streets, and prompted a “surge of interest” in the concept, according to Zaheer Allam, an urban strategist and fellow at Deakin University in Australia. But some have also made it the subject of baseless claims about governments’ attempts to control mobility.

Tom Logan, a lecturer in civil and natural resources engineering at the University of Canterbury, said the 15-minute city is about flexibility, not restrictions. “The whole point is to give people the option to be able to walk and bike to things that they need and that just frees them up to do lots of other things,” he told The Post.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is a 15-minute city?

The concept places “humans and their well-being as the main purpose of urban organization,” Carlos Moreno, an urbanist and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris who is credited with coining the term in 2016, wrote in an email. The idea is “to promote sustainability and health by reducing car dependency and increasing physical activity.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made the concept the backbone of her successful 2020 reelection campaign. It has also been employed in a variety of forms in cities such as Sydney’s 30-minute city goal and Singapore’s vision of becoming a “45 minute city with 20 minute towns.”

The term is relatively new, but the idea behind it is not. Fifteen-minute cities are “heavily based on attributes that have been used as design flagships in the past, namely accessibility, walkability, density, land use mix and design diversity,” Georgia Pozoukidou, a professor of city planning at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, wrote in an email. She points as far back as “garden cities,” proposed by British urban planner Ebenezer Howard in an 1898 book, as an example of the concept’s roots. It also shares the spirit of New Urbanism, which was popularized in the 1990s and prioritizes walkability in neighborhood planning.

The modern 15-minute city relies on citizen participation and envisions places that “enhance social interaction and cultivate a sense of community, safety, pride, and identity,” Pozoukidou said.

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Where can I find one?

Dozens of cities around the world have formally and informally embraced elements of the 15-minute city, though its rules are not ironclad. “The concept should be seen as a set of guiding principles that cities can adapt and apply to their specific needs and challenges,” said Allam at Deakin University.

Paris is one of the most frequently cited examples. Hidalgo’s “ville du quart d’heure” — or quarter-hour city — approach has seen roads closed to vehicles to prioritize pedestrians, investment in public transportation, and improvements to bike lanes and bike-sharing programs in an effort to make self-sufficient communities within the arrondissements of the city. In Barcelona, a similar concept called the “superblock” has taken off, while in Copenhagen, the neighborhood of Nordhavnen is aspiring to become a 5-minute city.

Portland, Ore., was an early adopter of the idea. In 2009, the city’s Climate Action Plan set a goal for 90 percent of residents to be able to walk or cycle to meet nonwork needs by 2030. Plan Melbourne, launched in 2017, aims to reimagine the Australian city over the next three decades so residents can “live locally” and reach what they need in a 20-minute round trip. And Shanghai has pitched a similar concept called “15 minute community living circles.”

What do proponents of the 15-minute city say?

Experts in favor of the concept say it benefits both public health and the planet. By reducing the need for cars and consolidating resources into more-compact urban spaces, 15-minute cities have lower carbon emissions, encourage healthy physical activity and promote social engagement between members of the community, they say.

There is a “huge amount of evidence showing that driving and sitting in congestion has really negative physical health effects,” said Logan, the University of Canterbury professor. Reducing commute time means “you can spend that time going to the gym or socializing with friends or working on other things.”

Improving public space can also uniquely benefit children, who have rich experiences while walking to school, and the elderly, who often remain isolated in car-centric cities, he added.

Why do some dislike the concept?

Some critics argue that a 15-minute city can be suffocating and actually increase isolation. In a 2021 blog post on the London School of Economics website, Edward Glaeser, an urban economist at Harvard, writes that the 15-minute city is “an enclave — a ghetto — a subdivision.”

He argues the concept prevents cities from functioning as “engines of opportunity,” and limits people from different backgrounds from crossing paths. Its “good aspects” should be embraced, he writes — including accessibility and driving less — but “bury the idea of a city that is chopped up into 15-minute bits.”

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Why are conspiracy theorists up in arms about 15-minute cities?

The decrease in carbon emissions during the pandemic — partly due to lockdowns and people choosing to spend more time at home — gave rise to discussions over further efforts to fight the climate crisis, among them the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset.” That initiative has sparked baseless accusations about impending pandemic-style lockdowns to stop climate change — and the 15-minute city concept has been caught up in this speculation, which urban planning experts and government officials stress is untrue.

When the Oxford city council in England announced late last year that it was going to take measures to reduce traffic congestion, purveyors of disinformation tried to link the effort to the council’s separate 15-minute city plan and the false claim that residents were going to be confined to a 15-minute radius of their homes and surveilled — leading to protests in the city. One conservative lawmaker took up the issue in Parliament, calling 15-minute cities an “international socialist concept.”

Moreno, the Sorbonne professor, emphasized that leaders across the political spectrum, from Buenos Aires to Busan, have promoted the idea of 15-minute cities.

“It is not about preventing movement, but about giving everyone the choice to move,” Moreno wrote to The Washington Post. “It is about stopping the long and tiring journeys that are forced by the current urban model.”