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The 15-minute city

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  • Picture of John Montgomery FRSA
    John Montgomery FRSA
  • Architecture & built environment
  • Cities

The ‘15-minute city’ is a good catchy branding of inner cities but it is not a new idea, writes John Montgomery FRSA. Ever wary of big ideas, simple solutions, the author argues that urban policy should also be reinvigorating the economies and life of towns, medium sized towns and small cities more broadly.

Talk of the 15-minute city can be traced back to seventeenth and eighteenth century cities and beyond. More recently these sorts of ideas became tenets of urban policy during the late 1980s when concerted efforts were made to bring life and investment back to the cities and towns after 50 years of planned decentralisation. I first heard the term in Adelaide about 20 years ago. I was there to speak at The City as a Stage, a major conference organised by Adelaide City Council. It was explained that in Adelaide it is possible to get anywhere you would like to be in less than 20 minutes, including the airport and the start of the Adelaide Hills. This, of course, was by car but it was true enough and the city was remarkably easy to navigate. I next heard the phrase when chatting with Rob Adam, Director of Design at Melbourne City, who was explaining Melbourne’s goal to become a more walkable city. His report, Grids and Greenery was published by the City of Melbourne in 1987. Walkability became a policy issue in the UK from about 1995 and numerous studies were done on walking and the barriers to it around London’s Kings Cross. Temple Bar in Dublin was envisioned as a walkable, permeable, mixed use cultural quarter.

George Nicholson, former Chair of Planning at the Greater London Council, would get a gleam in his eye when describing the old parish maps of London. He argued that the whole basis for these was walking distance to the church by local parishioners. People could hear the bells summoning them to prayer. This was also why true cockneys were supposed to be born within earshot of the church bells; a notion captured by the eighteenth century rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. “Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St Clement's”; the song describes the connections between parishes and the work and markets that were found in them: kettles and pans, pokers and tongs, brickbats and tiles.

Most people would walk to get to church, and so the distance from the parish boundary to the church tended to be about seven to 10 minutes away, or about 440 yards. This would convert later to what urban designers’ term ‘ped-sheds’ or the 10-minute walk. Interestingly, an area with a 440-yard radius equates to 42 hectares. This converts to 100 acres and over many years now, I have tended to use 100 acres as proxy for a walkable district or neighbourhood. This can be seen by looking at the old parish maps (for example in William Loftie's History of London (1884). It is fascinating to think that underpinning of London is a city of villages, already evident in the mid-eighteenth century. For Londoners, most of life’s necessities could be found within a quarter mile or a bit further into neighbouring parishes and across the Thames.

The new proposition for the 15-minute city is to organise the spatial distribution of land uses and activities such that local residents can have all their needs met – work, shopping, health, education or culture – within a 15-walk from their own doorstep.

This has been taken up enthusiastically by Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris. Bringing all life’s essentials to each neighbourhood is based on more mixed use, a more integrated urban fabric, places where shops and bars mix with homes, restaurants with health centres, and schools with offices and studios. People will either walk up to 1000 metres or a mile, or they’ll cycle.

Proponents of the 15-minute city argue that mixing as many uses as possible within the same space challenges much of the planning orthodoxy of the past century or so, which, they claim, has separated residential areas from retail, entertainment, manufacturing and office districts. Well, that was back in the 1980s, since which time great progress has been made in urban regeneration, mixed-use development, master planning of new settlements and place-making. There has, in fact, been a push back against big-box retail strips, suburban industrial and office parks, and out-of-town leisure. (That said, very often, under the guise of public private partnerships in the UK at least, governments have been part of the problem with large, consolidated hospitals and schools, and leisure centres). Seen in this way, the 15-minute city is nothing very new at all.

Then there is the question of scale, and this varies with activities. It is one thing to have a nursery or primary school locally, but not universities; many work premises are located in dense city centres, hospitals these days tend to very large, regionally located. So not all of life can be located within walking distance. Organising an entire modern working city around this 15-minute rubric is therefore possible only at the very localised level. How many people in Paris can walk to offices in La Defense, the city’s major off-centre business district? What of the millions who commute to the great railway stations and onwards to places of work? How does the tourism economy fit into this model?

Urban morphology should also be considered, that is the relationship between the built form and space. Even in Paris, not all the arrondissements are the same.  The experiment of combining city blocks in Barcelona into Superblocks (of nine city blocks), which would be roughly a square kilometre, is arguably more interesting. This is an attempt to create localities, or what I stubbornly think of as parishes, that currently don’t really exist within Barcelona’s grid structure. But this too is not a new idea. The grid was the basic building block of ancient Chinese cities (see Wright, A. F. “Changan”, in Toynbee, A. (ed) Cities of Destiny, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967) where the city was structured around four gateways, major streets and a system of local wards and hutongs. Cities were laid out in a grid with three or more precincts. A city would be built around north-south and east-west avenues, forming wards and one or two markets. Each ward was  made up of four city blocks. Each block was further broken down by lanes and alleyways.

Planners have been attempting and largely succeeding in regenerating and revitalising cities for almost 40 years now, including those with grid structures. This is certainly the case in Melbourne, and in the UK where mixed-use urban regeneration has been an endeavour in places like Manchester, Gateshead, Belfast, Edinburgh and various districts of London. We have been doing this, and getting very good at it, since the mid 1980s. This even includes weaving in concepts like creativity, arts and society, the night-time economy, a more nuanced and active public realm and streetscape, and much more careful consideration of urban layouts and patterns. Early versions of these ideas evolved at least from 1987 and from 1991 there was a little surge in the planning and development of creative and cultural quarters in cities like Dublin, Glasgow and Sheffield. This all seemed to die a death after 2008. Perhaps it is coming back again in a more mixed form? Are we in danger, one wonders, of losing the rediscovered cultural life of cities?

As we await the outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic collapse caused by shutting down economies, it is important to retain as many options into the near future as possible. This should include the 15-minute city, a modern take on walkable urban parishes, but this is one policy response and it cannot be replicated in all types of towns and urban places. In the UK, it probably is only relevant for London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. What about all these outer suburbs, market towns and small cities, old seaside resorts, former naval dockyards, the peri-urban fringe, old RAF bases and airfields? Or new freeports and tech precincts?

There very probably will be a shift in geographic distribution of the populace in and around cities.  Being optimistic, one expects we shall still have high density city centres but overall with less activity due to working from home, people moving away and businesses closing or relocating. This may be temporary over a few years but people with families (or planning them) and early retirees will no doubt move to country towns and rural areas near railway stations.

Some city centre employers will decamp to peri-urban locations where their employees can easily travel to work by car. There will be expanded towns and villages, wholly new settlements at a modest scale and re-locations beyond existing travel to work areas. If you're only going into the city once or twice a month, you can endure a longer journey. People will work from roomier homes with gardens, go into a local business village once a week or so and travel into the city every once and a while. In fact, these trends have been gaining momentum this past 20 years in London and the South East and beyond.

Options for city form and spatial distribution of industries, businesses and home in the future are therefore not to be either high-density or decentralised but a mixture of both. This means that we may expect a variety of places and developments spread across city regions. Future settlement patterns will see gradations of more and less dense places that are functionally, digitally and economically linked. This will vary according to the real-life characteristics of city regions.

Dr John Montgomery FRSA has worked in urban regeneration, urban and regional and economic development, and the spatial and built form of city regions for 35 years, in London, the UK, Ireland, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. His book The New Wealth of Cities: City Dynamics and the Fifth Wave was published in 2007 by Ashgate.

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