The 15 Minute City

Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo has a powerful concept in her re-election campaign: the 15-minute city. It’s the kind of vision we need in Wellington

The 15 minute city is the very simple idea that Parisian people should be able to meet their normal needs within 15 minutes’ sustainable travel from home. Work and school and third places and eating out and groceries and health services and a library, accessible with 15 minutes on foot, bike, scooter or wheelchair.

It’s pretty revolutionary in terms of modern transport engineering, and is of course getting lots of resistance from people who see it as Luddite: that car-dominance and hyper-mobility (and all the infrastructures and investment to support them) equal Progress from which we cannot and should not retract.

In essence the 15-minute city is focusing urban areas’ planning not on mobility – the sacred cow of the last 50 years of urban and transport planning – but on accessibility (or “hyper proximity,” as the French call it).

diagram showing all the things you need for daily life, within a 15-minute walk / bike / scoot radius of home. by Micaël for Paris En Commun
The 15-Minute City (La Ville du Quart d’Heure) – Paris En Commun

You can read more about it in English in Citylab’s or FastCompany’s coverage, or in French on the campaign website.

But suffice to say it’s a fundamentally excellent way to conceive of running a town or city, and at Talk Wellington we’re well into it.

So, is this old news to NZ, and our councils and councillors are all over it already?

Leaders and a 15 minute city

If you paid much attention to Wellington’s local body election campaigning, you’ll notice something unusual about Hidalgo’s promise.

Like every politician’s campaign platform, it’s promising changes to the city.

But instead of promising a grab-bag of pure inputs (“Vote for me and I’ll give you this car tunnel / that bit of light rail / y thousand new homes / x hundred new cops / z tax break for businesses”) the 15-minute city is firmly centred on delivering a better, holistic human experience of everyday living in Paris.

Citylab ‘s Feargus O’Sullivan writes:

“There are six things that make an urbanite happy”, mayoral advisor Prof. Carlos Moreno told Liberation. “Dwelling in dignity, working in proper conditions, [being able to gain] provisions, well-being, education and leisure. To improve quality of life, you need to reduce the access radius for these functions.” That commitment to bringing all life’s essentials to each neighbourhood means creating a more thoroughly integrated urban fabric, where stores mix with homes, bars mix with health centres, and schools with office buildings.

It turns on its head the idea central to NZ’s planning: that different activities all have to be separated in space. Some, it says, should absolutely be mixed in together. There should be no such thing as a purely residential area, for example. Wow.

City goals: a good lived experience by all these people

Life goals for councils

We like it because it forces the machinery and bureaucracy that runs the city to focus on the goal of delivering a human experience. it doesn’t let a council get away with only focusing on disjointed pieces of the puzzle (the way that’s much more convenient for funding and managing staff).

It doesn’t let them get away with focusing on the number of vehicles moved on the road network with the lowest rate of crashes and death, the amount of GDP per capita, the amount of business growth. These are important but they need an overarching measure. (Sorry, magazines’ Liveable City Lists don’t count.)

And til we get a reliable way to measure happiness and wellbeing, is the best proxy we have is whether people can get around by human-power to meet our daily needs.

In other words, it’s a good proxy goal to put in your long term plan and your Annual Plan and your council teams’ strategies because if you bake it in properly to the organisation’s strategic management, it forces everyone to focus on making a genuine good difference in people’s lives.

We need this because despite all the good talk about “building communities, not just homes” we are still building lots of places where it says on the advertising that you can “live” or even have “a lifestyle you deserve” but where you have to get in your car to do anything.

“The lifestyle you deserve!” says the real estate site we sourced this photo from (no credit was given for photographer). We won’t name the site because that’d be name-and-shame.

15 minutes: reinvigorating cities worldwide

Under various names, this idea is a bit of a thing, worldwide. In cities heavily separated by car-era planning, “neighbourhood” focussed initiatives (including Barcelona’s celebrated superblocks, to East London’s Every One Every Day) are reinvigorating local commerce, social cohesion, people’s health and local urban environments.

Mandate at home!

And guess what: Wellingtonians are aching for this too! The Planning for Growth feedback said a firm No to accommodating our growth in more car-centric suburban developments, instead wanting intensification of existing suburbs and the city centre so people can get more of what they need without having to jump in the car.

Read more:

How accessibility vs mobility show up in Wellington’s growth scenarios

Not the same: “(new) localism” is more about the distribution of power and money in urban planning authorities, especially between central and local government (and is going to be much tougher than just reorganising thinking, and joining up thinking in councils). Super interesting though and very relevant! (Research nerds, go to Researchgate here)

One comment on “The 15 Minute City”

  • Tony Corlett says:

    We certainly need to double down on the positives of the Covid 19 lockdown.
    Many people able to carry on the majority of their work from home. Post lockdown, how many days a week will they be able to continue to work at home?
    So many people out walking and cycling, alone, with others, with children, with dogs. Where were they all before the lockdown? Busy with their ‘busy lifestyles’?
    It will require some bigger initiatives, but also a real change in thinking and values at an individual level.

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