My 15-Minute City

What it looks like to create and maximize a hyperlocal approach to metropolitan life.

I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of needing to adapt in innumerable ways in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink how we engage with many seemingly mundane parts of our lives – grocery shopping, what to eat for dinner and even how we get to and from work. For many of us, one key reconsideration over the last several months has been the relationships with our homes, our workplaces and our communities. We’ve spent significantly more time in our homes and significantly less time at work interacting with coworkers. Because of this, it feels like our communities have shrunk in size and scale.

The disruption and uncertainty of 2020 have spurred a lot of learning and unlearning. One critical evolution of my personal pandemic life has been a response to the change in my work/life/community balance: the creation and maximization of my own personal “15-minute city.”

What is a 15-Minute City?

Before ever having heard of the term, I distinctly recall the moment I realized the self-sufficiency of walking from my home to a local shop to pick up soap, shampoo and conditioner bars. It was a simple prospect: when I needed something, I simply walked out my front door, strolled four blocks and picked those items up. Errand done.

Without even knowing it, I was engaging in a concept that city planners have been considering long before the coronavirus crisis thrust many of us into a work-from-home situation and eliminated the need to commute: the 15-minute city. The concept of a 15-minute city was first crystallized by Carlos Moreno, associate professor at the Sorbonne, Paris. In an effort to reduce urban carbon emissions, Moreno reimagined towns as mosaics of neighborhoods in which almost all the residents’ needs could be met within a 15-minute radius of their homes, accessed by foot, bike or via public transit.

The Southeast Connector Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

City planners have looked to the 15-minute city as a formula for creating sustainable, healthy urban environments that can be easily navigated without a car. As O’Sullivan and Bliss recently stated in an article for Bloomberg, “Walkable neighborhoods and villages were the norm long before automobiles and zoning codes spread out and divided up cities in the 20th century. Yet the 15-minute city represents a major departure from the recent past, and in a growing number of other cities, it’s become a powerful brand for planners and politicians desperate to sell residents on a carbon-lite existence. Leaders in Barcelona, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan and Portland are all working toward similar visions. They’ve been further emboldened by the pandemic, with global mayors touting the model in a July report from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group as central to their recovery road maps.” We’ve even seen the concept implemented recently by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has been working to overhaul the city’s mobility culture since first taking office in 2014 by embracing the notion of reshaping France’s capital into a 15-minute city

My Own 15-Minute City

Compelled by pandemic-induced life changes, and inspired by a Bloomberg City Lab project on how the coronavirus transformed our world, I decided to visualize and map my own 15-minute city.

I started by listing out the places and people I knew I’d need to visit (e.g. work, the grocery store, homes of family or friends) and then created a 5-mile radius map around my house so I could see what locations were accessible within 15 minutes on foot, by bike, etc. From there, I created a key that allowed me to map my route and quickly see how to get from one point to another.

“My 15-Minute City” map by Molly Hanson.

Glancing at my map, you can see visits to the library, beer/restaurant runs, walks through the park and visits to family within my currently tiny social circle. Each of these locations was reached either by bicycle or on foot. Taking a closer look, however, would reveal an emphasis on support of local businesses and an effort to maintain good health. I even adopted the term “urban hiking” for my brisk walks across the river, utilizing the Central Iowa Trail System whenever possible.

The Caveat to 15-Minute City

The 15-minute city is unfortunately not accessible to everyone. For example, my fiancé and I were able to purchase our home with the help of a local Des Moines non-profit called The Neighborhood Finance Corporation. Their program for first-time homebuyers allowed us to find a home in an area we love without having to compete for it on the open market. We were able to put a smaller payment down than is traditionally required and even got a forgivable loan to fix up our basement, so long as we agreed to stay in (and take care of) the house for five years. Without all these key factors, which are not accessible or available to everyone, my home would not have been a reality for me and as such, neither would my new 15-minute city. 

For many in my city, and in other cities across the country, there are countless barriers that make creating a hyperlocal approach to metropolitan life difficult or nearly impossible. Redlining, which some assert still exists in cities across the country, combined with the lack of access to goods and services create considerable challenges such as food deserts, diminished pedestrian safety, difficulty in establishing credit and starting businesses, opportunities for well-paying jobs, access to high-quality schools and childcare – and the list goes on. Achieving the 15-minute city requires a kind of deconstruction of the city: revising zoning codes, designing adaptable and hybrid public spaces, offering strong financial support to neighborhood schools, public transportation and urban farms, creating accessible and abundant affordable housing and exchanging parking spaces for sidewalks. To be frank, it requires pushing for and supporting a vision for our cities that supports convenient and equitable access to amenities and services – regardless of zip code.  

As designers, planners and community engagers, I and my RDG colleagues are uniquely positioned to take the best of what we have learned in 2020 to solve the worst of what we have seen in 2020 and look for ways to design spaces and plan cities that promote equitable access to all users. I hope the inequities that have been brought to light in this pandemic are not just acknowledged. I hope we all strive to better understand and holistically address them. I hope we get to know our neighbors and continue to support our local businesses. I hope we value and take advantage of our precious time on this planet and, indeed, use our time to protect our planet. I hope the reality of my own 15-minute city can be realized by others across my city, my state and beyond.

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Molly Hanson is RDG’s Conservation and Community Outreach Specialist. Based out of the firm’s Des Moines, Iowa office, she works across RDG’s markets to support facilitation, public engagement and conservation-based project management. She currently co-chairs RDG’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and is training to be a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach.

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