15 MINUTE CITIES – An Ideal Geography?

A 15-minute city is an urban concept, in which most daily necessities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from residents’ homes. They are places to live, work, shop and play – where everything you need is there for you within 15 minutes. The emphasis being on the fact that you will not need a car and it will incentivise a return to local living.(See YOUTUBE https://www.goodnet.org/articles/introducing-15minute-city-concept)
Although the term was first used in 2016 by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, it became a reality for many during the pandemic where people couldn’t travel and sourced what they needed locally. Some cities are setting their own time table such as Melbourne – Australia (10 mins) Paris-France, Glasgow-Scotland, Portland-Oregon, Hamilton – New Zealand.(20 mins). More recently the World Economic Forum (WEF) has set its climate agenda for 2030 part of which is the reduction of car ownership .  (Source – https://www.goodnet.org/articles/introducing-15minute-city-concept)
Many councils in the UK looking a net zero carbon emissions in the UK are considering the concept. Most have developed local transport plans, which should be available to view on line, with most setting an agenda to achieve them by 2040. However, the big question is how many are integrating their transport and town planning into place making?  There appears to be a need for key changes in transport, town planning and regeneration for some councils whereby, cycling and walking will become mass transport and should be treated as such, and buses are to be made a practical and attractive alternative to cars, thus supporting the concept of a 15-minute system. This has to go beyond tokenism and be genuine strategic commitments.
However, there is a legacy of decades of planning for neighbourhoods and communities that lack the cohesive, joined up thinking that are going to allow for the 15 min City with most people able to access services locally.
The finger of responsibility would unfairly sit with town planners and transport planners; the public sector overall in its decision making has prioritised economic efficiency over service accessibility for a long while now.
Additionally, we have to face up to the realities of the impacts of recent societal changes . The public sector since 2010 has been undergoing radical transformation as a consequence of austerity. Communities have lost many of the basic facilities now needed: libraries; community centres; youth centres; police stations; housing offices etc. This is compounded by consumer choice. People now order their produce and necessities online. Banks have disappeared from local high streets as have many pubs, retailers etc.
If this was not bad enough, we are now facing significant cut backs in bus services.
If 15 min cities are going to work then some of the services that need to be considered are, medical facilities, shops, schools, green spaces, recreation and leisure including fitness centres, café’s & restaurants – not just the availability of these goods and services but the quality of them. Are there enough of them? If they want to make walking the main form of transport what is the quality of the walk like? For some it may be walking through or past industrial estates and derelict areas, or areas of high crime, for others it could be green, safe and full of nature – how do they find the balance?
We should not discount fear of crime. A recent survey by the Gazette in Teesside indicated that such fear is inhibiting over 50% of residents from visiting local town centres. Compound this with free, accessible surface level parking in ‘out of town’ retail and business parks is just too attractive for many consumers to resist.
We were recently looking at the emergence of ‘essential health facilities’ on out-of-town business parks; inaccessible to most residents who don’t have a car. It may be a cheaper property option but not in keeping with the desire to achieve net zero, nor in the interests of most patients / customers?
In the UK, cities like Oxford has divided the city into 6 neighbourhoods known as “smart districts” where it is planned that there will be no need for a car and all essentials will be available within 15 minutes either by walking or cycle.  City planners may not have acknowledged that train services in the city are restricted to the western periphery.
On the surface this seems pleasant and convenient however there is a coercive edge. As part of the council’s plans to cut congestion (and therefore emissions), under the new proposals if any of Oxford’s 150,000 residents drives outside their designated district more than 100 times a year, they will be fined £70. How do they implement that – is there to be an increase in camera surveillance to include facial recognition? Certain businesses, police, ambulance, fire, carers etc., will have immunity and if you are a carer you can apply for exemption. For those wanting to enjoy the joys and fresh air of Shotover Common on the edge of Oxford, to improve their health or walk the dog / whatever; becomes like taking a foreign holiday? Confining residents to a zone limits their horizons and opportunities. Its potentially is creating ghettos (a segregated area).
The thought of not having to drive anywhere and not having that expense is appealing but then, if you stop and think about where you live now, where your work-place is, where your children go to school, is it really that simple?
What about freedom of choice? Are you someone who travels the country with your job – is it convenient for you not to use your car? What happens if you choose to educate your children in another part of town? What if you live on the boundary? You are in one zone and the opposite side of the street is in another zone.  It is not an easy thing for you as a person once you consider all the facts. Does it mean your children have to move schools? If you take them by car because it is further away than 15 minute now, do you leave them to use public transport, are they old enough, is it safe enough?
Where are your family members based, especially if you have a caring role? Are they within your 15 minute district, do they help with child minding, are they elderly?   These are just some of the personal considerations you will have to make and once these restrictions are in place what will follow? What if you don’t want to comply? Where is the freedom of choice? Is the “stick“ best or should there be a “carrot” ?
It therefore begs the question of compulsion or voluntary action? Are citizens now being asked to pay the price of decades of poor town planning and ill-considered place making? Government has to take responsibility for policy decisions that have denuded our neighbourhoods of the basics of life.
The three principal kinds of “sheds” that we identify in the 15-minute city—the 5-minute walk, the 15-minute walk, and the 15-minute bicycle ride—are radically different in scale and each includes a hierarchy of uses. Each shed must have sufficient diversity—otherwise racial, class, and other kinds of segregation will likely result.
The 15-minute city is a slippery ideal depending on:
  • the list of needs and desires to be provided within the shed (e.g., ranging from an elementary school or a clinic to a university or a hospital).:
For some cities that want to reduce the need for cars e.g. old historical medieval towns cities like Canterbury as it causes so much congestion, the ideal of a 15 minute city could really help with that. Could the congestion not also have been eliminated with a simple park and ride implementation as seen in many towns like Chester.
Ben Harding Conservative leader of Canterbury City Council, also trialling the 15 minute city says “For residents within the five zones, they can access the facilities within their neighbourhood by car if they need to. But if you want to travel to a different neighbourhood, the most convenient way to do that will be by walking, cycling or using public transport.”
“It would likely be a frictionless system, so there would be cameras.” “We will fine people who decide ‘I’m planning to drive across the city, I don’t care’. If you drive between neighbourhoods, you will receive a fine.” He continued: “The amenities and services that you would need are all in your neighbourhood. You wouldn’t have all the rat running, so it’d be fantastic if we could achieve it. ”He also said: “In 20 years’ time, you’re likely going to have your groceries delivered or you’re planning to go to a different supermarket or a new local shop in your own neighbourhood.” This does promote a circular economy but it sounds draconian, rather than innovative.
Alternatively, However, Lib Dem councillor Nick Eden-Green says the scheme raises some “serious questions”. “When I visit friends, I don’t consider which zone they are living in. It’s “frankly ridiculous – you’re creating ghettos where people are locked in and can’t travel elsewhere.”
It gets even more difficult for outsiders too: Visitors from other Kent districts and boroughs, or tourists, can’t park within the city walls. As a result, most parking lots will be made redundant. Tourists and visitors can park in one of four zones around the city centre. From each zone, visitors will be able to ride?? to the park and ride into the city. (Source: https://expose-news.com/2022/12/13/climate-change-lockdowns-15-min-city/)
15 minute cities are on trial across the UK, however, it is unclear how the success of them will be captured. It is also unclear as to how much say, the individual person has in its implementation and their privacy being invaded by surveillance cameras. What may have started out as the best intentions to improve the lives of many, may well turn out to be the beginning of a controlled surveillance state. (Sources: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/this-new-approach-to-credit-scoring-is-accelerating-financial-inclusion/  and  https://nhglobalpartners.com/china-social-credit-system-explained/);
Overall the principles of the 15 minute neighbourhood is a sound approach but we fear that the genie is out of the bottle and retrofitting services and facilities is going to be challenging. We need to strive to create communities and help achieve the objective of reducing the need to travel.
However, how 15 minute neighbourhoods are delivered is the critical question. For many people, society is a complex mix of interactions across large geographies. Segregating people cannot be a healthy approach and if taken forward we suggest that the focus should be on providing the opportunities for citizens and allowing them the freedom of choice to use services locally.
We recommend:
  1. Better and stronger planning for both public and private community facilities in new developments and through the Development Plan process;
  2. A pro-active approach to estate management in the public sector with a priority on retaining existing community facilities, supported financially by central government;
  3. Consider the reintroduction to a ‘one public estate’ approach to the use of public sector estate in communities, where addressing gaps in community facilities is the priority for surplus publicly owned assets from all bodies. There should be a need for any public sector body to demonstrate that when making property disposals it will not adversely impact on the ability to provide community facilities in the short and long terms.
  4. A pro-active approach to integrated planning of public services.
  5. All local authorities to use the community infrastructure levy for the provision of new community facilities;
  6. Look to the community and voluntary sectors to be partners in place planning.
We welcome peoples’ thoughts on this?   Paul Wright   paulwright@reverent-kirch.91-238-163-161.plesk.page                                                                        Kevin Parkes kevinparkes@whatifgoup.io
Photo courtesy of https://newseu.cgtn.com/
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