BEYOND THE PANDEMIC: THE PROSPECT OF A 15 MINUTE CITY
As Covid-19 relentlessly causes havoc, countries have been left spinning plates, balancing the survival of crippled economies with protecting exhausted health services. Whilst cities across the world are scrambling to pick up the pieces of shattered economies, it is clear that old structures and traditional hierarchies of values need to change. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and urban scientist Carlos Moreno are advocating the 15 Minute City, a replicable and customisable model that offers us a chance to future-proof our rebuilt cities.
To take advantage of this tool, we need to let go of some aspects of the status quo. Top-down control is outdated in the post-Covid context. Instead, we need more democratically designed cities that serve their citizens more effectively, with the simple aim to consolidate a person’s everyday needs and desires within a 15 minute walk of their home. This means an ecological transformation of the city in to neighbourhoods that allows us to develop fully customized responses, led in collaboration with residents, businesses and local authorities, as a starting point for the radical transformation London needs.
In the course of its global disruption, Covid-19 has proven itself an effective, if ruthless teacher, fundamentally rewriting the way we work.
It laid bare the fact that racial, social and economic inequality is having a direct and profound impact on the wellbeing, health and safety of our citizens. It highlighted our assumptive approach to culture and the creative industries which make up an invaluable part of our identity. It uncovered a startling vulnerability of businesses in central London areas, previously thought the most affluent and robust. It reminded us what carbon-guzzling folk we are, and how much of our public realm we have willingly passed on to the cars that asphyxiate us in our own homes. It made us question the financial viability of city-wide transportation systems. And it let us know that our infrastructure is not adequate, and that safety nets do not necessarily exist, to prevent desperate families turning to food banks when their household income took a dive.
The 15 Minute City is about urban life planning, providing fair access to those essential living needs for all. The central objective is to decarbonize our streets, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to travel around their neighbourhood safely, and for businesses to make use of the public realm. It requires densification, whilst increasing attractive and quality public realms with versatile uses and opportunities for social and commercial activities. The range of services available is optimized by collaborative and sharing models, with spaces and buildings having a diverse range of functions. The streets are car-free civic spaces where biodiversity thrives and adds to a high-quality public life. These shared assets are accessible to all and so facilitate social cohesion and inclusion.
The prospect for these neighbourhoods is a bright, progressive future. The UK’s most deprived areas have high streets overrun with fast food, betting shops and charity shops. In London we accept paying eye watering rent to live in run down, poorly serviced areas and spend our time and money escaping, to other areas of London where the most basic improvements make renting there completely unfeasible.
The use of commercial space would be overhauled, providing a network of affordable workspace that allows people to remain near home in an alternative work setting. The death of retail has been a slog to watch, but the 15 Minute City makes the revival of independent retail and makers plausible, with small businesses strengthened by new levels of daytime footfall. To condense this variety of offer, experience and product into a small footprint we will need to maximize the use and efficiency of buildings, giving them various purposes throughout the day and night. These pockets will be working in silos, part of a greater fabric of customized systems that are responding to our climate change emergency whilst addressing local social and economic inadequacies.
Each neighbourhood should be self-sufficient to an extent, curated to provide all the opportunities and amenities needed to entice its residents to stay put. People say goodbye to time-consuming and frustrating commutes and are instead embedded in their local communities which become a place of work and play. If it seems radical to implement designed neighbourhoods throughout the city, this is the time to do so. Local authorities are pushing through urgent measures such as pedestrianisation to allow for social distancing without the usual prohibitive consultation requirements. Most of us would consider less cars on the street a positive change (with due consideration for surrounding areas) but previous processes would give weight to the few loud voices from the car lobby, and the hidden but powerful voice of large property owners who profit from the status quo.
Without wanting to go overboard, if we implement the above we could well be on a path to achieving a kind of urban utopia where community is revived, and our sense of belonging is re-established.
THE COST: THE IMPACT ON CENTRAL LONDON
Creating the kind of neighbourhoods that entice people to live, work and socialize in that area will give a boost to local economies unprecedented in modern times. whilst creating a void in central London. We cannot predict what capacity offices will operate at in the future or how and when tourism will recover, but the purpose and role of central London in the 15 Minute City will be determined by its ability to adapt.
Currently central London is full of small businesses — coffee shops, pubs, cafes, nail salons, gyms — that rely on the towering glass office blocks usually brimming with time-poor employees on a reasonable wage. The rug has been pulled out from beneath them, and the loss of those businesses is something to grieve. Even with a return to business-as-usual, central London without a dramatic rethink is incredibly vulnerable to global shifts caused by health or security threats. In order for central London to adapt to serve a constant and local community, these property markets would need to become affordable and accessible.
Places like Camden Town face a different but still profound challenge. We should learn that it is not sustainable or strategic for a place to shape its offer almost exclusively around the interests of international tourists. Anecdotally, local residents do not consider Camden Market a destination for them. To secure its place in a future-thinking, progressive city, Camden Town’s business community will need to reconfigure its offer and serve the local community who, aside from an all-out lockdown situation, are a potential source of loyal custom if the offer is curated for them.
MAKING IT HAPPEN — PLANNING AND CURATING
The success of the 15 Minute City lies in our ability to effectively plan, manage big developers and allow communities to co-create their neighbourhood.
Local authorities must effectively manage land use, preventing developers from changing use class from commercial to residential. If the changes to permitted development rights leads to swathes of commercial space on our high streets being transferred to residential, the chance to implement a versatile offer within our neighbourhoods will be lost. The success of high streets and local economies hinge on curious visitors and locals who can visualize and understand the offer from active frontages at ground level. It is imperative to protect these units and ringfence them for businesses or activities that contribute to the high street experience. Otherwise, people will yet again be pushed from one side of the city to another, chasing after amenities and activities that could be on their doorstep.
At the same time, multiple commercial uses of buildings must be easily transferable to enable popup occupiers and buildings that operate at full capacity, facilitating a culture of ideas and experimentation whilst refreshing a neighbourhood’s local offer. Any developer proposals that remove a community asset without appropriate replacement must be denied.
High streets must be carefully curated, listening to the local community and using tools such as business rates reductions to incentivise the right type of business to set up. It should not take a global pandemic to consider whether the proliferation of betting shops and fast food targeting deprived areas is morally acceptable.
A PATH TO INCLUSION
Covid-19 has taunted us with some uncomfortable truths about social and economic inequalities. Since lockdown, global corporations have strengthened their monopolies whilst small businesses have crumpled under the prospect of due rent repayments. The wealthy and those who can work from home have been inconvenienced, whilst the working classes and key workers have lost their jobs or been forced to expose themselves to the risks of the pandemic. We may never live in a totally fair or just society, but the 15 Minute City is a chance to envelope all communities into the recovery and design process.
If every single private development, even an individual house, were to contribute to local affordable housing we could see fairer and broader access to neighbourhoods that become increasingly attractive places to live. This new configuration should not lead to gentrification that pushes communities out, it should bring opportunities in whilst broadening the area’s demographic.
And finally, co-creation is the only way to ensure that the concept works in enticing locals to stay. The stakeholders here are local residential communities, allowing businesses to adapt to their desires and needs. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has introduced participatory budgeting, and the 15 Minute City gives a compartmentalized framework where exactly this kind of tool can be tested and used.
With the 15-minute city we envision a future London of overlapping neighborhoods, where people are embedded into their local community and have the tools to discuss and implement the changes their neighbourhood needs. To get there will take courageous steps and drastic changes, but the outcomes we know are possible will be more than worth it.