Justice Is 15-Minute Cities


Image © Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

The ravages of the pandemic and needed responses to the climate crisis are forcing new thinking about the goals of city planning.  Most recently, the idea of a “15 minute” city is emerging.  A 15-minute city is a one in which citizens can access all of their most basic, day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk of their homes.  This wonderful vision of humane human habitats is surely where all of our cities need to get to.  Our challenge is to realize that we must make this happen with only what we have now; we cannot afford ecologically, economically, or in the name of justice to try and build utopia anew.

It is easy to see the allure of 15-minute cities. The benefits are enormous. Increasing walkability improves health and reduces air and noise pollution, while making communities physically safer by reducing automobile violence. Meeting the needs of walkable neighborhoods enables micro entrepreneurs to thrive.  15-minute cities facilitate more close and authentic social connections that make cities stronger and more resilient at a time when that is desperately needed.

And vitally, cities will become more beautiful, softer and greener when they are not just backdrops to cars speeding by.

Paris, France has become the highest profile city seeking to remake itself into a 15-minute city. Paris Mayor Anne Hildago recently tweeted in French, “This is the condition for the ecological transformation of the city, while improving the daily life of Parisians.” Her plan is to thoroughly mix landuses across neighborhoods, ending over 100 years of monoculture development, strengthening public transit to link neighborhoods across the city, and then to humanize streets so that walking and biking become the default modes of transportation.

This is the beginning of the post car city.

Its not just Paris.  Melbourne, Australia and Ottawa, Canada are moving toward 15-minute city planning, as are US citiessuch as Boulder, Colorado and Portland, Oregon. As the current pandemic will likely ragefor the next few years, and as the need to end carbon pollution becomes ever more evident, expect 15-minute city ideas to take more of a central focus in community planning in other cities as well.

While we should incorporate 15-minute principles and values in all our planning for near term projects, we must also realize that the era of continued physical growth of cities must end.  Abating the crisis means drastically reducing and then stopping all emissions from fossil fuels and industrial processes as rapidly as possible – certainly within the next 20 years.

This will require the ending the use of most of the mass produced products that have enabled the last 150 years of urban growth: concrete and steel and asphalt and the massive fossil fuel powered machines that allow for rapid construction and landscape alteration.

Bluntly put, the way we have been building cities must end if we are to have a chance of keeping a livable climate.

This foretells the end of the era of rapid, infrastructure-heavy urbanization. This means that we wont get a chance to implement 15-minute city ideals in newly growing areas.  Instead, we will go into the years of climate mitigation with all the buildings and roads and other infrastructures we have now; 15-minute cities will emerge from that.

Ending emissions will also mean the end of economic growth as we have known it.  There appears to be a clear and unbreakable correlation between rising fossil fuel emissions and economic growth.  There is no evidence that these can be decoupled.  Therefore, it makes no economic sense to plan and attempting to build 15-minute cities anew as we enter an era of economic austerity.

And ultimately, we must realize that building anything more with carbon emissions is morally unjust. Every additional ton of carbon emitted into the atmosphere from now on will increase climate violence, primarily on the people of the Global South. Just because American city planning didn’t get it right over the last 100 years is not an excuse to unleash a carbon-fueled construction blitz to try and finally get it right this time.

So we cant start over to build our dream cities. What do we do?  Everything, it turns out.  We can create 15-minute cities in every urban and suburban area in the US.  We can take inspiration from the harsh limits imposed by justice and unleash our imaginations to create the world that we want with the ingredients we have on hand.

Here’s some of the things that need to happen:

First, we must end zoning.  A 15-minute city is impossible unless we do this. The sterile monocultures delivered by zoning are the antithesis of the ideals of the 15-minute city.  And ending zoning means everywhere, including the once-sacred single family zoning districts. In its place, we must simply let happen what needs to happen to create the 15-minute city. The pandemic has already forced an epochal change in the suburbs, where for many houses are also now offices and schools.  Now let’s take it further, and imagine single use suburban areas transformed to include coffee shops, bakeries, cafes, bike repair shops, farms, energy production, and multi-generational housing.

It will be messy and mixed up and it will be wonderful. Yes, some might say, “but what about noxious side effects like smoke or noise or smells or trash?”  No worries: those things can be controlled through specific ordinances and enforcement.

Next, we must re-envision the office buildings and commercial areas rendered obsolete by the pandemic and climate justice.   These building types have been vastly overbuilt in the US and there are tens of millions of square feet that must be repurposed for productive use. This is space that can be transformed via zero carbon means into diverse and affordable housing, small businesses, third-places, schools, child care, etc..

Next, we must reclaim our streets for walking, biking, and transit.  The embodied emissions of private vehicles and associated infrastructure render them incompatible with the post carbon future.   Without the vast swaths of land required for private cars, we can scale down street widths to accommodate these modes and then reclaim over-paved areas for ecological benefits such as rain gardens, habitats, and, in a much hotter world, shade trees.

These scaled down and humanized streets and trails should link to green spaces within 15 minutes walk of every person in a city. This is important for health and democracy.  The pandemic and mounting structural social injustices have shown how important public outdoor spaces are for physical and mental heath and also for gathering to protest those injustices.

Next, we must understand that our definition of “convenience” will have to change. An economy based on renewable energy will necessarily be one of less energy availability. This, combined with walking, biking and transit use will reshape our shopping habits. No longer will be load up SUVs with weeks worth of food to be stored in energy hogging refrigerators and freezers.  Instead, we’ll likely shop for food every day, limited by what we can carry.  It’ll be ok: this is how the vast majority of the world does it now.

Many other current understandings will also have to change. For example, the pandemic is forcing us to rethink an education system modeled on Walmart.  15-minute cities will have small schools in existing buildings, connected to outdoors, and safely accessible by students of all abilities.  In fact, imagine today’s megaschools becoming mixed use places where people live, work, shop, as well as learn.

And so much more.  15-minute cities are our future and the buildings of this future have already been built.  Justice demands that we create them from what we have today. The only thing holding us back is a lack of courage to face the needed new world.



Lead Image: © Steve Austin (used with permission)

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