“The 15-Minute City”, a Smart City model focused on proximity

We are currently facing not just a major environmental crisis, but a global health emergency as well. This unprecedented situation has exposed the vulnerability of our cities and their way of functioning. Not only do they contribute massively to environmental problems by emitting more than 80% of greenhouse gases, but they have also been exposed to the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our current urban spaces have shown alarming inadaptability. An array of urban models have emerged (or re-emerged) in recent years to refashion our cities along more sustainable, resilient lines. Of those, the 15-minute city is an urban model on a human scale that is gaining traction.

What is a 15-minute city?

The concept was developed by Carlos Moreno, a professor and smart city expert. It aims to ensure direct access for all residents to essential city services like education, healthcare, shopping, transport and green spaces within a 15-minute walk or cycle of their homes. The idea is not just to revitalise areas, but that grouping services locally can act as a springboard to better social, economic and environmental quality of life.

Why is it important?

The 15-minute city is an alternative to the “city of the future”. It creates accessible, sustainable, resilient spaces that enhance quality of life, helping adapt our cities to current environmental issues by encouraging walking and a return to local living. It departs radically from the conventional massive car-centric concrete urban planning of our cities.

Has the pandemic paved the way for the 15-minute city?

The year 2020 saw drastic restrictions placed on our mobility. With city dwellers forced to make do with the immediate vicinity around their homes, deep divides emerged between areas, particularly regarding access to essential services. The pandemic’s exposure of urban problems is an opportunity to rethink our cities on a more human scale. COVID has also prompted a certain political agility with the introduction of quick, low-cost solutions like cycle lanes and urban greening.

Initiatives at every level

To foster a harmonious urban space and tackle spatial inequalities, politicians, non-profit organisations, start-ups and independent groups have each played their part in creating (or recreating) attractive, socially vibrant spaces. In France, one of these initiatives is a company called PICNIC, which designs smart, modular, adaptable vehicles for use as pop-up spaces like food trucks and stands. La Cloche, meanwhile, is a non-profit organisation that promotes access to culture through events and gatherings in local neighbourhoods. And the global C40 cities network has recently put the 15-minute city at the top of its common agenda.

A range of urban projects have embraced this vision. One example is a car-free green district called Merwede in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Another is the Île de Nantes, which is being revitalised around collective ownership, well-being, mobility and resilience. Paris has taken a similar approach, placing schools at the heart of each neighbourhood as a springboard for a more sustainable, attractive, welcoming vision of cities.

Time as a core concept in 15-minute cities

Time is central to how a 15-minute city works due to the need to optimise space and its uses, allocating different uses at different times to each space. These multiple uses can happen either:

  • Simultaneously: Seoul Metro extols and actively contributes to the vibrancy of development around stations.
  • In turns: Certain streets are pedestrianised at weekends in Japan and South Korea.
  • Seasonally: Existing structures are utilised for events, as with the Olympic Games.
  • In real-time: This approach is made possible by the advent of augmented reality.

To optimise services and contribute to a city’s development and attractiveness, “chrono-urbanism” requires understanding urban rhythms and the impact of numerous factors, including time of the day, day versus night, week versus weekend, seasons, and holiday periods. Although digital technology has not (yet) been directly associated with 15-minute cities, there is a “smart” side to the concept that could be harnessed to optimise services and how they are run.

The advent of 15-minute cities is only a question of time. That much is clear.

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