Long read: The cities going local

A doctor, a school, a local food shop… a post office. Julian Moss catches up on the latest moves to reclaim the streets of cities for people, and bring the convenience of city living back within our grasp.

Long read: The cities going local

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Paris in the spring: an age-old image of optimism; of new life and fresh air. Anne Hidalgos successful campaign for re-election as mayor of Paris this spring featured four optimistic central planks: ecology, solidarity, inclusivity, and making Paris a ’15-minute city’ – a place where residents can access their essential daily needs easily and quickly without having to drive. 

How… refreshing. A world city that also manages to be communal, accessible and personal. And it’s not only Paris that is looking at this framework for thinking about the future of cities – similar conversations are going on in around the world. The emphasis on reducing car travel in favour of more sustainable methods of transport fits our growing awareness of the climate emergency, as well as chronic problems of congestion, air quality and obesity.

Hidalgo is inspired by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno’s idea of ensuring residents can access their necessities within reasonable travelling time, summed up as ‘chrono-urbanism’ and ‘hyper-proximity’. This is a modern take on Jane Jacobs’s ‘neighbourhood proximity’ and ‘living city’ ideas, from her classic 1961 work The Life and Death of the American City.

Of course, the idea that people find it convenient to live close to where they work, shop and play is hardly new. Medieval cities tended to grow no larger than a couple of miles across, so a journey from the edge to the centre would take around 15 or 20 minutes on foot. In his 1516 satire Utopia, Thomas More includes 54 near-identical cities in his republic, each about two miles across, and home to around 6,000 households. As a satire, More wrote Utopia about what he saw around him and his 54 cities reflect medieval European cities. We see the same practical limit on city size around the world, which persisted until new technology meant people could travel further in the same amount of time. The horse-drawn omnibus, then tram, train – and eventually the car – allowed the city to expand into suburbs.

As cities grew the notion of deliberate zoning gained traction. There were clear advantages to keeping polluting factories away from residential areas. But the idea of keeping residents close to services persisted. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city concept, which dates back to 1898, envisaged 32,000 people living in a self-contained city, surrounded by market gardens, with industrial areas between adjacent settlements. Again, residents would be able to walk into the city centre in about 20 minutes and could cycle across the whole city more quickly. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, north of London, were built partially in that spirit, and there is an echo of them in London’s ‘Metroland’ suburbs of the 1920s and 30s – from Neasden, Wembley and Harrow out to leafy Chorleywood – each centred on a station with a parade of shops. These ideas returned in Britain’s post-war new towns, but also influenced thinkers elsewhere, including in the 1920s Urbanist town planning movement in the USSR. Arguing in a different direction for the ideal Soviet town plan, the Disurbanist school proposed long ribbon developments along highways to replace towns and cities, where many of the residents’ daily needs could only be met by road transport. That same model of ribbon development, enabled by widespread car ownership, led to the suburban sprawl we see today, especially in North America and Australia, where accessing daily needs is sometimes impossible on foot.

Now, with a growing reaction against car domination, we are looking again at neighbourhoods where residents can meet their daily needs easily without driving. And while the basic principle is clear, the details vary from place to place.

Hidalgo’s manifesto for Paris wants access for residents to education, work, groceries, urban and longer-distance travel, and facilities for recreation, culture and health within 15 minutes on foot or by bike. Portland promotes 20-minute neighbourhoods for basic needs, but counting the time for pedestrian travel only and excluding access to work. Melbourne’s pilot of 20-minute neighbourhoods seeks to provide access to daily needs within a 20-minute round-trip on foot, by bike or by local transport options (bus), while Boulder includes public transport and aims for a 15-minute maximum one-way trip. The common theme is reducing dependence on car travel. 

There is consensus around some of the facilities and opportunities that should be available within the prescribed time: food store, pharmacy, doctor, primary school, services (hairdresser, post office and so on). Beyond that there is less agreement: employment, cultural facilities (cinema), community spaces, secondary school, green space, fitness and recreation and places of worship are important in some cities, but not others.

There are many advantages to this approach. Assuming that people who live in these areas do more shopping locally, register with their neighbourhood doctor, send their children to the local school and so on, then we are likely to see improved health and happiness (fresh air is good for mental and physical health), reduced car use, which makes for cleaner air and lower carbon emissions, and heightened levels of social cohesion. Civic society (organisations, clubs and societies) thrives more easily when residents’ lives are more locally focused. More people walking and cycling can make for safer neighbourhoods because of passive surveillance – ‘eyes on the street’.

And, in areas where people walk and cycle more and drive less, and where they spend less on owning, maintaining and fuelling cars, they have more disposable income available for other things – and they tend to spend some of that cash in their local areas. Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has conducted research for the Federation of Small Businesses, which shows that for every pound spent by an SME, 63p is spent locally. This drops to 40p in every pound for larger firms. The economy becomes more local and more circular: bad news for petrochemical companies, good news for neighbourhood delis. And places with street life are often fun: spontaneous, unexpected, enlightening things happen more often when there are more people out and about in a neighbourhood they feel is theirs.

This isn’t an unrealistic, utopian vision. Clearly there are some types of organisation that won’t be found in every neighbourhood: the general hospital, university, professional sports team, niche hobby association – how many philatelic societies or astronomy clubs can one city support? And specialised employment has clustered for centuries: Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, shipbuilders in Birkenhead, financiers in the City of London. But historically, even these districts tended to be walkable, with people living above the shop or close to their employers. One of humanity’s characteristics is mobility, and people with particular skills or interests tend to gravitate towards places where they can practice that profession. Specialised areas offer general jobs in food stores and cafés, and as administrators, bookkeepers, cleaners, caterers and project managers. When these districts retain a mix of living accommodation, employment and services – well maintained, affordable – the thriving 15-minute neighbourhood can arise and persist spontaneously.

 And it can be designed. Vauban, a neighbourhood in Freiburg, Germany, where 70% of the 6,000 residents live without a car in sustainable apartments, is a great example. The planned new Merwede district of Utrecht is larger with 6,000 homes (as in Utopia), also designed around walking and cycling pathways. Crucially, two new schools and health centres, a high school, a sports centre and shops and businesses are included in the plan and will be ready as the first residents arrive. 

This point needs to be stressed: facilities must be provided and maintained. Vancouver is a poster child for urban living with its gleaming glass-clad high-rise apartments, driverless Skytrain light rail and enviable access to forests, mountains and the sea. But the construction of new facilities has not kept pace with the rising downtown population. Just one example will suffice: there are insufficient school places downtown. Even former Vancouver chief planner, Brent Toderian – a leading thinker and advocate for walkable, people-focused towns and cities, who pushed the local school board to act many years ago – has found his child doesn’t have a place in his local downtown school because demand outstrips supply. Joined up planning and a city-wide commitment is essential for the big idea to work in practice.

There are downsides. Urban living is not attractive for everyone. It can be claustrophobic, isolating and alienating; cities generally have higher air and noise pollution. Some urban areas suffer from high crime rates. Walkable neighbourhoods, where residents bump into each other more often, can mix the supportiveness of a close community with the intrusiveness of people knowing each other’s business too well. And the 15-minute neighbourhood may appear out of reach for some cities, especially in areas with many residents but few services.

 Some cities have other, more urgent problems to address. There is also a particular challenge for cities with high levels of tourism, wrestling with how best to balance large volumes of visitors and their accommodation demands (especially short-term rentals, and especially in the city centre) with permanent residents’ needs.

 The fundamental challenge for many cities is breaking down barriers and silos. The 15-minute city must bring together land use and transport planning. It’s about big policy and local decisions. Crucially, it’s about investment, and it needs agreement and coordinated, determined action by national and local government, employers, town and transport planners, community groups and individual residents and citizens.

 It has to be local. Even in the idealised, invented Utopia the 54 cities were only as near-identical as allowed by the local topology. Geography matters. Hills, rivers, railway lines, climate and weather are impossible or difficult and expensive to change, and in many countries street patterns and block sizes persist over decades and centuries. History matters in other ways. The economic, demographic, social and political evolution of a city or a country leaves the legacy which now forms the starting point for any change. One example: a map of cinemas in Paris shows a spread of screens across arrondissements, many with just one or two screens. The same map for a large British city would typically show a few multiplexes, split between the city centre and edge-of-town retail parks, and therefore outside the 15-minute radius for many residents. This is the result of complex economic forces acting over decades.

 The planning and transport policies and investments of cities that retain walkable neighbourhoods generally favour mixed use developments, rather than single-use zones. They favour cycle lanes and less space for cars and parking. Oslo is aiming to eliminate cars from the city centre completely, and Paris under Mayor Hidalgo has been reallocating road space to cycle lanes and pedestrian walkways. Where earlier decisions have blighted communities, by driving freeways through them, for example, remedial actions are possible: Boston has buried its city centre freeway, while Birmingham has tamed its ring road, breaking the concrete collar.

 One important characteristic to maintain is flexibility. Buildings can be re-purposed, so old warehouses become loft apartments and co-work spaces. Breathless predictions of the rapid, widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles are, I suspect, over-optimistic. But battery powered micro-mobility is growing rapidly: e-bikes and e-scooters extend the distance people can travel in a given time. E-bikes in particular can make hilly towns and cities easier to travel around, and extend residents’ range, as long as they have somewhere secure to park and charge them. Wider demographic and social changes will also affect the shape of our cities.

The growth of internet shopping and the accompanying challenges for bricks and mortar retailers and high streets are familiar news. As Covid-19 has emphasised so dramatically, many jobs can now be done remotely, at least in part. Some medical consultations can take place effectively over Skype. For these interactions the service provider may be far away, but the service is delivered in the client’s living room. It’s also shown us the very real downsides: isolation, lack of human contact, reduced physical exercise are real problems. Virtual contact should not eliminate human contact.

Essentially, it doesn’t matter that there isn’t a single agreed definition of these locally focused neighbourhoods. The choice between a notional 15 or 20 minutes neither here nor there; whether cycling and public transport count or not, or only walking, depends on specific, local decisions. Do you include a cinema in the list of neighbourhood essentials? Somewhere to take evening classes? We don’t all need to agree.

What does matter is that this conversation is happening. There are real advantages – social, economic, health, air quality, carbon emissions – to living in and encouraging neighbourhoods where people can easily access the things they need quickly and without driving. The idea of the ’15-minute neighbourhood’ or ’20-minute city’ can capture the imagination, create a vision and set the context for the strategic, policy and implementation decisions that need to follow. In the same way that the climate emergency is becoming an essential context for all decisions, the 15-minute neighbourhood informs conversations and decisions about land use, town planning, transport, the provision of schools and healthcare, retail and leisure facilities. 

It can take decades to reshape cities and neighbourhoods. Cities who want to make this a reality need to start now and remember Toderian’s most quoted aphorism: “The truth about a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision. It’s found in its budget.”

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