Cities should work for everyone. A good place to live, work and spend time where the essentials of daily life are within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride rather than a drive away: that’s the fundamental principle of the 15-minute city.
Living through lockdowns has made many Londoners more aware of the lack of access to green spaces, distance to essential amenities such as shops, and the need for better pedestrian and cycling options.
More people are now working from home, but many others have turned to local co-working hubs that enable individuals to collaborate under different circumstances.
Both groups are making use of local shops and services but have also increased their online shopping. The upshot is that we have seen high street shops close. Our local cities now need to reinvent themselves in the light of all these accelerating trends to provide resilience and flexibility.
The 15-minute-city concept, when reintroduced in 2020, was something people could relate to. They knew what it meant and how it benefited the community. From widened sidewalks and expanded bike networks to outdoor dining in space once used for parking, elements of the 15-minute city continued to help manage the impact of Covid-19 in many places globally.
The 15-minute city offers a way to build in positive changes to boost local economies
The pandemic also gave us a taste of what life could be like with an urban model that enables shorter or fewer commutes, more time for our family, friends and the things we enjoy and greener, more walkable neighbourhoods.
The 15-minute-city approach offers a way to build on positive changes to boost local economies and deliver lasting health, wellbeing, equity and climate benefits. Urban planning is now about fostering a flexible social and functional mix to ensure a better quality of life while keeping people at the centre.
This duty now falls on to urban planners. It is access, not mobility, that should guide urban planning decisions. A successful 15-minute neighbourhood is ‘complete’ with core services and amenities that residents can easily walk or cycle to.
This includes community-scale education and healthcare, essential retail like grocery shops and pharmacies, parks, working spaces and more. Many city neighbourhoods deliver this, but they tend to be concentrated in central or wealthier areas. Equity and inclusivity is central; a 15-minute-city strategy must emphasise equal access to services, amenities and green space.
This means designing approaches to reduce social inequalities. Small interventions, such as more greenery or improved walkability, can have a profound impact on a city’s resilience.
This improves people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing but also helps to provide natural flood defences, create cleaner air and form a sense of community, building ties between neighbours. London’s urban planners must use this year and next to make sure our city is fit for many futures.
The mayor of London has said: “The 15-minute city invites us to imagine thriving local areas with easily accessible jobs and services; better street space and active travel; and greener and more resilient communities.”
I agree. Achieving a truly connected city will not be easy: significant barriers will need to be overcome and urban planners will have to take bold decisions. However, that is what we must strive for and everyone involved must share collective responsibility.
Martha Grekos is director (barrister) at Martha Grekos Legal Consultancy