Just two decades ago, a larger proportion of the population resided in rural areas rather than urban centers. However, this demographic landscape has undergone a profound transformation. Presently, approximately 56% of the global population calls cities their home, with this number steadily on the ascent. According to projections by the United Nations, two-thirds of the expected 10 billion inhabitants of Earth by the year 2050 will dwell in urbanized regions.
This persistent urbanization trend has unveiled critical deficiencies in urban planning, spotlighting issues like social inequality, exclusion, deficient public transportation networks, and health problems linked to pollution. One emerging concept aimed at cultivating more sustainable, habitable, and healthy urban environments is the notion of "15-minute cities." It introduces a novel approach to mobility, advocating for reduced reliance on cars and greater emphasis on accommodating cyclists and pedestrians. This entails creating safe pathways for children, individuals with disabilities, and the elderly, as well as fostering spaces for social interactions.
The core premise of this concept revolves around the design and organization of cities in a manner that places most daily essentials and services within a 15-minute walking or biking radius. Carlos Moreno, an urbanist, and professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, first conceived this idea in 2016. His vision was to ensure that everyone could conveniently access essential amenities such as shops, schools, healthcare facilities, fitness centers, parks, eateries, and cultural institutions.
Benjamin Büttner, a mobility expert from the Technical University Munich, emphasizes the importance of reimagining urban spaces to foster sustainability. This transformation doesn't necessarily entail demolishing and rebuilding existing infrastructure; instead, it involves reorganizing and repurposing public spaces.
Remarkably, there are already 16 cities worldwide that have embraced the 15-minute city concept or similar ideas or are actively working towards its implementation. These cities vary in their approaches, with some aspiring to implement 20-minute concepts, others aiming for 10-minute models, and still others focusing on individual urban districts or the entire city's transformation.
One of the pioneers in this movement is the city of Paris. At the heart of Paris’s vision is positioning schools to be the focal point of every neighborhood. Schoolyards are undergoing renovations to transform them into versatile spaces that can be enjoyed for various activities beyond school hours and on weekends. Additionally, Paris aims to convert half of its 140,000 parking spaces for cars into green spaces, playgrounds, community gathering spots, or bicycle parking facilities. The city is committed to making its streets more bicycle-friendly by 2026, with comprehensive plans to facilitate cycling throughout Paris.
Some shop owners express concerns that the 15-minute city concept may negatively impact sales due to reduced car access. However, when Portland introduced a 20-minute city concept car traffic dropped by 20% but it was able to retain an additional $1.2 billion in its local economy. Research shows that increased pedestrian and cyclist traffic in cities leads to cost savings, as less money is required for road maintenance and healthcare expenses. The economic benefits of cycling alone are estimated to exceed €90 billion ($96 billion) in the European Union. In contrast, motorized traffic generates over €800 billion in costs annually for health, environmental, and infrastructure-related issues.
To ensure this transformative approach benefits as many people as possible while avoiding creating new imbalances, it is imperative to maintain diversity while implementing the concept through the different communities. It also calls for a reevaluation of regulations and traditional planning categories that have historically maintained inequality and exclusion in cities worldwide, such as city centers, housing districts, suburbs, and commercial areas.
Benjamin Büttner states the courage of politicians and administrations is crucial for the success of these initiatives. Additionally, promoting dialogue with citizens and all stakeholders is essential because there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for cities. The choice of measures depends on the unique context and the social, economic, and ecological structure of each city.