Category: Opinions | December 20, 2021
Cities should work for everyone. Everyone living in a city should have access to essential urban services within a 15 minutes walk or bicycle ride from their home. A good place to live, work and spend time where the essentials of daily life are within a gentle 15-minute walk or cycle ride rather than a drive away: that’s the fundamental principle of the 15-minute city concept.
This is not a new concept. Jane Jacobs, whose most famous book ‘Death and Life of American Cities’ was first published in 1961, inspired the 15-minute city and this book and her theories are still used by global city planners today. She believed that urban renewal and regeneration had to be focussed upon the needs of people. People (whether as residents or as businesses) would more readily move back into cities if provisions were centralised around them. In turn, more people living and working in cities made the cities feel safer and more appealing, thereby leading to greater demand for space from all types of businesses. She believed that proximity was the key to making urban centres vital again and that providing all amenities locally to city centre residents created renewed senses of civic pride and the feeling of an urban neighbourhood.
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. When we also add that more people are now working from home but also many have turned their attention to local co-working hubs that enable individuals to collaborate under different circumstances, are making use of local shops and services but also have increased their spend on online retail shopping (we have seen high-street shops close and sit empty), our local cities now need to reinvent themselves in the light of all these accelerating trends so to provide that 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. People accepted the change wholeheartedly. 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 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 therefore 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 onto the 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 for recreation, working spaces and more. Many cities include neighbourhoods that 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 actively reduce – and not risk compounding – social divides and inequalities.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that developers began to invest in creating brand-new urban villages in central London locations like King’s Cross and Paddington, both previously neglected neighbourhoods blighted by proximity to major transport interchanges. But we do not need such major regeneration to make our local cities sustainable. Small interventions, such as more greenery or improved walkability, can have a profound impact on a city’s resilience. Even rewilding projects and creating parklets and maximising the opportunity for play (e.g. playful bus stops or reusing existing infrastructure after hours) can provide some respite from grey concrete and tarmac.This not only improves people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing but it also helps to make cities more resilient by providing natural flood defences, creating cleaner air and reusing current infrastructure. Planners must also make sure that public transport is not simply replaced with cars, but instead improve the city’s walkability and cycle lanes. If we build in higher levels of walking and cycling, London communities can take a vital step towards delivering the zero carbon goals that many boroughs have signed up to as part of declaring a Climate Emergency. Introducing trees to provide shade and amenities such as more benches and public toilets can also make a huge difference. All this not only helps reduce air pollution, but a more walkable neighbourhood also creates a sense of community, building ties between neighbours.
The pandemic has shown the interdependencies of hyper-local living, place-based solutions, and social and economic resilience. Polycentric cities could help regenerate high streets and repurpose monocultural zones that currently have a singular function, normally based around office hours. They would need to provide multifunctional shared spaces that complement flexible lifestyles and providing digital connectivity that stimulates local productivity. This, coupled with road reallocations, better street space and greater provision for active travel, would support a more inclusive, community-focused economy. We need careful planning in creating diverse yet self-sufficient communities. Distinct features, including housing, employment, food, recreation, and amenities, should be accessible without dependence on cars.
In the last decade, London has added almost 1.1 million people to the city. That means it accounts for one in every four people added to the UK’s population. Despite the stagnation of growth over pandemic recovery period, London’s population is still projected to increase over the next 25 years. Therefore, we have seen greater emphasis within planning and design strategy to accommodate this growth to create a city for all. The Mayor of London’s ‘Good Growth by Design’ guidance sets out 6 core pillars: 1) setting standards, 2) applying standards, 3) building capacity, 4) supporting diversity, 5) commissioning quality and 6) championing good growth. This initiative accompanied by The London Plan 2021, highlights a shift in policy to target good growth. Creating successful and sustainable growth in London requires a greater balance of spatial efficacy including higher density, mixed use development and social prosperity within local communities. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is to be equipped for the uncertain. We have to create resilient and adaptable cities to meet the changing needs of its inhabitants through strategic targeted policy and championing innovative high quality design.
London’s urban planners must use now and 2022 to make sure our city is fit for many futures. The Mayor of London said that “The 15-minute city concept 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 addressed and overcome such as changing any layout for retail provision if it is too sprawling; creating new green public spaces which will need development consent; working with different organisations to make sure that pedestrianisation is extended; that walking and cycling routes are created but are also not disjointed; missing uses (such as culture) need to be identified and secured; and more flexible workspaces need to be introduced. Urban planners will have to take bold decisions, have real determination but there must be by everyone involved collective responsibility.