Earlier this year, I was invited by PBC Today to prepare a balanced review of the key components of the ‘15-minute city’, which was a little surprising given my general ignorance and scepticism about the subject at the time. I began with trepidation and concluded finding it very difficult to disagree with the intent behind any of the guiding principles.
For me, the principles are very clear but on reflection in the context of this article, this is perhaps because they have been written from an urban planning perspective. In this respect, UN-Habitat presents them well here:
Say yes to walking, biking, and public transit. Imagine neighbourhoods where everything you need is just 15 minutes away! Rediscover the joy of strolling to your favourite spots, chatting with neighbours, and reducing your carbon footprint! Let's bring back the charm of compact, interconnected communities!
In reality, the majority of town and city dwellers in the UK are already living this way: I often walk to work, the nearest local centre is about 400m away, the town centre is a further 600m away and when I need to go further, I can reach the train station in less than 15 minutes. Added to this, we are generally an outdoorsy nation of walkers and cyclists, supporters of independent shops and local produce - and who doesn’t enjoy a short city break when you can leave the car (and ideally the children – supervised, obviously!) behind.
Letchworth and Galway: many UK and Ireland residents already enjoy walkable neighbourhoods and 15-minute networks.
However, for some reason, the narrative around 15-minute cities/ neighbourhoods/ districts in the UK has completely shifted. Rather than representing one way that we could improve personal wellness and reduce global warming, it is being portrayed as a car-demonising infringement of civil liberty. This follow-up article considers why, when the rest of the world is embracing the idea as a happy, healthy and sustainable way of living, it is being met with fear and negativity in the UK.
One of the main criticisms is that 15-minute neighbourhoods are a way to control, monitor and restrict our movements. This is inherently incorrect – it is actually based on encouraging mobility and interaction with our neighbours.
It is envisaged this misinterpretation has resulted from another criticism, that walkable neighbourhoods are ‘anti-car’. Professor Moreno, founder of the concept, has gone to some lengths to clarify the difference between these and why this is not the case. Essentially, the objective is to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality by promoting active travel where possible. In short, if the local shop is less than a mile away then we are more likely to walk or cycle there than drive. In doing so, we might meet a neighbour and stop to chat, thereby improving our mental health and sense of community.
As discussed in the earlier article, a reason for the anti-car label appears to come from some association with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN). However, these are not the same at all. LTN’s are physical proposals for traffic calming in urban areas to create ‘home zones’ or ‘living street’ – places where residents can gather and children might play. Conversely, 15-minute districts are a construct that is based around clustering enough local centre activities around homes so residents will have less need or inclination to drive.
It would also be incorrect to assert that LTN’s are a way of creating 15-minute districts. Rather, the inverse is true, where it is first necessary to ensure there are sufficient local amenities before considering initiatives to reduce car dependency. Essentially, unless we start building homes closer to facilities, facilities closer to homes or public transport links between homes and facilities, residents will continue to rely on private cars for transportation.
From industrial buildings and infrastructure to sustainable communities and walkable neighbourhoods; an illustration that was prepared to show the regeneration of a former industrial area on the Thames Estuary (©Placemake)
The well published suggestion of a ‘socialist concept’ that was made by a Conservative MP in February has presumably come from a misinterpretation of either of the guiding principles of ‘creating links between people’ and ‘encouraging residents to shape their own environment’. The same aspirations currently underpin the NPPF, the Levelling-Up programme and the Shared Prosperity Fund.
At the same time as the Transport Secretary was ‘calling time’ on 15-minute cities at the Conservative Party Conference in October, Stockholm’s leaders were announcing that within the next twelve months, the city centre, an area that is home to one million people, would be free from petrol and diesel cars within the next twelve months.
This is partially achievable through the city’s extensive public transport network and North Europe is already well ahead of the curve in terms of supporting and facilitating active travel. But still, this is a major statement of intent from the Capital of Europe’s tenth biggest economy and the world’s seventh happiest population.
Brugge, Belgium: the centres of many European towns and cities are already largely free.
Next door, the Capital of the world’s second happiest population – Copenhagen – aims to ban combustible engines from its centre by 2030. While the centre of Amsterdam - Capital of the world’s 5th happiest people – is already largely car free.
Meanwhile, in the UK, plans to stop the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 were recently deferred to 2035, proposed energy efficiency measures in new homes have been diluted and the cross-country, mass transit extension of HS2 has been scrapped altogether.
While our European neighbours are striving to create a more resilient and sustainable future, the UK Government’s environmental agenda is regressing and the Transport Minister’s recent comments on the 15-minute concept only serve to illustrate this.
As a purely planning model, it represents an aspirational and inspirational vision for a way of living that most of us already enjoy and I would urge any sceptics to first read the core principles before jumping to conclusions. At the end of the day, who could really find fault in the values of local services, active travel, community cohesion and local people shaping their own environments?
By David Edwards, writing for PBC Today, November 2023