15-Minute City

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

I ONCE KNEW a National Geographic photographer (long story) whose job had taken him around the world and back again to his birth city of Heraklion on the island of Crete. After living for years in Los Angeles, he spoke perfect English, so as we sat together at an outdoor café, sipping black Turkish coffee out of white porcelain cups, I had no trouble understanding his reasons for returning home. “Here,” he said, gesturing to the tight mosaic of shops, offices, hotels, parks, health clinics, port police, museums and restaurants surrounding the outdoor café at which we sat, “I can walk everywhere. Everything I need is right around me, where I live.”

The Minoans created the blueprint for a compact city when they first inhabited the area millennia ago. Living in places where we can access everything we need – from food and public services to entertainment – is a venerable model; in other words, it’s one upon which many a global village and metropolis have been founded. But to contemporary urban dwellers accustomed to sprawl and the convenience of cars, the idea of a walkable city is about as foreign as the ancient world.

It’s a geographic vision that is palpably transforming urban life around the world into a series of compact, complex and multi-functional spaces

We’ve grown too big too fast to return to a more intimate scale of city living. Or have we? What if, like my photographer friend, we could return to where all we ever needed was just beyond our doorstep? It’s an urban ideal gaining relevancy in the pandemic, when shelter-at-home lockdowns have forced people everywhere to rethink the quality of city life. The mass urban exodus that has followed in the wake of the novel coronavirus is largely the result of people wanting to relocate to smaller towns where everything they need is close at hand.

Most North American cities are based on the sprawl model; they were not designed to support a “live local” mandate. Many are now seeking an alternative to the homogeneous bedroom communities where a majority of Canadians live.

Cities have had their wake-up call. They will need to adapt to a more self-sustaining ethos if they are to survive in a post-pandemic world. Enter Carlos Moreno, a complex systems scientist who is the driving force behind the 15-Minute City, a human-centric urban planning model that is breathing new life into an old idea of accessibility.

“It’s a geographic vision that is palpably transforming urban life around the world into a series of compact, complex and multi-functional spaces,” says Stefan Kipfer (BA ’92, MA ’95, PhD ’04), a York University associate professor in the Faculty of Environment and Urban Change who researches urban planning.

It’s a bit more than simply saying “Let’s make sure we can locate everything we need within a 15-minute walking distance.” That’s a little bit banal

The experience of time in everyday life has become rationalized and calculated, tied to clock time as opposed to natural rhythms. What Moreno is saying, Kipfer explains, is that this clock time now structures too much of our life – not only defining our jobs but also forcing us to move around all the time to make it to work on time, pick up the kids, get to the stores before they close, go to class and so on. One way to combat the compulsory nature of clock time is to create compact living spaces where travel is reduced.

Decreasing distance has many benefits. When everyday activities are less distant from each other, personal time may increase for people to do whatever, including nothing, if they so choose. Presumably, with less driving, less fuel is being consumed, and this helps the environment. People might walk and cycle more, and this improves health. Pedestrian activity also provides more opportunities for spontaneous social interactions, which aids in the enjoyment of life in general.

“So it’s a bit more than simply saying ‘Let’s make sure we can locate everything we need within a 15-minute walking distance,’ ” Kipfer says. “That’s a little bit banal. There’s more complexity beneath the 15-Minute City label. What Moreno is proposing is a city where different rhythms of life can coexist.”

Many jurisdictions – from Stockholm to Bogotá – have adopted this temporal dimension of the compact city as an urban goal to work toward. Yet when Moreno first presented his “living city” initiative at an international conference in 2016, it was promptly dismissed as unrealistic. Only one city leader really took him seriously: Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who – guided by Moreno, a professor at the Sorbonne – has since moved to restructure the French capital into a series of distinct neighbourhoods where everything is a short walk or bike ride away.

We should be able to meet those needs within a 10-minute walk from where we live

The Paris example (for which Moreno received the 2021 Obel Award, an international prize for architecture) is now inspiring other large urban centres to follow suit. There are now 15-Minute City plans in the works for London, Newcastle, Birmingham and Dublin in the British Isles, Lagos in Africa, Singapore and Shanghai in Asia, and Melbourne in Australia, to name but a few.

Most 15-Minute City initiatives are based on replacing a dependency on cars with comprehensive local transportation. In the pandemic, Milan has added 35 kilometres of bike lanes to the city centre, while Paris has added 50 kilometres and Barcelona 21. Hamburg is edging to be car-free by 2034, drawing inspiration from Copenhagen, which is presently building elevated weather-proof bike lanes and metro lines to reduce ground traffic.

Can North America benefit from these innovations hatched overseas? Toronto, for instance, occupies an area that is more than 60 times the size of Paris. So maybe a 15-Minute City model isn’t viable. Maybe the scale needs to be modified to accommodate a metropolis this large.

“Toronto, like most big cities, is – or, rather, should be – a 30-minute city,” says York University geography professor Patricia Burke Wood, an urban transportation expert. “That means it shouldn’t take much more than 30 minutes to get from one part of the city to another. Importantly, it doesn’t mean that people should have to travel that far for their everyday needs, though. We should be able to meet those needs within a 10-minute walk from where we live. For all of this, we need good pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and a strong public transit system.”

A 30-minute proposal is 10 minutes longer than the 20-minute neighbourhood model that has been in place in Portland, Ore., since 2010, making that West Coast city something of a forerunner and inspiration for others across the continent, among them Baltimore and Detroit.

While some might argue that Toronto, at the downtown core, is already a 15-Minute City, rich in easily accessible amenities the same cannot be said about outlying neighbourhoods

In Canada, Ottawa has launched, in the pandemic, a 25-year plan outlining how the country’s capital will become, in its own words, “the most liveable mid-size city in North America.” But the rest of the country? According to a 2020 report, only 23 per cent of Canadians are living the urban planning dream of “amenity-rich neighbourhoods.” So how to make it a reality?

“It’s problematic,” says Aaminah Amin (MA ’21), who, supervised by Professor Kipfer, spent the past two years looking at urban reform projects like the 15-Minute City for her master’s thesis at York. From her perspective, it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. “While some might argue that Toronto, at the downtown core, is already a 15-Minute City, rich in easily accessible amenities,” Amin says, “the same cannot be said about outlying neighbourhoods like Scarborough or Lawrence West, where you’d have to completely reinvent the infrastructure for the concept to take root.”

The same would be true for suburban centres like Brampton, Vaughan and Markham, all constituent parts of the Greater Toronto Area, where applying the 15-Minute City concept would require costly retrofits that would in turn see property values skyrocket, making those suburbs ultimately accessible only to those who could afford them. Social inequalities would likely deepen under the weight of gentrification, Amin elaborates, further alienating marginalized communities and minority populations, among them people of colour and the Indigenous, who are already living at the periphery of an integrated urban experience.

But if the need is to boost social interactions – what Moreno calls “chrono-urbanism,” the idea of connecting city rhythms with quality of life – then instead of burning bridges along with the motorways, perhaps we should be thinking about building 15-minute urban hubs and sprinkling them across a wide swath of suburbia to free ourselves from forced mobility. It’s an idea Amin came up with during the course of her recent studies, and it makes good sense.

“If Toronto would follow the example of Stockholm, which is hell-bent on allowing people a say in the planning process,” she muses, “then the people on the outside of the city core would have input in creating those hubs where proximity would enable a desirable urban life.”

Her words, looking forward to a more equitable future, take me back to the past, to my own experiences as a student wandering the great cities of old. True, Heraklion rarely figures in analyses of the 15-Minute City concept. Still, I choose to think of it as a kind of ideal. As my friend once told me, it’s a walkable city, which is what makes it feel personal – a place where everything you want and need in life is but a stroll away.  

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