The latest fad in urbanist and urban planning circles is the “15-minute city” — the idea that all of one’s needs should be within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride from home.
The implicit assumption is that one shouldn’t — and won’t — need a car to navigate this city, since your grocer, store, school, doctor, leisure activities and everything else you need will be within that 15-minute sphere of influence.
The 15-minute city concept was coined in 2016 by European professor Carlos Moreno, and has taken off since 2020 as mayors and planners have embraced its concepts.
But, like most ideas, the concept is an old one wrapped in new language. It claims to have its origins in 19th-century cities that predated cars and wide-scale public transport, where people lived in high-density areas close to work and services because they had no other choice. As mobility and wealth increased, first with the invention of the streetcar and later with the introduction of the affordable automobile by Henry Ford, the way we live changed.
However, the “15-minute city” concept also draws on an old Soviet idea, formalized in the 1968 book “The Ideal Communist City.”
It decries the way cities had been developing — “an isolation of industrial complexes and research centers into relatively autonomous units with a ‘daytime population’ of commuters from the central city or suburbs” (p. 29), and proposes replacing it with a carefully-planned pattern of settlement based on grouping populations in high-density communities near their jobs, but also with retail, education, leisure and everything else located within a seven-minute walk of each person’s high-rise apartment, with each node connected to a larger entertainment node to serve a larger population, such as a movie theatre or stadium, and of course, transit stations located at the center of each node to allow people to travel between parts of the city.
“The Ideal Communist City” proposes high-rise apartments with 225 square feet per person (and 50-75 square feet per child, assuming no more than two per family), so 600-square foot apartments for families, with small kitchens because it is presumed most meals will be eaten at “public eating places within residential buildings” (p. 66).
That’s the level of density required to serve a 15-minute city. As Randal O’Toole points out, a standard grocery store needs to serve about 20,000 customers to be functional, which would require about 11,000 people per square mile, which is a Manhattan-level density that doesn’t come close to existing in most American cities.
That part alone makes the 15-minute city a non-starter in most parts of the United States. Four-in-five Americans prefer single-family homes and 70% actually live in them. Also, Americans prefer a larger home that’s farther away from amenities to a smaller one that’s closer to them. Urbanists often blame exclusionary zoning for the century-long movement away from dense, tightly-packed transit-and-walking-reliant cities. Since World War II, that’s largely been replaced by low-density, car-dependent, suburban-style communities that now house the majority of Americans.
Urbanists have long looked at the suburban form with disdain and hatred. In “The Ideal Communist City,” the author states “What results (in communities of single-family homes) is a chaotic and depressing agglomeration of dwellings covering enormous stretches of land. This is obvious, for example, in the case of some new American cities and suburbs. At the same time, given the conditions of social equality and the increasing growth of demand for housing in (the USSR), the search for a future kind of residential building leads logically to high-rise structures. The spatial isolation of apartments in high-rise residential blocks allows the concentration of a very large number of people in a relatively small space and the creation of an efficient system of services.” (p. 69–70)
Boosters of 15-minute cities boast of reducing — or eliminating — car usage, which is the main point. They boast of making driving difficult by eliminating parking spaces, narrowing streets, lowering speed limits and essentially eliminating the need for a car. Oxford, England, has even gone so far as to attempt to fine people for driving between sections of the city. If one needs to travel outside of the pre-selected 15-minute neighborhood, boosters consider public transit to be the primary — and really, only — option.
And again, this draws on a concept from “The Ideal Communist City,” “Private transportation has produced such an overwhelming set of unresolved problems in cities that even planners in bourgeois societies are inclined to limit it. In modern practice, planning has come to include subways running underground at a moderate depth, as well as elevated electric trains. The economic advantages of such a transportation system for getting commuters to and from production areas are obvious, and it is also an answer to congestion in the central city.” (p. 79–80)
What brings together the 21st-century urban planners and 1960s-era Soviets? A fetish for central planning, a disdain for individual choice and a desire to force others to adopt the urbanists’ preferred lifestyle. One cannot fathom that individuals might prefer decentralized suburbs, the point-to-point freedom provided by automobile access. If your preferred neighborhood is an urban community with lots of dense mutifamily homes and stores within walking distance, it’s hard to fathom others are willing to trade off transit access and walkability for a large home in a quiet low-density single-family neighborhood with a yard and be willing to drive to the store, work, school and the doctor’s office.
It comes to the point where they develop conspiracy theories to hand-wave away the reality that others have different preferences. Whether it be blaming exclusionary zoning (Houston, by the way, does not have zoning and is one of the most low-density large cities in the U.S.) or General Motors buying all the streetcar lines (aka, the Roger Rabbit myth, which has been proven to be just that), it’s hard to admit some people, heck, most people, prefer space to density, larger homes to smaller ones, their own four walls to shared ones, and are willing to trade off walkability or transit access for a car that gets them anywhere they need to go relatively efficiently and quickly.
The 15-minute city concept is an unfeasible one for many reasons, the primary one being the majority of Americans prefer not to live in high-density communities. That number grows once people begin to have children. It’s hard to carry groceries for a family of four on your bike or in your arms, especially on a cold, windy, snowy January day.
What’s also unfeasible is the fact that many people prefer some separation between their work and home environments. Fifteen-minute city proponents tend to assume everyone works an office job. Many working-class jobs in the U.S. are in retail stores, yes, but also in factories and warehouses, which are not easily accommodated in high-density areas. Factories tend to need space and they also pollute, which most people don’t want near their houses. Warehouses need a lot of space and truck access, which again, doesn’t fit the model of a walkable community. That’s generally why industrial and residential areas are separated in a community, whether by zoning or just natural settlement patterns.
They also tend to forget where food comes from. While “The Ideal Communist City” proposed building residential nodes in-between factories and collectivized industrial farms, those living in rural areas naturally cannot support high densities and need to rely on automobile access to survive. They won’t only be farmers, but those who support them. Many farms near cities rely on suburbs to provide their needed services, and benefit from the supermarkets and retail nodes that exist because of the increased residential access.
The other major issue with the 15-minute city concept is the unintended consequences. While it’s being proposed as an option now, it’s already making its way into policy — whether it be Oxford’s ban on traveling between sectors of the city or a number of European and American cities closing streets, removing parking spaces and tearing down highways to reduce auto access. But with every policy decision comes an unintended consequence. In Oxford, it’s likely people will drive extra to get from Point A to Point B to avoid the sector checkpoints.
In the U.S., as people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, downtowns became ghost towns. The building of urban interstates and parking garages — connecting the suburbs with the central city and accommodating those who drive — helped bring back the commercial part of the Central Business District. Shutting that off by cutting off auto access would likely push retail, business and residents to the low-density suburbs, where the automobile is still accommodated and access is prioritized.
As always, only the individual makes decisions, and decentralized decision-making as we all act in our own self-interest will always trump the goals and utopian dreams of central planners. The emergent spontaneous order is much more beautiful, functional and serves its citizens far better than any planner can fathom.