World Habitat Day, observed on the first Monday of October each year, highlights the importance of sustainable urban development and adequate housing for all. This year’s theme, “Building Resilient Communities,” is closely related to the concept of the 15-minute city, as it focuses on the need for cities to adapt to challenges like climate change and promote inclusive urban environments.
In this blog, we will explore the potential of sustainable urban development. Our featured contributor, Ella Revitt, a Sustainable Business Executive from Planet Mark’s Built Environment team, will be your guide as we delve into the “15-minute city.”
What is a 15-Minute City?
Let’s start with a definition: the 15-minute city is an approach to urban planning where most daily necessities and services (centred around work, healthcare, education, shopping, and leisure) are easily reached by foot or by bike in under 15 minutes.
While this is not a new idea, the 15-minute city came to the forefront of climate change discussions at the COP21 conference, when Carlos Moreno advocated this alternative approach to city living. The idea gained further traction following the Covid-19 pandemic, where the resilience and autonomy of the 15-minute city made it the “ideal post-Covid city.”
The 15-minute city offers a vision of how urban areas can be designed to meet the objectives highlighted on World Habitat Day, such as affordable housing, sustainable urbanisation, and improved quality of life for urban residents.
15-Minute City’s Role in Achieving Net Zero
When it comes to the benefits of the 15-minute city, the climate crisis is a big one.
Urban areas contribute to 70% of global emissions, primarily from transportation and carbon-intensive construction. To stay below the 1.5-degree threshold, cities must decarbonise and transition to net zero.
The 15-minute city offers a solution. By locating jobs and homes close together and providing access to public transportation and mixed land use, emissions could be reduced by 25%, as per the IPCC findings. In addition, the integration of green space is widely acknowledged as a crucial component, emphasising the importance of investing in and introducing more green areas, aligning their goals in a complementary manner.
And it’s not only the causes of climate change this could help with but also the effects. Parks, trees, and added greenspace can mitigate the urban heat island effect, strengthening the city’s resilience to rising temperatures – something to consider amidst current heat waves, perhaps.
It’s also important to consider wider aspects of “sustainability” at play here. Shorter commutes, increased access to greenspace, further opportunity to exercise, and improved air pollution can also have tremendous benefits to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Navigating the complexities and opportunities of the 15-minute city
As idyllic as the 15-minute city sounds, there are many complexities around social inequities and divisions, historical boundaries and relationships, gentrification concerns and economic pressures. It’s a contentious topic, and implementing these principles needs to be done with utmost care and consideration.
Nonetheless, over the last few years, we’ve seen iterations of the 15-minute city crop up in a range of projects and discussions. Since 2019, the C40 Cities, a global network of 100+ city mayors, has been bringing the 15-minute city to life, and cutting emissions in doing so.
While Edinburgh moves ahead with its 20-minute neighbourhood concept (did they add on 5 minutes to account for all the hills?!), Melbourne’s suburban revitalisation program is guided by the principle of “living locally” and being a short walk, cycle or bus ride away from your daily needs. Several London boroughs are adopting the idea, and Amsterdam and Copenhagen are considered close to bringing the concept to life.
With 94% of Parisians living less than 5 minutes from a freshly baked baguette, Paris has been hailed as a prime example of the 15-minute city. Mayor Anne Hidalgo centred her 2020 re-election campaign around the idea of “hyper proximity.”
The 15-minute city is fast becoming a reality. But so far it has been very much driven by city governments, so what part can we play?
Take-homes for developers
Developers across all sectors can take valuable insights from the 15-minute city. Whether you’re building homes, offices, retail parks or a factory, you’re shaping communities and structuring lives. The importance of this can be seen across several case studies:
The 15-Minute City Principles in Action
- Areli Real Estate Limited worked with Buro Happold and others, using principles of the 15-minute city on sites across Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. While establishing a template for net zero development, they created several standalone communities, each with their own primary school and local centre, countryside access and public transport links.
- The Royal Eden Docks (RED) scheme (a joint-venture London development by Planet Mark members Mount Anvil and ExCeL London) is focused on building a thriving 15-minute city, providing residents with flexible workspace, entertainment venues, fitness facilities, as well as 1,432 cycle storage spaces. This approach, paired with key sustainability initiatives, led to the first phase of RED achieving Planet Mark Development Certification in 2021.
Challenges experienced with the 15-Minute City
- Conversely, a recent BBC article highlighted the new town of Northstowe, which was designed to be an “eco-community”, built to address the housing shortage in one of the country’s least affordable areas. Yet over six years after the first residents moved in, there is still not one shop, café, or GP surgery. Over 76% of respondents to a question about local services were dissatisfied, and resident Pamela Nally articulated: “To me, there’s no heart to Northstowe.” This demonstrates the importance of building community into every development.
How can you apply 15-minute city principles to your next development?
Start early – As with everything, the earlier you bring these principles into a project, the easier, cheaper, and ultimately more effective implementation will be.
Listen to locals – Coordinate with community organisations, public sector bodies, and local stakeholders about how to maximise the positive impact of the project.
Use what’s already there – Instead of demolishing existing infrastructure and building new, what can you do to incorporate and repurpose what’s already there? This could result in massive reductions of embodied carbon (see more on the benefits of retrofits here).
Incorporate flexibility – on a similar vein, consider how you could use the same building for different purposes/activities at different times. Designing multipurpose spaces can save tremendous amounts of embodied carbon, as well as create a compact for a diverse local community. For example, schools in New York City host food stalls and farmers markets in their car parks and schoolyards on the weekend.
Design-in inclusivity and opportunity:
- A central hub – bring the development around a focal point for amenities, events, and community. Depending on the size of project, you might need a few central points scattered across the area to ensure everyone has access.
- Walkability – Look to improve walkability / cyclability across the site. Have you prioritised footpaths and cycle lanes? Are they distanced from cars to encourage movement in a safe and enjoyable way? Have you provided access to sufficient and secure bike storage facilities?
- Infrastructure – What are the “core” facilities required for the local community? What additional infrastructure is needed to add value to the development? Maybe a park, school, library, GP, supermarket, gym? Can you discuss with the local community about what they will need?
- Connectivity and transport – how easy will it be for people to commute to and from work? Is the site well-connected to other areas? Is there scope to improve public transport links/networks? Are there ways you can discourage car use across the development? What about encouraging electric car use when required, by providing EV charging facilities?
Every building can play a role – Earlier this year, Planet Mark Member’s Peldon Rose hosted a panel debate which focused on how to optimise an office within a 15-minute city, to deliver against sustainability goals and wider tenant/employee needs.
- Ideas ranged from encouraging active commuting, prioritising natural lighting and green spaces as well as creating agile work settings (including breakout areas, informal seating, focus/meeting spaces and a communal hub).
- Building a diverse, agile, and welcoming workplace can improve work culture and employee wellbeing, while embedding sustainable workplace design and creating a crucial pillar of the 15-minute city.
Mitigate climate risk – How can you limit the urban island effect? Tree-lined streets, community gardens and allotments, parks, and playfields, living walls are all great examples of things you can add to your development to avoid this risk. You can read more about incorporating biodiversity net gain into your projects here.
And finally: measure and report – Adopting these principles will result in significant embodied and operational carbon savings across your development. It’s important to quantify and communicate your achievements, to differentiate your approach and celebrate your success.
The 15-minute city acts as a whole-systems approach to consider urban planning, climate action, liveability, health, and socioeconomic fractures. By rethinking our cities, we can build sustainable, accessible, and prosperous communities that tackle both cause and effect of the climate crisis.