These days, everybody seems to be talking about the 15-minute city — Bloomberg, Treehugger, the Financial Times, as well as countless others. While not a new concept, it is a moniker that is easier for most people to digest. COVID-19 has also created the right backdrop for the moment that it is currently enjoying.
The 15-minute city is a polycentric and somewhat decentralized approach to urbanism. It is about encouraging and creating multiple centers of urban activity near where people live. The idea being that everybody should have most of their essential services within a 15-minute walk of their home. Put even more simply, it’s about creating an urban environment where people can live locally.
The benefits to this are numerous. It encourages more compact forms of development, which in turn encourages people to rely more heavily on active modes of transportation such as walking and cycling. The result is less commuting, less carbon emissions, more time, and likely better health outcomes given the reliance on active mobility.
Indeed, living in a walkable urban community is something that I personally put a huge value on. If I can’t walk out of my home to go grab a coffee and something to eat, it’s probably not the neighborhood for me. But at the same time, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that there are powerful centralizing forces present within our cities.
As Natalie Whittle points out in this FT article from the summer, new technologies — from the telegraph to the internet — have always elicited predictions that humans would now flee cities and move to the countryside. While it is true that there are other technologies — everything from the streetcar to the automobile — that have allowed us to decentralize to a greater extent, most of us are all still bound to cities.
In fact, you could argue that the opposite of decentralization has played out. As we have transitioned to a knowledge and information economy, the returns to being embedded within cities and within a particular place have only become greater.
Take for example the phenomenon of “collab houses” that has been playing out in Los Angeles for some time now, including during this pandemic. Collab houses are typically LA mansions where clusters of young people come and live together in order to create content for platforms like YouTube and TikTok. It’s like a big dorm for creators. And supposedly the biggest one is Hype House.
What’s fascinating to me about this phenomenon is that it reinforces two things. One, if you want to be rich and famous (emphasis on famous), Los Angeles is seemingly still an important place to be. And two, if you really want to be at the top of your game, it’s apparently not enough to be in the same city as other likeminded individuals; you also need to be under the same roof, bouncing ideas around and pushing one another.
So what does this all mean? Well, maybe this time is different and we are all currently living through a reorganization of how we will live, work and play. Or, maybe this time isn’t all that different. And the 15-minute city, while an important goal, won’t be the be-all and end-all of modern city building.