For millennia, people have lived close to where they work, study and play. The 15-Minute City concept is about bringing that back to cities, neighbourhoods and small towns. Having what you need closer to you makes sense in saving time and making life easier. It’s also better for the environment as it reduces traffic, promotes public transport, walking and biking, making cities and towns more sustainable and resilient as we deal with climate change.
So, why has it become a conspiracy theory?
It’s only in the past 100 years that we have separated housing from almost everything else in the built environment. English urban planner Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the Garden City was a response to late-19th century inner-city slums, where people lived in poor conditions, exposed to pollution from industry, noise and nastiness. Howard envisaged smaller satellite cities separated by a green belt from the bigger city where families would live, and children would be schooled in pleasant and green surroundings. The breadwinner (at the time, invariably the father) would commute daily by train or bus to his workplace. From that has evolved the sprawling suburbia we are all familiar with and our reliance on the car to get to work, school, the supermarket and the mall. The 15- (or 20)-Minute City is an attempt to address this artificial and car-reliant way of living.
More recently, Franco-Colombian urbanist Carlos Moreno popularised the 15-Minute City idea, but its roots go back to the 1970s and the New Urbanism, a humanist movement that responded to the failure of Modernism’s efforts in transforming cities with towers and estates. New Urbanism takes design back to footpaths, shopfronts and human interactions. It comes from Europe and the United States where their cities and towns date back centuries compared to ours.
Cars came late in their histories so it’s easy to imagine removing them so that central areas and neighbourhoods can regain their old character and facilities. In contrast, New Zealand cities have generally evolved to their current sprawling size because of a car and road construction focus. In our country, even smaller cities and towns have a sprawl-and-car problem; we tend to drive to the supermarkets and big box retailers on the outskirts rather than shop locally.
So, I am sceptical about how easily the 15-Minute City concept can be retrofitted to our big cities, to make, for example, Hamilton’s city centre handier to everyone living there, let alone Auckland’s. But remember the concept isn’t about distance – it is about time. It means that when better public transport is introduced, as is happening in Auckland with trains and busways, then yes, you will be able to get from a suburb to the city within 15 minutes and faster than by car.
Time, not distance
The 15-Minute City concept also applies to neighbourhoods and small towns; being able to walk to shops, community facilities, schools and so on within a short period of time. And this is the nub of the problem as some see it.
Their rhetoric is that we will lose our mobility and freedom, that we will be confined to zones and not be permitted without authorisation to travel beyond them. There are “conspiracy theories” at the more extreme end of the spectrum, but there are also concerns that we hear about every day as people in buses, on bikes and walking seek to take back a share of road from people in cars.
These worries from car drivers include reductions in car parking as bus lanes and bike paths are established, increases in parking costs, reduced access for cars to city centres, speed limit reductions and soon, congestion charges. Traffic engineers have governed the development of towns and cities for decades, focused on getting more cars to where they want to go quicker, but the era of car as king is over. Now we are seeing shifts towards a broader range of travel options, especially public transport and active modes (walking and bikes).
To the post-war and boomer generations, to whom cars meant mobility and freedom, restrictions on cars that are part of implementing 15-Minute City concepts are frustrating, but it is a necessary response to climate change and the need for more sustainable and resilient cities.
It is also part of a broader generational shift away from car ownership towards the notion of “Mobility as a Service”. Today, young people in big cities see cars as a burden; they cost a chunk of money to buy, park and maintain. Younger people rent more, they work, study and even socialise remotely through digital media, they order in entertainment and food, why wouldn’t they just order transport in the same way? Hence the rise of Ubers and scooters and growth in demand for public transport.
Younger people are also less enamoured of suburbs and happier to be in apartments closer to where the action is. To them the idea of the 15-Minute City makes complete sense. To others from the car-owner end of the spectrum to conspiracy theorists, it’s a cunning plan to regulate mobility and reduce freedom.
I live in a neighbourhood where my doctor, my chemist, a bar, a cafe, a dairy, a great bookshop and a good grocer (plus a supermarket) are 10 minutes’ walk away (or 5 minutes’ drive). And work is a 15-minute bus ride away. The 15-Minute City works for me. But I am an urban designer. I would say that wouldn’t I? I am probably part of the conspiracy…
Bill McKay, School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland is a frequent commentator on urban design and planning.