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Applying an Equity Lens to the 15-Minute City

If you, like me, have been scrolling the internet a lot over the past year, you may have come across the term "15-Minute City," or even (recently) its more provocative cousin, the "1-Minute City.”

Proposed Neighborhood Infill Development, FORM Coalition

The 15-minute city (or occasionally, the 20-minute city) is an urban planning concept that's gained mainstream popularity as COVID-19 has forced lockdowns and reduced the distance of our daily travels. For many of us, our daily commute has completely evaporated, our worlds shrunk to our homes, makeshift home offices, the grocery store, the park. In the 15-minute city, you can access most or all of your day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk, or about half a mile. This means groceries, banking, library, schools, restaurants and other "third places", even your doctor's office.

The idea of the 15-Minute City was introduced by Carlos Moreno, a professor at the Sorbonne in France, as a way to structure communities for future sustainability. To be clear, he’s not the first person to advocate for organizing neighborhoods into discrete walkable sections, but he is the one who assigned it this catchy name. For Moreno, the inefficiency of modern cities that forces us to spend hours in traffic is both unconscionable and avoidable. He calls it "inhuman bigness." The 15-minute city, in contrast, is organized around four guiding principles

  • Ecology - A green and sustainable city

  • Proximity - Reduced distance between home and other activities

  • Solidarity - Links between people, one of the foundational draws of urban life

  • Participation - Actively involve citizens in the transformation of their neighborhoods

The problem with many of our nice, tidy planning concepts is that they are insufficient and potentially destructive without an explicit commitment to equity. While the 15-minute city is useful to explain planning concepts and complex relationships in a non-jargony manner, if you're not also talking about the dynamics of class, race, politics, and power, you're selling an incomplete and idealized vision.

Consider the case of a would-be Trader Joe’s in Portland’s Albina district. A grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood categorized as a food desert seems like a win at face value. However, to long-time community members, this particular grocery store represented the latest wave in an onslaught of gentrification and displacement. A citizen group organized to stop the development, and ultimately Trader Joe's pulled out. When I lived and worked in Portland, this story was frequently shared as a warning of the important distinction between intention and impact, an example of development done to a community and not with, ultimately leaving us with the question who is it for?

Prioritizing equity in planning can mean additional time and cost to a project (based on the way we've historically structured and funded planning projects), but given that the stakes are somewhere between quality of life and life-and-death,* it's essential that we make this a non-negotiable feature of our planning processes. Failure to do so is to ignore centuries of racist and classist planning policies and practices that endanger the lives and health of marginalized people.

Some resources for equitable neighborhood development:

  • Purpose Built Communities works to enact neighborhood change by partnering with local organizations to address housing, education, and health.

  • Jay Pitter's newly released Equity Guidance for the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative is an excellent framework for community-led place-based work.

  • PolicyLink's Equitable Development Toolkit is an excellent starting place for planners, urban designers, and community developers committed to centering equity in their work.

Ultimately, the 15-Minute City is a useful conceptual framework for building a unified vision, but it’s not the whole picture. Who are these liveable neighborhoods ultimately for? How do we bring all of the relevant voices to the table and ensure people are not left out of the end results? Participation is nothing more than performative unless we're asking: Who's not at the table who should be, and how can we get them there?

*For more on this, look up 'social determinants of health' and 'environmental racism'

Note: This post was partially inspired by this Twitter thread

Sources & More Reading:

The 15-Minute City, TED Talk by Carlos Moreno

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