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Transformation or Gentrification? The Hazy Politics of the 15-Minute City

By: Joe Herbert

26.08.2021

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Mohit Kumar on Unsplash

The idea of the ‘15-minute city’ has recently gained traction amongst policy-makers as an urban innovation with the potential to address intersecting social and ecological challenges of the post-COVID world. But its lack of an embedded politics presents a danger as much as it does an opportunity.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, municipal governments around the world have sought to reconfigure urban environments in order to enable residents to move safely around the city and conduct their daily activities whilst maintaining physical distance from others. One idea which has attracted increasing interest amongst policy-makers in this context is the ‘15-minute city’. The concept forms a pillar of the C40 Cities group’s Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, and variants of it already in action in places such as Paris, Milan, Portland and Melbourne.

Originating from the French-Colombian academic Carlos Moreno, the core proposal of the 15-minute city is that urban space should be designed so that residents are able to meet all their daily needs within 15 minutes’ walk or cycle from their home. ‘Needs’ are understood here in a comprehensive sense, including food, education, employment opportunities, healthcare and green spaces in which to relax and exercise, as well access to cultural institutions and opportunities to engage in the community. The 15-minute city can therefore be thought of as a form of intra-urban localisation, in response to decades of urban planning which has segregated cities according to different functions: you live in one part of the city, work in another, socialise in another, exercise somewhere else, and so on. This makes it of interest to degrowthers, who have long called for ‘open localisation’ of economic and political functions in order to address ecological and social crises.

The 15-minute city has an intuitive appeal. Who wouldn’t want to avoid spending hours travelling across sprawling urban environments, stuck in traffic jams or cramped into underfunded public transport, when you could have access to a wealth of amenities and cultural activities within a short walk from your home. However, the simplicity which contributes to the 15-minute city’s allure also raises tensions. Namely, how to enact 15-minute cities in practice remains very much open to interpretation.

Firstly, the wide variation in the existing infrastructures of different urban environments shapes fundamentally their predisposition to 15-minute city transitions. For example, cities such as Melbourne and Portland have opted to develop 20-minute city plans in order to account for the sprawling, car-dominated character of Australian and North American cities, which immediately creates barriers to a quest for proximity. By contrast, generally more dense, older European cities – like Paris and Milan – have stuck to the 15-minute blueprint.

In addition to this variance in pre-existing urban infrastructures, there is the crucial matter of politics. It is important to question: whom is the 15-minute city for, and what are its aims as an urban planning innovation? In this regard, the 15-minute city is somewhat of an empty container. On the one hand, it holds the potential to deliver a transformative restructuring of cities around relocalised neighbourhood economies and communities, which can contribute to addressing social and ecological crises of the (post-COVID) twenty-first century. Alternatively, it is possible that the 15-minute city ends up amounting to no more than the latest buzzword amongst urban policy-makers, and generates little substantive material change to urban environments or social wellbeing. In the worst-case scenario, there is a very real possibility that the 15-minute city – if captured by the interests of capital – becomes a bastion for new waves of gentrification and consumerism, thus re-entrenching and exacerbating urban inequalities.

In what follows, I first explore further the proposed benefits of the 15-minute city as an urban planning innovation, before then turning to consider the political battle over its future direction.

The 15-minute city as urban socio-ecological transformation?

Whilst the 15-minute city concept significantly pre-dates COVID-19, the trajectory of interest in the idea has been accelerated by the pandemic. As lockdown measures around the world have generated a shift towards home-working, the local neighbourhood scale has taken on heightened importance as a space in which people are spending more of their time and seeking to meet their daily needs. In many places, this has exposed the insufficiency of basic local amenities, due to decades of urban planning models which have generated centralised cores of business and retail, surrounded by primarily residential suburbs. The relocalised and decentralised urban model of the 15-minute city is, by contrast, well attuned to contexts of constrained mobilities such as that engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On top of this, proponents have argued that the 15-minute city model can help to limit opportunities for the spread of airborne viruses such as COVID-19. Firstly, the 15-minute city reduces the need for vast numbers of people to travel into and mix in city centres. Additionally, through enhancing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, 15-minute city approaches can diminish the number of people coming into close contact on public transport or in private vehicles (yet it must be remembered that walking and cycling isn’t a viable option for everyone). This tactic has been deployed in Paris, which is home to perhaps the most high-profile 15-minute city initiative so far. Its success has been indicated by the substantial surge of cycling in the city throughout the COVID pandemic.

Furthermore, 15-minute cities can benefit public health more broadly by establishing and expanding access to green space for all urban residents. This provides dedicated areas in which to exercise (without coming into close contact with others), which has in many cases been one of the only permitted reasons for leaving one’s home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The immense benefits to mental health associated with access to green space and exercise are now well-established, in addition to the obvious physical health benefits.

Beyond public health, 15-minute city proposals generally incorporate ambitions to enhance social justice more broadly and tackle urban inequalities. Means of achieving this include expanding localised access to high-quality affordable housing, transportation and food, as well as developing accessible mobility infrastructures and employment opportunities. Access to such services and opportunities generally correlates strongly with class and racial inequalities across urban space, as epitomised by the common problem of ‘food deserts’ in low-income neighbourhoods. Tackling this problem is one of the key aims of the ‘Complete Neighborhoods’ initiative of Portland, Oregon; a variation on the 15-minute city.

Advocates of the 15-minute city also stress that participatory planning processes should be central to any projects, incorporating citizen voices (particularly those of marginalised communities) at all stages from design to delivery. Examples of such participatory citizen involvement can be found in Paris’ 15-minute city programme and hyper-localised ‘one-minute city’ projects in Sweden, in which citizens are being invited to help redesign the layouts of their own streets.

Altogether, the 15-minute city’s development of universal access to affordable high-quality basic services and amenities at a decentralised neighbourhood scale – and the meaningful inclusion of citizen voices in the planning process – has the potential to enhance social interaction, cohesion and trust, as well as senses of belonging and security in one’s local community. Degrowthers have long made similar arguments for localised and democratic community economies centred around the provision of goods and services that are essential to social and ecological wellbeing, which have been re-emphasised in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, the 15-minute city could constitute a valuable dimension of urban responses to ecological crisis. One of its key aims is decreasing the use of motor vehicles, and accordingly, the emission of greenhouse gases which drive global warming. Firstly, by proliferating decentralised employment opportunities and basic services, the need for longer journeys from residential areas into centralised commercial districts - often by private vehicle - is reduced. Secondly, by expanding and improving the portion of public space dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists, these means of getting around become more attractive in comparison to motor vehicles. In addition, boosting the quantity and quality of green spaces in cities can also increase the absorption of carbon emissions and help biodiversity to flourish, as the Paris 15-minute city initiative has aimed for.

The 15-minute city of capital

The social and ecological objectives detailed above – or at least some of them – tie together variants of the 15-minute city advocated by geographically dispersed academics and policy-makers. Yet, given that it is defined by the ‘15 minutes’ framing, the wider political ambitions of the concept remain hazy at best, and open to the interpretation of those who enact it on the ground. Even supporters of the 15-minute city have stated clearly that it is not an inherently “radical” idea. This largely empty political container of the 15-minute city presents a danger as much as it does an opportunity.

One can envisage the 15-minute city discourse being drawn upon by policy-makers over the coming years to embellish local government initiatives which in practice constitute a negligible divergence from existing modes of urban organisation and a neoliberal political-economy. Whilst health and ecological benefits are often promoted as headline objectives, the 15-minute city is also increasingly being identified by policy-makers as an innovation which can help to reboot economic growth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, in spite of the pandemic, cities are still home to a tremendous proportion of the total wealth in the world, and that within individual countries. It is just that this wealth – and crucially, access to high-quality amenities and services – is incredibly unevenly distributed within cities, where extreme inequality manifests starkly in spatial terms.

Depending on the political and economic forces that claim ownership over the 15-minute city paradigm, then, it is possible that it simply becomes a mechanism through which governments and corporations seek to legitimise more decentralised variants of urban consumerism, and spur new waves of economic growth. The international degrowth community has been a source of pioneering research over recent years indicating the ecological destructiveness of pursuing infinite economic growth, as well as how the vast majority of growth simply builds the wealth of the world’s very richest.

A capitalist, growth-driven model of the 15-minute city would therefore exacerbate rather than reduce urban inequalities and ecological impacts. There is a real risk that the 15-minute city discourse spearheads further gentrification, if investment in localised neighbourhood economies is allowed to drive up rents, forcing out poorer residents. Equally, initiatives focused in wealthier neighbourhoods would likely serve to re-embed inequalities. To avoid such scenarios, the 15-minute city concept must be alert to the legacies of “technocratic and colonial planning processes” which have for centuries embedded spatial divisions in urban environments along lines of class and race, and cannot be naïve as to the deep restructuring needed to turn this scenario around.

Towards a people’s 15-minute city

If the 15-minute city is to play a meaningful role in addressing contemporary ecological and social crises, it must be conceived in more transformative terms. This means acknowledging the deeply entrenched inequalities within cities and focusing energies on the neighbourhoods most marginalised and lacking in affordable, high-quality basic services and amenities. Local residents must hold substantive powers in terms of shaping the changes in their neighbourhoods from the very outset of any 15-minute city initiatives. The revitalisation of neighbourhood economies should also prioritise models of localised common ownership, which give residents a material stake in – and democratic oversight of – the new services and amenities in their communities, rather than leaving these at the whim of the corporate profit motive and rentier capitalism.

In response to ecological crisis, the 15-minute city must be wary of simply decentralising the existing material and energy use of urban environments, and instead seek to reduce this in absolute terms. This means foregrounding objectives of social justice and ecological sustainability rather than that of economic growth. The 15-minute city initiative of Paris has moved in specific and limited ways towards these alternative priorities, which has proved popular amongst citizens. If the 15-minute city merely gives rise to more decentralised patterns of urban consumerism, it will not meaningfully reduce the ecological footprint of cities.

In this regard, more transformative interpretations of the 15-minute city are obstructed by the power of corporations and capitalism’s global hegemony. If municipal governments and citizens pursue 15-minute cities oriented around objectives of social justice and ecological sustainability, they will undoubtedly face strident opposition from (trans)national corporations and investors whose accumulation of profits and rents are reliant upon privileged access to urban environments, and exploitation of people and planet. Whether a global network of radical municipal movements could withstand such tremendous pressures, provoked by the disruption of capitalist political-economic hegemony, is very much uncertain.

There are accordingly wildly divergent future pathways awaiting the 15-minute city. With increasing interest in the concept likely to persist, the most optimistic reading of the 15-minute city is to view it as a hook on which there is potential to attach a transformative urban socio-ecological agenda, but only if competing capitalist interests can be successfully fended off.

About the author

Joe Herbert

Joe is a member of the degrowth.info editorial collective, working on the blog and communications. He recently completed a PhD in Human Geography at Newcastle University (UK), studying young environmental activists' imaginaries of socio-ecological crisis and transformation. He tweets at @joefherb.

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