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October 2023 - Episode 4
15 Critiques of the 15-Minute City
The 15-minute city, or neighborhood, was conceived by Carlos Moreno, a professor and influencer in Paris. It’s an area where residents can access everything they need in their life – food, work, school, community gathering places – within 15 minutes of their home. The 15-minute city reduces reliance on cars, improves the quality of life for residents, and makes cities more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
In a recent lecture with urban planning students at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Charles spoke to students about the delicate balance required of 15-minute cities, if they are to be adopted in the United States. 15-minute cities might work in Europe, but urban planners face unique challenges when designing American cities and neighborhoods.
Charles T. Brown:
Imagine a city where residents can access everything they need in their life, food, work, school, community gathering places within 15 minutes of their home. The 15 minutes city or neighborhood was conceived by Carlos Moreno, a professor and influencer in Paris, who pays respect to Jane Jacobs, the great urban thinker and mother of the movement to make cities livable for all. The 15-minute city reduces reliance on cars, improves the quality of life for residents, and make cities more sustainable and environmentally friendly. All benefits I completely support. But in a recent lecture with urban planning students at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, I spoke to students about the delicate balance required of 15 minute cities if they are to be adopted in the United States.
15 minute cities may work in Europe, but urban planners face unique challenges when designing American cities and neighborhoods. My name is Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility.
15 minute cities require careful planning and design of urban spaces to ensure that essential services and amenities are distributed evenly throughout the city and easily accessible to all residents. This is where my words of caution come in. To be clear, I have no desire to oppose or diminish the 15-minute city concept. I fall among those who believe it is a concept that promotes sustainable and healthy living. I love the idea of a neighborhood where people of all incomes, cultural backgrounds, religions, abilities, and disabilities, can access all the essential services within a 15-minute walk, roll, or bike ride from their home. But because I love it, I must point out some of the potential shortcomings with the concept. Here are 15 critiques of 15 minute cities through an equity lens. These are concerns that American engineers and planners should strongly consider before adopting this model.
Number one, early adopters are not as representative. Cities that embody or have adopted the 15-minute neighborhood concepts so far include Paris, Melbourne, Barcelona, and even Portland, Oregon. All of these cities lack in racial and ethnic diversity. That makes it difficult to predict how the concept will work in more diverse cities throughout the United States.
Number two, gentrification and displacement. The 15-minute neighborhood is enriched with walkable infrastructure, public transportation, green space, and a host of other services and amenities that make it highly desirable. The concern is that the cost of living in these neighborhoods may be too high for some residents, leading to gentrification and displacement.
Number three, the rich may get richer. Alternatively, there’s a concern that the benefits of 15 minute neighborhoods may not be distributed equitably. Wealthy neighborhoods may be more likely to receive the investment and attention needed to create a 15-minute neighborhood, while lower income neighborhoods may be left out.
Number four, policing. We must consider the consequences of how public safety will be maintained in neighborhoods where this development occurs. Decentralizing police stations, using police to make streets and parks safe, enforcing bicycle laws when new bike paths are created, these are new opportunities for law enforcement to profile and harass people of color.
Number five, urban sprawl. The concept may encourage urban sprawl by promoting the idea that residents can find everything they need within their neighborhood. This could lead to speculators gobbling up cheap land and developing on the outskirts of cities, which could in turn exacerbate transportation problems and limit access to resources for those living further from the city center.
Number six, political popularity of social investment. In the United States government mistrust and conspiracy theories have moved from outlier to mainstream. Land use, transit and policy changes linked to the 15-minute city concept will likely be viewed as infringing on liberty and property by a significant number of Americans.
Number seven, fear of crowded cities. In a recent survey from Gallup, nearly half of all US adults said they would prefer to live in a small town or rural area in 2020. That’s a nine percentage point increase from 2018 when just 39% of respondents said the same. Here’s an example. Urban Miami is in a large county that includes rural areas, small towns, even a chunk of the Everglades. It may be difficult to muster the political will to pass bonds, to fund billions in urban facilities and amenities in Miami. This is in part because a significant number of county residents never go to the big city within it and have little interest in funding major projects in the urban core.
Number eight, sustainability. American governors and senators in some of the state’s most vulnerable to climate change, deny it exists or downplay its impact. Their efforts may impede or compromise sustainable development of 15 minute cities. Additionally, even well-executed 15 minute neighborhoods may fail to promote sustainable living if residents continue to rely on personal vehicles for transportation.
Number nine, physical access. 15 minute city development must involve strategies that guarantee that all residents, not just the upper class, have availability and proximity of services and resources within a defined geographic area.
Number 10, financial access. All people in the neighborhood must be able to afford the services and amenities. If people are priced out, then the 15-minute city becomes exclusive rather than inclusive.
Number 11, cultural access. The 15-minute city only functions well if resources and services are culturally appropriate and sensitive. For example, access to language interpretation services can be important for individuals who primary language is not the dominant language of their community.
Number 12, temporal access. Planners need to make sure that resources and services are available at times that are convenient and accessible to all. A free clinic that has rigid nine to five hours could exclude its primary audience. Having all city government meetings starting at 7:00 PM means a person who works nights will never be able to participate.
Number 13, social access. 15 minute cities must ensure access to resources or services through social networks or relationships. Some cultures get their information and air their issues through their churches or social organizations, not by getting on the city council agenda.
Number 14, access for persons with disabilities. 15 minute cities are an opportunity to make our communities universally accessible for persons with disabilities. That means going beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act and ensuring that all modes of transportation, all housing, all buildings and accommodations are completely equitably inclusive for as many people as possible.
Number 15, arrested mobility. Policy, planning, polity and policing restrict not only the physical mobility of Black Americans, but also their socioeconomic mobility, denying them equitable access to everyday destinations such as workplaces, schools, grocery stores, libraries, parks, and doctor’s offices. I’ve spent a great deal of time working across the US and collaborating with expert researchers who have found data that proves racist enforcement of Black people on foot, bicycle and e-scoters. Citations for minor infractions such as riding without a helmet or on a sidewalk, are disproportionately given to Black and Brown people by a staggering margin. More than a half of the country’s most dangerous roads for pedestrians are also in predominantly Black or Latino neighborhoods. While many cities have invested in infrastructure for biking and walking in the past decade, city-based studies show these investments are concentrated in Whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. We must prioritize inclusive planning and implementation that guarantees the 15-minute city concept eliminates, not perpetuates, arrested mobility.
To some, the 15-Minute City concept is a novel and necessary idea, but to a small group, it is a sinister attempt to take away our individual freedoms. I disagree fully with the latter group. The bottom line is that I like the dialogue created by the 15-minute city movement. I want our cities to be healthy places where families do not have to spend a lot of their money on private automobiles. I endorse the idea of transformative change that can give all people of all races, income, religions, abilities, and disabilities, access to everything they need within 15 minutes of where they live. But to join the movement for such a transformation, I am duty bound to ask probing questions. It is the only way I can ensure that the US version of the 15-minute city is truly equitable and inclusive for all.
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