What are 15-minute cities and why are they controversial?

February 27, 2023 by

The idea behind 15-minute cities is simple; their application is anything but

There was once a time, before the advent of cars, buses and trains, when all cities were arguably 15-minute ones, because the idea is very straightforward: everyone in a city lives within a quarter of an hour’s walk or cycle-ride of the amenities they need.

Need to pop to the shops for some food or other supplies: local retailers will be within that 15-minute catchment. Dropping your kids off at school? Heading to a doctor’s appointment? Popping to the gym, cinema or a local restaurant? Just a quarter of an hour on foot or by bike will take you there.

It sounds rather idyllic but, as cars have become increasingly unwelcome in many urban conurbations across the UK and beyond, the idea of 15-minute cities has become a hot-topic among town planners, while generating equal amounts of resistance and celebration.

The historical basis of 15-minute cities

A French-Columbian academic named Carlos Moreno coined the term ‘15-minute city’ in 2016, but the idea behind the concept stems from the turn of the last century, and an idea known as the ‘neighbourhood unit’.

These would be, if town planners got them right, self-contained residential areas within larger cities where main, arterial roads circled neighbourhoods rather than running through them. Inner, residential roads would be curved and circuitous, discouraging through-traffic (sometimes known as ‘rat-running’) by offering a slower way across a neighbourhood than heading out to the arterial boundary route.

Most of the shops and facilities required by residents in each neighbourhood unit would be within walking or cycling distance , cutting traffic levels significantly, while also reducing the need for public transport.

These self-sufficient communities would, in essence, create a series of smaller urban villages within a city’s limits.

Current plans for 15-minute cities

In the next 17 years under its ‘Local Plan 2040’ Oxford City Council wants to ensure “that local residents have access to all their daily needs within a 15 minute walk of their home”.

While details of how this will be achieved have yet to be determined, the 15-minute city is an “overarching thread which runs throughout” the City Council’s “policy options” for 2040.

Planning approval policies, access to local green spaces, and a “spatial strategy which sets
out where types of development ought to be focused in the city” are among the things being considered by the council, which also says that “strong local communities with facilities, services and green spaces in proximity will continue to be something people value highly. The idea of the 15-minute city is a good template for making strong local communities.”

A number of other cities have their eye on 15-minute cities: Birmingham is considering “a network of 15-minute neighbourhood areas” as part of its plans for 2040, while the mayor of Paris included plans to implement the 15-minute city concept as a key pillar in her 2020 election campaign.

Minutes from a meeting of Sheffield City Council, meanwhile, detail that “as a Council we should work towards the concept of ‘15 minute neighbourhoods…meaning residents should have within a 15-minute journey via foot, cycle or other mobility aid from their home: living, working, commerce, healthcare, education, entertainment, parks and green space”.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 15-minute cities

The Covid-19 pandemic saw huge amounts of change, and urban planning was no exception to this.

In 2020, the Government announced a £250 million ‘Emergency Active Travel Fund’ aimed at encouraging town planners and transport bosses to devise initiatives that would encourage people away from crowded public transport and onto their feet or bikes, while also discouraging car use.

This would, the idea went, reduce both urban pollution and transmission of coronavirus, while simultaneously improving levels of fitness and wellbeing among the population.

Many projects were implemented as a result of the cash that was made available to local councils, with widened pavements (often by narrowing roads) and additional or enlarged cycle lanes being two examples.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) were perhaps the most widely adopted and contentious projects initiated as a result of the Emergency Active Travel Fund. These see residential roads closed completely or partially to all or some traffic, either permanently or at certain times of day. Whichever precise method is used, most LTNs restrict private car use in one way or another, with either physical barriers or camera-issued penalties enforcing the rules.

The idea behind LTNs is closely related to 15-minute cities: instead of cars ‘rat-running’ through residential streets, drivers would be directed to larger boundary roads, leaving smaller, more local routes for people travelling into the areas in which they live.

What do the proponents of 15-minute cities say?

Advocates of 15-minute cities highlight the potential improvements to residents’ health of walking and cycling being the default means of transport, while reduced levels of urban pollution is another key benefit, as are lower levels of carbon dioxide emissions from traffic

The idea of being able to walk or cycle to most of, if not all, the shops and services people need on a daily basis also holds significant appeal to many, as do the ideas of reduced traffic noise and improved safety for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.

Why are 15-minute cities contentious?

While none exists at present, 15-minute cities, by their nature, discourage driving, and are likely to prevent or restrict it in some areas; this is seldom free from objection. Taking Oxford as an example, the City Council talks of “the objective of reducing car use” in its 2040 plans, for example.

The idea of the15-minute city also needs to be put into wider context: Oxford City Council is planning a 15-minute city, but Oxford County Council is trialling a separate scheme that sees the city split into six zones, with residents issued 100 passes each year to drive between the zones, and £70 penalties issued to those who exceed this limit – although no physical barriers will exist, free movement by other modes of transport remains unrestricted, as would driving out to the ring road before heading back into a different area.

A number of new low-emission zones, which penalise or preclude older cars entering specific areas, are also either in place, or due to be implemented up and down the country, while plans to expand London’s ULEZ to take in almost all of greater London in August 2023 have been met with significant resistance.

Factor in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which bear many similarities with 15-minute cities and have been, in some instances, hugely controversial (some have been withdrawn), and it’s clear that 15-minute cities sit in an urban landscape that is far from car friendly.

But people like their cars: cars are, in many instances, more practical, comfortable and faster than walking, cycling or public transport. They are also weather-proof, often offer preferable mobility options for people with disabilities than alternative means of transport, while the vast majority (78%) of UK households have at least one car or van (though this figure drops to 54% in London), and numerous businesses are dependent on free access to urban households.

Few would argue, though, that cleaner urban air, healthier people and safer streets and pavements are a good thing, while given the significant protests and backlash poorly designed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods prompted, it is likely any 15-minute cities that do spring up will be carefully scrutinised by planners and residents alike.

It is also worth highlighting that however much council bosses may wish to implement 15-minute cities, the concept behind them has been around for a century or so without ever becoming commonplace. For now at least, they are typically something that is campaigned for or suggested, rather than actually being a reality.