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The 15-Minute City: What are the wins and the potential pitfalls?

Nick Fairham explores the hotly debated topic of the 15‑minute city, offering the urbanist’s view on its benefits and the challenges in making it a success.

The concept of the 15-minute city has been making waves in the urban planning world, with some hailing it as the solution to a range of urban issues, from environmental sustainability to social inequality. So what exactly is a 15-minute city, and what are its potential benefits and pitfalls?

Put simply, a 15-minute city is a neighbourhood where most of one’s daily needs and services – from work to shopping, education, health, and leisure – are located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The idea is to create smaller, interconnected neighbourhood hubs that can function alongside a traditional city centre, allowing residents to access the amenities they need without having to travel long distances.

However the move towards a 15-minute city can’t happen through a top-down approach; instead, it must be driven by community dialogue to determine the specific needs of each neighbourhood. This will require significant investment in infrastructure, including public transport, pedestrian and cycle paths, and “mobility hubs” that bring together traditional and new forms of transport, such as e-scooters and electric cars.

One of the greatest benefits of a 15-minute city would be an improvement in people’s wellbeing. With everything they need on their doorstep, residents will spend less time travelling and have more time for work, leisure, and family life. This will in turn encourage social and community cohesion, potentially reducing demands on health and social care services. Another likely benefit would be a boost to local businesses. By creating smaller neighbourhood hubs, the 15-minute city could create new opportunities for co-working spaces, shops, pharmacies, and other local amenities, providing a more diverse range of options for residents.

However, there are also potential pitfalls to the concept. It could lead to gentrification and social inequality if driven solely by a top-down approach. To avoid this, it is essential that the needs and voices of local communities are heard throughout the planning process. Another concern is that the 15-minute city could limit people’s freedom of choice, compelling them to spend their time in a particular way. However, proponents of the concept argue that by promoting accessibility and free time, the 15-minute city actually offers more choice and flexibility.

Ultimately, the 15-minute city is not a solution for the challenges facing urban areas. It does, however, offer the opportunity to transform the way we think about urban planning, to create more sustainable, connected, and liveable communities. As we continue to adapt to a post-pandemic world, the 15-minute city may offer a way forward that benefits us all.