Friday, 18 November 2022 16:13

The 20 minute neighbourhood: trap or opportunity?

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Recently, the 15-minute city concept has found enthusiastic supporters among planners in Europe and beyond.  In Scotland's Draft National Planning Framework 4 it is slightly adapted to be the '20 minute neighbourhood'.  There, as elsewhere, it appeals as an easy-to-communicate paradigm of urban development in times of climate change, but above all as an opportunity to expel or just displace the car from the city and replace it with the bicycle. Newly propagated by a team led by Carlos Moreno, who teaches in Paris at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and used politically by Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, density, proximity, diversity and digitalisation are propagated as the planning cornerstones of the 15-minute city (Allam et al. 2022).

Density and proximity are well-known urban policy goals, diversity has become a new concern in recent years. Digitalisation is mainly seen as a means of saving energy and water in the context of smart urban development, but also as a contribution to securing public spaces. Work, as a rule, should be done in the home office, and is only a subordinate dimension in the 15-minute city. Though Paris is not a convincing role model.

For the popular mayor of Paris, the 15-minute concept was an effective marketing concept for her re-election. The concept supported Hidalgo's concern to reduce car traffic in the city. She was essentially concerned with banning unwanted cars from some parts of the city center. All other principles and promises of the 15-minute city were not really mentioned or were pushed aside. They cannot be implemented in Paris anyway, despite the renowned efficiency of French administration. Paris is one of the very wealthy islands in the Île-de-France region, where. other social challenges determine the housing market and the social composition of its inhabitants. In the suburbs of Paris, to which Haussmann had pushed the poorer classes of the city in order to make room for wealthier investors, the ambitious and comprehensive "15-minute" dream cannot be realized anyway.

 

Really not a new idea!

Yet the concept is not entirely new. It had already been propagated in Germany under a different name as the guiding concept of short distances (Wegener 1994; Beckmann 2011). It was later recommended by Kent Larsen at MIT as the 20-minute paradigm and proposed as a principle in the master plan of the city of Singapore in 2019.  A similar approach is used in China too, where many new urban quarters are being built as a result of politically driven urbanization and a speculative real estate industry.  In its 2016 master plan, Shanghai recommended "15-minute community life cycles" as a principle for planning new residential neighborhoods on greenfield sites.

The city marketing of Vienna also eloquently praises the 15-minute city as the urban policy model of the future. It makes reference to strategies in Paris, Madrid and Oslo, which, however, only reflect half the truth.

The 15-minute city is a late response to the obsolete Athens Charter of Athens, which promoted the car-friendly city. It was a rather functional mix, which rightly is challenged today.

 

The 15 minutes city is a challenging concept

It makes sense, of course, to aim and ensure that basic needs for all public and private facilities required by an average household can be reached in less than 15 minutes on foot, by bicycle or by an electric urban scooter. Basic needs are a kindergarten, a primary school, a secondary school, a hospital or at least a medical center, a home for the elderly, of course also one - or better two supermarkets, a multicultural center for participation in cultural or educational activities, and perhaps also rooms, if not a church, that can be used by all denominations. In this dense 15-minute city, there may also be co-working spaces, possibly even spaces for urban production. Sports facilities and a park within walking distance with a choice of jogging routes, would promote health. Residents of the 15-minute city, its apologists say, value and benefit from the neighbourly proximity and diversity of their social community. Some households will no longer buy a car; or they may share it with other families or even use it only for weekend and holiday trips. At least that is the theory.

 

The concept, however, is a hidden trap

Following market laws and the opportunities in the housing market, households that can afford their preferred type of neighbourhood will concentrate in the 15-minute city. In the city dominated by market forces, the 15/20 minute concept can become a social trap, because it will further increase social disparities and push the already existing social fragmentation of the urban landscape  Children are looked after in kindergartens and schools alongside children from economically comparable households from more or less homogeneous social classes. They are taught by kinder-gardeners and teachers who work there, and not at more challenging schools in another 15/20 minute neighbourhood where households live in publicly subsidized housing, together with large numbers of migrants from different world regions.

Class communities are communities that often last a lifetime and determine it. Events in the school, and in the neighborhood, enable exchange and strengthen social cohesion. The inner world of the 15-minute city has its own logic. It is a very communicative world of its own, shaped by its own values. It creates living worlds of social classes, narrow social milieux. Graduates of business schools in Cambridge, Lausanne or Milan form global networks and use them for their professional careers. They master the world of finance and the investment and location policies of hedge funds. Students (and their parents) in such an affluent 15-minute city form local class and sport communities that have an impact beyond the school. Social contrasts in the city region are thus further mutually and permanently reinforced. Only very few households in such an urban quarter will live without a car. They will only abstain from using a car if the 15-minute city is frequently connected to a stop on a public transport system from which all destinations in the city region can be reached in a reasonable time.

As a rule, the 15/20 minute neghbourhoood will not be a place to experience different social contexts and life worlds. Social milieux in a city region always remain spatially separated.

Nevertheless the 15-minute city is a reasonable contribution to climate change and an appealing urban model that could enormously improve the quality of life of citizens. An ideal 15-minute city can contribute to tackling climate change and soothe the ecological conscience of planners, investors and political bodies. But its implementation is not easy, it is a planning puppet show.

The transformation of already built-up urban quarters according to the model of the 15-minute city can only be realized with interventions in the land market and socially just land use, and only in cooperation with municipal and regional sector policies (health, education, economic development, etc.) This requires political will, time-consuming efforts in the context of integrated urban development strategies and the use of all available planning instruments.

 

.......but also an opportunity

The concept of the 15-minute city can also be an opportunity. The 15-minute city is an easily communicable paradigm that can be used for a variety of planning ideas and civil society expectations. It could bring new attention to urban planning and support from politicians, the media and the public.

The ambitious model may have a chance in the development of newly developed urban neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities. There, in suburban areas of large urban regions, it could make sense, as in Shanghai, to develop new urban expansion projects according to the paradigm of the 15-minute city as dense, socially mixed and multifunctional neighborhoods with urban flair. However, this requires a local administration that plans the desired functional mix together with housing cooperatives, building groups and socially motivated investors through targeted land policy, and then ensures together with these actors that allocations would be made, that the flats would be rented in a socially acceptable way and also accepts that cars do not have priority.

This can be only achieved with enormous good will and the use of all available planning instruments. It requires the synchronized development and supply of all the public and private facilities. And it will require many political and administrative compromises. If such efforts fail, the neighborhood praised as a 15-minute city is just another example of the spatial and social fragmentation of the city region.

In times when concise social media are read more than comprehensive scientific analyses in planning journals, promoting the concept of the 15-or 20 minutes city may be helpful, to make the value of urban planning more visible and heard by the public.

Read 567 times Last modified on Tuesday, 22 November 2022 12:40

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