15 minutes to change the world: people-friendly neighbourhoods for a post-lockdown recovery

Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

What kinds of cities do we want to live in? It’s a question that has taken on increased urgency in the past year. But even before the global pandemic, there was growing concern about how to address the challenges facing the world’s cities, especially the threat of climate change.

Tackling traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, improving sustainable mobility and ensuring easy access to green space and essential services are all significant factors that can advance the quality of life in our urban areas. The lockdowns and other restrictions imposed by governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have thrown these issues into sharper focus.

An alternative vision

There is now a growing consensus that a new road map is needed for the development of liveable cities. This means changing lifestyles so that sociability, sustainability and wellbeing are prioritised – in short, the common good should drive decisions about urban planning.

One of the ideas for promoting this approach is the 15 minute neighbourhood, in which home, education, work, healthcare and other essential services are all within a 15 minute reach by walking or cycling. This is the vision of Professor Carlos Moreno, scientific director of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

In a recent webinar, organised by Solace and Catapult Connected Places, Professor Moreno outlined his concept, where the six functions for city life –  living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying – are all within easy reach, making neighbourhoods not just convenient places to stay, but satisfying places to live.

The concept of the 15-minute neighbourhood contradicts urban planning ideas that have predominated for more than a century, where residential areas have been separated from business, retail, industry and entertainment. Professor Moreno stressed that the new approach requires careful planning and implementation, political will and financial support from local and national authorities, and – essentially – the engagement of citizens.

A rapid, radical transformation

The first wave of lockdowns in 2020 showed that it is possible for radical change in our cities to happen far quicker than we might have ever imagined. In a matter of days, millions of people changed their lifestyles, with many working from home and travelling only locally for essential provisions. Soaring numbers of visitors to parks demonstrated the importance of local green spaces for physical and mental health. And in some UK cities, reduced levels of traffic led to improvements in air quality.

Of course, keeping large sections of the population confined to home has had many negative effects, and lockdowns are not part of the 15-minute neighbourhoods concept. Instead, the opportunity has arisen for an equitable and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 restrictions by rethinking the way cities work.

Paris: the 15-minute city

As special envoy for smart cities to the mayor of Paris, Carlos Moreno has been influential in the city’s decision to turn miles of roads in the French capital into cycle lanes. Reducing traffic is a key component of the concept, and can help cities achieve their targets for lowering the emissions that every year cause millions of premature deaths and countless more health impacts. In addition, Professor Moreno envisions greater use of remote working to reduce commuting times, as well as opening schools for community activities at weekends. With less time spent travelling to work, shops and healthcare services, people can enjoy a slower pace of life, devoting more time to families, friends and leisure, which in turn can bring multiple health and wellbeing benefits.

Paris’s advanced participatory budgeting scheme is a critical element for ensuring the 15-minute city concept thrives. 10% of the city’s spending is determined by participatory budgeting processes at neighbourhood level, meaning residents have the opportunity to participate in the design and selection of projects to be implemented in their own local area.

A growing interest in living locally

Paris is not alone in attempting to realise the 15 minute neighbourhood vision. Barcelona, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan and Portland are all exploring this approach, and it has also been endorsed by the C40 network of cities that are committed to addressing climate change.

In Melbourne, the city’s plan for growth over the next 35 years is guided by the principle of living locally. Its 20-minute neighbourhood plan was launched in 2018, and is being delivered in two stages to test the practicalities of delivering the concept across the city.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government has a strong focus on localism, and in a recent webinar, Scotland’s Chief Architect highlighted a 20-minute neighbourhood project in Edinburgh. The city council’s local place plan includes many elements that will be familiar to the proponents of 15 minute neighbourhoods, including new opportunities for cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

A lifeline or a threat?

Encouraging residents to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time locally will be music to the ears of smaller town centres. Even before the pandemic many local businesses were struggling to adjust to the changing habits of their customers. A resurgence of neighbourhood life could be the lifeline they need.

At the same time, a move towards more localised living could pose a threat to high streets in bigger cities. A recent paper in Covid Economics found evidence that higher levels of home-working has led to the relocation of economic activity from a few densely populated city centres to the suburbs. A further study by Centre for Cities found that in the UK’s 11 largest city centres, spending did not recover last summer when restrictions were eased after the first national lockdown.

Policymakers and planners will be watching these developments with great interest, as they have significant implications for economic activity in towns and cities. If the mass adoption of remote working hardens into a permanent feature, the cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that once depended on a steady stream of office workers could go out of business. Once-bustling city centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and London could turn into ghost towns. But if workers return to their offices in large numbers, the momentum for 15-minute neighbourhoods could be lost.

Final thoughts

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives, but it has also presented the opportunity to rebalance our thinking about how and where we want to live, learn, work and play. The 15-minute neighbourhood is part of that process. As Carlos Moreno has observed:

 “The pandemic has caused us to think about how to move differently, to consume differently, to live differently. We are discovering that by working differently we have more spare time, to have more time to be with our families or friends. We are discovering and appreciating our neighbourhoods much more. This will make us all more engaged inhabitants.”


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