Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is a 15-Minute City?

3 minute read

The buzzword recently popularized by urbanists describes an urban form that dominated cities prior to the rise of autocentric planning.

Street in Paris Latin Quarter with row of bicycles, cobblestone street, and pedestrians

The walkable, mixed-use Latin Quarter in Paris, France. | Marina Datsenko / Paris, France

The ‘15-minute city’ defines a vision of urban places in which residents can access their daily needs and essential services within a 15-minute trip by foot or bike. The term, coined in 2016 by Carlos Moreno and popularized by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, has become shorthand for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that provide easy access to transit and amenities. The concept relies on mixed-use development that puts commercial services, transportation, recreational facilities, and other urban amenities within a short trip that does not require using a personal vehicle.

The exact definition of a 15-minute city or neighborhood varies, depending on the transportation modes included, but is widely understood to refer to the walking and biking sheds around a location. Unlike using distance to measure walkability, time-based walk sheds more accurately account for differences in routes, infrastructure, and other factors that affect travel time. 

As defined by the Congress for New Urbanism, the 15-minute city conceptualizes ‘three levels of sheds:’ a five-minute walk shed, a 15-minute walk shed, and a 15-minute bike shed. A successful 15-minute city provides some level of access to businesses and amenities at each level, with major employers, major cultural and medical institutions, and intercity transit available within the 15-minute bike shed. The five-minute walk shed, by this definition, should provide access to “ordinary daily needs” as well as a variety of housing types, a central public space, and small businesses.

Including transit is more controversial, as transit wait and travel times make predicting the duration of a trip more difficult. The model definitively does not include automobiles as one of the modes determining the 15-minute radius. Additionally, the housing density of a neighborhood has a major impact on walk and bike sheds, and the safety and comfort of walking and biking facilities can affect perceived travel times and the willingness of residents to opt out of using a car.

Although the term was created recently, the concept draws from existing urbanist models as well as many traditional pre-car cities, which contributes to its popularity. Many older urban centers, particularly those built prior to the rise of the automobile, are structured as 15-minute cities, with mixed-use amenities and transit within easy reach of residents. Meanwhile, modern American suburbs are primarily built at low density with little or no commercial zoning. However, even in the oldest cities, urban renewal projects and highway construction have cleaved neighborhoods into pieces and disrupted traditional travel corridors in favor of fast-moving multilane roads with little or no pedestrian and bike access.

The 15-minute city model promotes sustainable and active transportation modes, and by its nature reduces the carbon footprint of residents by reducing the need for long trips. Walkable, accessible neighborhoods can also benefit older people who may lack the physical ability or income to make longer trips. 

With climate change and sustainability becoming more urgent issues, walkability is also taking center stage as a tool for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. During the pandemic, the benefits of a walkable neighborhood became blatantly obvious. With public health officials calling on people to avoid non-essential trips and crowded stores and public transportation, access to neighborhood markets and local businesses was suddenly a life-saving amenity.

Critics of the 15-minute city warn that the buzzword can obscure the complexities of the concept. What transit modes count? Does 15 minutes mean door to door trips, or does it refer more to access to transit within a short walk? What services and amenities are ‘essential?’ How do accessibility challenges affect the reality of a 15-minute ‘walk’ shed for people with disabilities or mobility issues? 

However, taken with a grain of salt, the 15-minute city can be a useful term for conceptualizing sustainable, neighborhood-oriented urban spaces that limit the need for long commutes and vehicle trips.

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