A possible legacy of the coronavirus pandemic is the accelerated advancement of sustainability goals, which are mostly things we should have been addressing before the ongoing societal disruptions. One chapter in this story is increasing interest in the “15-minute city” or “neighborhood” as the next urban development agenda. This idea hit the headlines after the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, made it part of her re-election campaign in early 2020. Since then, policymakers and experts in a growing number of countries, Finland included, have started to explore the potential of the concept as a strategic green post-Covid-19 recovery policy.
This is no surprise. The 15-minute city is a simple and catchy vision for improving the quality of life in cities and building a more sustainable future. Professor Carlos Moreno, instigator of the concept, describes the 15-minute city as a place where the rhythm of the city reflects the pace of humans (not cars), every square meter serves multiple purposes, and no one needs to commute elsewhere to fulfill basic daily needs. In other words, the 15-minute city is about living in walkable places that offer jobs, services, and other necessities and amenities within easy reach. It’s essentially the experience you are already likely to have in urban centers and inner-city districts.
(For reference, people generally walk about one kilometer and cycle about five kilometers in 15 minutes. However, the most important aspect of this is possibly what someone considers to be 15 minutes.)
In my opinion, one significant reason for the growing interest in the 15-minute city is the fact that the various inconveniences of the pandemic have pushed people to see their cities and neighborhoods from a different perspective than before. The lockdowns and work-from-home requirements have showed how densely built, walkable neighborhoods are practical for running daily errands and socializing, no matter what the circumstances are. Having open-air access to services via streets and other public spaces is a valuable feature of walkable neighborhoods that not many people probably actively thought about prior to many daily activities becoming public health concerns.
Conversely, many of those trapped in less dense and more monofunctional areas have realized what their neighborhoods lack. It has become timely to think ahead. Many experts predict that life will become more neighborhood-orientated in the post-Covid-19 era as people continue with a more flexible work lifestyle. What kind of places do we want to spend our more localized lives in?
The ideals of the 15-minute city vision are not new for planners. They have been promoted by many urbanists in a variety of ways from the days of Jane Jacobs. Championing walkable and complex neighborhoods is also the common thread of this blog and the work of many urbanists across Finland. The general goals of the 15-minute city vision have also been the core of our do-it-yourself urban planning activities with the Urban Helsinki group, most prominently with the alternative master plan Pro Helsinki 2.0.
This was created in 2014, partly to nudge Helsinki’s official master plan process in a more urbanistic direction, but also to generally comment on the state of Finnish urban planning. You can read more about the plan here, but to summarize, Pro Helsinki 2.0 showed how it would be possible to fit twice as many new Helsinkians into the city than the official master plan intended, while simultaneously addressing the pressing planning-related needs of curbing suburban sprawl in the metropolitan area and increasing housing provision in a way that suits the high demand for living environments that resemble the city’s most desired neighborhoods – the “old” inner city.
The dawn of the 15-minute city is happening in a very different planning climate than when we were busy drafting Pro Helsinki 2.0. While not setting up new sustainability targets, many Finnish cities have for some years already been including rhetoric in their development manifestos that could have come straight from a 15-minute city pitch.
But walking the talk is still a completely different story. Letting go of the policies that drive sprawling development patterns and fossil fuel-based mobility continues to be a sluggish process. Take for example the case of Tampere, where people have recently been out on the streets to celebrate the first test drive of the city’s new tram system. At the same time, policymakers have been discussing the prospect of investing in new highway ramps and other driving infrastructure in the name of “facilitating traffic”.
It is very positive to see Finnish policymakers take further steps in the direction of advancing urban sustainability by moving towards the 15-minute city vision. However, the important part that is still missing is the accompanying policy framework for taking action. I imagine this is something that can also be found in many other places.
There can, of course, never be a very detailed way to plan for the 15-minute city; cities are complex creatures and always evade attempts to define them completely. However, it is equally certain that our dreams of creating places with certain types of characteristics are unlikely to materialize if we don’t treat them as central goals, aligning policies to work in their direction.
In his work on 20-minute cities, Professor Kim Dovey from Melbourne nicely points out how such place-led development concepts are linked to the interplay of design choices made at different planning levels. It all boils down to how we choose to play with the urban DMA qualities (density, mix, and access) that jointly set the stage for what kind of urban experience is achievable (or not). Dovey and colleague Elek Pafka sum it up in this way: “Like biological DNA, urban DMA doesn’t determine outcomes, but establishes what is possible.”
One day, it occurred to me that the ideas in our Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan could be repurposed to inspire the discussion on advancing the 15-minute city. The plan is essentially a strategic framework for turning Helsinki into a metropolis of vibrant and walkable neighborhoods. So, applying Dovey’s multi-scalar approach, I extracted its strategic underpinnings and have summarized them below.
Pro Helsinki 2.0’s themes for organizing development and amenities in each planning scale can essentially be stripped down to three goals: “centralizing” at the scale of the city, “spreading out” at the scale of the neighborhood, and “incorporating” at the scale of the block.
On the scale of the city, the main planning philosophy is to focus on “centralizing” development in a few selected areas (growth nodes). In other words, adding density. For small towns, this means that the entire place has to be thought of as a 15-minute city that should not increase in geographical area, just in density.
Create critical mass: A fundamental backbone for achieving urban and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods is pooling together enough people to support a rich array of services and jobs. Therefore, planners should seek to establish a multi-centered city with sub-centers no smaller than 30,000–100,000 residents.
Ensure intensity: Since the aim is to establish short distances, the growth nodes need to be shaped with a development model that enables densities of at least 15,000 inhabitants/sq.km. and 7,000 jobs/sq.km. Where applicable, conventional wisdom suggests a grid-based, low to mid-rise, urban form, which both ensures the delivery of relevant densities and leaves possibilities for future intensification. Compact nodes also make it possible to concentrate homes near large green areas, bodies of water, and other natural amenities, securing quality recreational opportunities for residents.
Unify: Since large-scale greenfield developments are yesterday’s news and large brownfield sites scarce, densification should focus on connecting previously built isolated areas into larger districts. For instance, turning in-city highways into boulevards will open up underperforming urban space for development between already built-up areas. To support the active interaction of people, ideas, and businesses, imagine the city as a series of overlapping 15-minute cities and development corridors (not separate villages).
Couple densification and public transport development: Rail-based transport is the backbone of sustainable city-wide mobility, and significant intensification needs to be coordinated with the introduction of a spider-web-modeled network to ensure a high enough service capacity. A dense enough rail transport web will ensure each neighborhood has stops in central locations, and most apartments and jobs will be within less than 500 meters from some form of rail transport.
A key ingredient for achieving vibrancy and enabling shorter journeys is spreading everyday destinations throughout the neighborhood and ensuring they are easy to reach by walking or cycling.
Mix uses: Forget the functionalist land-use model of separating uses into their own areas within the neighborhood and use a model that enables their coexistence. A simple solution could be to introduce two new zoning codes, “predominantly residential mixed use” and “predominantly commercial mixed use”. This would both leave flexibility for the random mingling of different use types and enable planners to maintain some steering power to suit local conditions.
Spread out public and green amenities: Public services are often best located near transport stops, but where applicable, it can be a good idea to compliment the mixing of uses by scattering them throughout various parts of the compact neighborhood. This is especially true for parks and other recreational areas that ought to be thought of as a network of green spaces encompassing the neighborhood.
Plan for low-speed mobility: Form and adapt streets by prioritizing walking and cycling and minimize barriers for sustainable mobility within the neighborhood. Downplaying the role of cars in transport planning will invite people to use public spaces and enables residential development along streets.
At the block scale, the main philosophy is to make including a variety of functional, aesthetic, and social elements into the block structure a priority. In essence, incorporating many things together to end up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Make it multifunctional: Extend the idea of mixing uses to the blocks and buildings. Most residential and office buildings should have retail spaces or other active uses on their ground floors, and buildings containing both apartments and offices should be encouraged. Civic buildings can also serve multiple purposes. Ample common yards will provide residents with private or semi-private recreational spaces, and this will extend to the inclusion of sauna facilities, rooftop terraces, and green roofs.
Make room for diversity: A sound social policy is to follow Helsinki’s long-standing social mixing practice. This means systematically planning for different housing types (condominiums, private and public rental housing, right of occupancy, student housing, etc.) to be included in each of the blocks.
Promote inviting streetscapes: Preventing monotonous or too coarse-grained cityscapes will help to achieve attractive neighborhoods with character and promote public life. This can be achieved by having different developers work on assorted buildings and encouraging a variety of architectural styles. The blocks can also be divided into separately sold or rented small lots to make them accessible for smaller developers and joint building ventures. In all cases, the emphasis for developers should be focusing on how the first three meters of each building looks, feels, and performs.
Take a place-first regulatory approach: There are numerous planning and building-related codes and norms ranging from parking minimums to energy efficiency regulations that affect the development of buildings and blocks. Their collective enforcement often means problems in terms of creating buildings in the form of a dense and pedestrian-friendly urban environment. A way to overcome this would be to remodel this approach, by prioritizing the enforcement of regulations to support the main goals of delivering walkable urbanism and adequate density.
So, there you have it. These are the things we should be considering if we want to achieve 15-minute cities according to our Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan.
These are all easier said than done, obviously. Beneath its catchiness, the adoption of the 15-minute city as a guiding principle for urban development would entail major changes to our planning practice.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the coronavirus-born 15-minute city enthusiasm will continue in the long run, truly nudging us further into advancing sustainable urbanism.
It’s particularly exciting that more attention is being placed on valuing something that already exists in many of our cities, expediting the prospect of policymakers beginning to understand how these qualities can (and cannot) be expanded to more residents.
“2021, the year of the 15-minute city” is a catchphrase to root for.