Social media and traditional media are aflame with a debate about a living concept that’s either relatively new or as old as civilization itself, depending on which way you look at it. This way of life has its fans delighted, and its critics enraged. It is, of course, the 15-minute city.
In a 15-minute city, everything residents need will be available to them within 15 minutes’ walk of their home. The result is that they will have relatively little or even no need at all for a car, in part thanks to public transport provision to take people between these neighbourhoods.
It is one of the key ideas behind the huge forthcoming Saudi city The Line, where millions of residents will live together in a 170km long development segmented into such liveable chunks with public transport running between.
Oxford in the UK has made a start on implementing a 15-minute neighborhoods scheme in which residents can purchase a permit to drive their cars between neighborhoods for up to 100 days per year, with fines issued for those who go above this quota. Generally accepted mainstream media commentary on the 15-minute city is that most criticism of this concept is irrationally fearful, and that those who are fearful of the idea are misinformed and can be readily mocked for their concerns.
But is this summary fair? Let’s look at the pros and the cons of the 15-minute city to make up our own minds…
Discouraging people from using their cars will of course lead to a reduction in cars on the road. This has the immediate and pleasant effects of less pollution and traffic congestion in an area, making it a much healthier place to live and much quicker to navigate for those vehicles that are on the road. More small businesses, too, can only be a good thing.
This gives people local goods and services options they can reach quickly and conveniently. It’s a bonus, too, if those businesses are independent and in keeping with the character of the area, making each neighborhood distinctive and adding some local character to prevent cities from becoming to homogenous.
This is, in many ways, a vision of what the earliest communities looked like. What most citiies looked like until private vehicles became the norm, in fact. It was expected that the goods and services one needed would be in walking distance because they would generally have to be, with so many people moving around on foot. And then there are the physical and mental health benefits of walking.
Not only is walking good for us in so many ways, but walking through a less polluted neighborhood is infinitely nicer than taking a stroll through a congested one.
Overall, though, the promise is that such a way of life will – if widely rolled out around the world – positively impact climate change through the daily actions of ordinary members of the public acting together.
All of the above sounds absolutely idyllic, and that – in part – is the problem. While it may theoretically be possible for an individual to live happily within the parameters of the 15-minute city and reap the benefits of all of the above, the theoretical is not always the practical.
Life can be messy and unpredictable, everyone’s situation is different, and there are many reasons why an individual may not be able or willing to stick within their 15-minute zone much of the time.
Yes, there may be a grocery store within 15 minutes of her home, but if the working mother with two small children wants to access the free childcare provided by her parents – who live further than 15 minutes away – enough times per week so she can work to make enough money to survive, she may need to drive outside her zone more than 100 days per year. Under threat of picking up a fine for doing so, what should she do?
This is a single example, but you can no doubt imagine people in your own life who would struggle to maintain a daily routine if they were unable to drive further than 15 minutes most days of the year. And then there is the assumption that we do not value choice, that we should be happy with the nearest tore or service and have no right to preference.
Unless these businesses are all homogenous chains (which would be a negative) then one business half an hour away may be more suited to your tastes or needs than the one ten minutes away. That choice may be removed or penalized at the most extreme ends of this plan.
Perhaps the area in which you can afford to live is not the place you wish to live, for any number of reasons, and getting away from your neighborhood often is something you feel the need to do. The ever-present specter of gentrification hovers over the 15-minute city plans, and threatens to turn some neighborhoods into costly and desirable ones, pushing lower income residents into less desirable ones, something that could widen already present inequality gaps which often run along class, race, education and gender lines.
Then there is the exteme heat which makes walking around in summer in Kuwait a non- option, for example, as well as the extreme cold of the Canadian winter.
And finally, as anyone who has ever had to rely on public transport will know, it isn’t always the most reliable or practical option. From strikes to breakdowns to changes in timetable or inconvenient routes for one’s own individual needs, public transport cannot be all things to all people at all times.
The carrot of the 15-minute city is very appealing and highly desirable goal. To provide residents with everything they might need within walking distance is a wonderful aspiration and one which should indeed come to fruition.
Encouraging people to use their cars less, or not at all, is a worthy goal for cleaner air, calmer traffic and a healthier population across the board. We should, ideally, have everything we need within walking distance, giving us the ease and convenience of choosing local options without the obstacle of a lack of provision. It is the stick that is the problem.
If, despite all these provisions, citizens still prefer to take their own transport and travel outside their immediate neighborhood, that should be their choice and their right to do so without penalty.
After all, if everything is provided on their doorstep and individuals choose to travel elsewhere, we can only assume they have a reason for doing so and that reason may be deeply personal, or a combination of unique and practical complicating factors which differ from person to person.
One size fits all is not a reasonable solution for living environments and lifestyles and we should not insult our populations by imagining that it is.
But most of all, there is something deeply problematic about attempting to address the issue of pollution – something overwhelmingly perpetrated by the private sector, with a handful of companies doing more damage each day than any one of us could do in our entire lifetime – by telling every member of the public they must drastically restrict their daily life and freedom to travel.
There may in the future be a time for the stick of the 15-minute cities, but it must be after the freedoms of the most offending companies have first been effectively restricted.