Taken together, the new trees and cycleways, community facilities and social housing, homes and workplaces all reflect a potentially transformative vision for urban planners: the 15-minute city. “The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city,” says Carlos Moreno, a scientific director and professor specializing in complex systems and innovation at University of Paris 1. “At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity”—replicated, like fractals, across an entire urban expanse.
Named Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s special envoy for smart cities, Moreno has become a kind of deputy philosopher at City Hall as it endeavors to turn the French capital into what he calls a “city of proximities.” His 15-minute concept was developed primarily to reduce urban carbon emissions, reimagining our towns not as divided into discrete zones for living, working, and entertainment, but as mosaics of neighborhoods in which almost all residents’ needs can be met within 15 minutes of their homes on foot, by bike, or on public transit. As workplaces, stores, and homes are brought into closer proximity, street space previously dedicated to cars is freed up, eliminating pollution and making way for gardens, bike lanes, and sports and leisure facilities. All of this allows residents to bring their daily activities out of their homes (which in Paris tend to be small) and into welcoming, safe streets and squares.
Similar ideas have been around for a long time, including in Paris itself. Walkable neighborhoods and villages were the norm long before automobiles and zoning codes spread out and divided up cities in the 20th century. Yet the 15-minute city represents a major departure from the recent past, and in a growing number of other cities it’s become a powerful brand for planners and politicians desperate to sell residents on a carbon-lite existence. Leaders in Barcelona, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan, and Portland, Ore., are all working toward similar visions. They’ve been further emboldened by the pandemic, with global mayors touting the model in a July report from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group as central to their recovery road maps.
With climate change, Covid-19, and political upheaval all challenging the ideals of globalism, the hope is to refashion cities as places primarily for people to walk, bike, and linger in, rather than commute to. The 15-minute city calls for a return to a more local and somewhat slower way of life, where commuting time is instead invested in richer relationships with what’s nearby. “These crises show us the possibility for rediscovering proximity,” Moreno says. “Because we now have the possibility to stay closer to home, people have rediscovered useful time—another pace for living.”
It’s a utopian vision in an era of deep social distress—but one that might, if carried out piecemeal, without an eye to equality, exacerbate existing inequities. Skeptics also wonder whether a city that’s no longer organized around getting to work is really a city at all.
Dreams of breaking down the segmented urban planning that dominated the 20th century—with industry on the outskirts, residential areas ringing the city, commerce in the core, and auto networks connecting long distances—of course aren’t new. Urban thinkers have been advocating for the preservation or return of walkable, socially mixed neighborhoods at least since the 1961 publication of Jane Jacobs’s paean to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
This advocacy has slowly filtered into mainstream planning orthodoxy. Copenhagen pedestrianized its main shopping street in 1962, the first of many densely built European cities to take this approach in their downtown cores. In the U.S., the so-called New Urbanism of the 1980s and ’90s created a planning template (first fully realized in Seaside, Fla.) that saw a preference for row houses and apartments over detached houses, as well as for walkable, tree-lined streets and a careful dispersal of schools, stores, and parks to reduce the need to drive. Since the turn of the millennium, rising concerns over air pollution and climate change have led to further innovations, such as the congestion charge London introduced in 2003 for cars driving into the center and massive expansions of public transit networks in cities from Moscow to Medellín.
The 15-minute city concept draws all these trends into an intuitive rubric that ordinary residents can test against their own experiences. It’s also served as a response to pressures wrought by property speculation and rising tourism, which have pushed up rents and driven residents and businesses out of some long-standing communities. The 15-minute city seeks to protect the vitality that made diverse, locally oriented neighborhoods attractive in the first place.
Paris has been moving in this direction for some time. Under the mayorship of the Socialist Party’s Hidalgo, who was first elected in March 2014, the city introduced bans on the most polluting motor vehicles, transformed busy roads flanking the Seine into a linear park, and, in a bid to maintain socially mixed communities, expanded the city’s network of public housing into wealthier areas. It wasn’t until 2020, however, that Hidalgo grouped these efforts together under the umbrella of the 15-minute city, plucking the term from the academic realm and giving it new political urgency.