The 15-minute city concept offers a new way of living that’s good for the environment and personal wellbeing. Is it time to find ways to make it work in the Welsh built environment?
Saving the planet from the effects of climate change in fifteen minutes is something we can only dream of achieving. Although the 15-minute city concept does show that for urban dwellers it can be possible to live in a way that minimises our environmental impact.
Seen as a way to future proof cities, a simple definition of 15-minute city explains that it: “is a residential urban concept in which all city residents are able to meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes”. A number of iconic cities including Paris, Barcelona and Milian are all embracing the Concept, and are placing an emphasis on creating built environments that encourage people to walk, cycle and spend more time in their immediate surroundings. It suggests a simpler and more environmentally friendly way of life.
Having everything you need in close proximity to your home sounds like an idyllic way to live. However it does raise the question: Is this achievable in Wales?
If we start by turning the clock back to a time when many of our towns and cities grew exponentially due to the growth of mining and heavy industry, people had to live close to the amenities they needed, and in this respect an early version of the 15-minute city was born out of necessity due to a lack of personal transport. However the passing of time, combined with the need to rebuild after the Second World War, saw the development of suburbs that were increasingly located further from urban centres. This trend has continued to the present day, and has seen the growth of what are often highly car dependent housing developments, business and retail parks located on the periphery of our towns and cities.
This type of urban sprawl is counter to the 15-minute city concept. It has resulted in people living in what can be amenity poor locations, and then having to commute considerable distances by car to a place of work that itself is equally poor in terms of location. For many families this routine becomes even more complex as they need to factor in trips to childminders and schools even before starting their commute, and has further embedded a drive-up, drive-thru suburban lifestyle. These locations will prove to be the most challenging in terms of their ability to embrace the principles of the 15-minute city, as their physical settings often lack the neighbourhood amenities and workplaces needed to achieve it. Although, encouragingly the increased adoption of remote working practices (where feasible) does offer a partial solution.
By comparison, for people living in the core “neighbourhoods” that characterise our cities and established towns the 15-minute city concept is far easier to embrace as many of the elements needed are already in place. These include:
- Shops, cafes, pubs, bars and/or commercial premises that could be reopened
- Leisure and community facilities for all age groups
- Work opportunities and places of work
- Healthcare facilities
- Quality outdoor spaces
- Easy access to a public transport network
Even if a place has the potential to adopt the 15-minute city concept it is important to remember this represents a significant behavioural change. This means for it to work people must want to change the way they live, and that can be a big ask. Whilst the Concept offers a slower, healthier, more environmentally sustainable way of living, and being more locally focussed it also creates new opportunities for small businesses, it still has to compete with the existing way many people live. In this respect, and on this basis it would be truly beneficial for the benefits of the 15-minute city concept to be more widely promoted. This would allow people the opportunity to consider how they can adopt a way of living that embraces this concept based on their personal circumstances.
As this is a significant shift in how people live, a research project involving representative households would help to qualify the benefits of adopting this change in lifestyle. Importantly, in specific locations, it would help to identify the challenges that need to be overcome to ensure the effective adoption of the Concept. Seeing how people live a 15-minute city way of life would hopefully work to encourage more people to adopt it, and personally I’d be fascinated to watch a reality TV series based on this, and maybe that’s something for a Welsh broadcaster to consider?
Whilst in Wales we don’t have any cities on the scale of Paris, and we don’t have anywhere near the city centre population densities you see in many European cities, the 15-minute city concept still has a valuable role to play in helping to shape the future of our built environment. Particularly, as it represents a way of living that isn’t car dependent, which inteself is good news for our environment. It also allows people to strengthen their connection with their immediate communities. This has the benefit of people spending more time and money in local businesses, which in turn supports the Welsh economy and has the potential to facilitate sustainable urban regeneration whilst embracing the principles of the Foundational Economy.
We also have the opportunity to amend the narrative around the 15-minute city concept to ensure that from the outset the changes we make in our built environment are fully accessible for all citizens. Understandably, many people may well be perfectly happy with the way they currently live their lives, and may even view the Concept as simply another utopian vision. However, mitigating the impact of climate change will require measures that change the way we all live, and there is an increasing sense of urgency to ensure at the very least we achieve our net zero carbon target. On that basis, it seems logical to explore these different approaches to the way we live, especially as they offer not only environmental benefits but also significant personal benefits in terms of wellbeing. Whilst it will take longer than fifteen minutes to save the planet, with a determined focus and an open mind to embracing a new future the 15-minute city has the potential to deliver a new way of living that’s good for us and the world we live in.