How can your business help deliver the 15 Minute City?
More than half of the world’s population live in cities, predicted to grow to two thirds by 2050. Therefore much of the debate on Sustainability should be about urban Sustainability. One of the big buzz phrases of the moment is ‘the 15 minute city’ – the idea that most of what people need – work, live, play – should be within a 15 minute walk or cycle. The most high profile proponent has been Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, but other cities, including my own, Newcastle upon Tyne, are starting to take notice.
Like many buzz phrases, ’15 minute’ city is a rebrand of older ideas. In the lower reaches of the Ouseburn Valley where I live, a 20 year old development process rumbles on around the concept of an ‘urban village’. This has the same basic idea: most of the services you use along with your place of work or study, should be right on your doorstep. I’ve been involved in the Lower Ouseburn Valley project at varying levels of engagement for the last 15 years, and my main conclusion is that it is bloody difficult to deliver.
As with most Sustainability issues, the main problem is that all the surrounding systems are still set up for ‘business as usual’. How are you going to persuade new residents in a work/live space to work there too if their employers require their presence in various business parks across the city? Are you going to be able to ban/close down out of town retail parks to give local shops a chance to thrive? How do you fit secondary schools into the 15 minute concept? Health centres? If a developer wants to build a huge student accommodation block more than a 15 minutes’ cycle from the nearest University, how are you going to stop them? You can build ‘active frontage’ into blocks of flats (we did), but what if no retailer wants to open there?
We have seen such problems manifest themselves in many ‘eco-suburbs’ across Europe. The Western Harbour development in Malmo required a multi-storey car when its low car neighbourhoods were overwhelmed with cars. There are stories from Freiburg in Germany that neighbouring suburbs complain about being an overspill car park. I’ve been told the live/work units in BedZed South London are largely used for live, but little work, most people want to keep a car, and the carbon footprint of residents isn’t much better than average.
But the 15 minute life is one I largely lead – I’ve worked from home for the last 14 years. I do most of my grocery shopping in the corner shop at the top of my road, or one of the two big chain mini-supermarkets which are 10 minutes walk away, usually buying fresh food just before I cook it. My favourite places to have a coffee, lunch, evening meal or a cheeky pint are within walking distance. We have a car but usually it moves just once or twice a week, largely depending on passenger numbers than distance. The younger two kids walk to school, the eldest cycles. In terms of social cohesion, I’ve had a couple of criminals nicked by the police as I see when something dodgy is going on while my neighbours are at work. And I love the life – I can’t imagine what would put me back into a daily commuting pattern, but it would have to be a very serious situation.
And here’s the rub. I’m self-employed so I get to make the rules about my lifestyle. Fundamentally the 15 minute city is about lifestyle. You can design all the low traffic neighbourhoods, cycle parking, reduced car parking, mixed use developments with active frontage, work/live units etc, etc you want, but they won’t change people’s lifestyle. They will make the new lifestyle easier, yes, but they won’t allow them to let go of the old.
And this is where Covid-19 comes in. The 2020 lockdown forced many people to work from home for months, and a daily short walk to cornershop suddenly became a lot more attractive compared to a long queue outside a mega-market for a weekly shop. And now employees and employers alike are used to these new ways of working, many people can keep living this lifestyle. One of my worries is that the 15 minute city will create new inequalities, as white collar workers find it a dream while blue collar workers get stuck in the old ways of working. But one of my clients is rearranging their maintenance crews’ work patterns so they start off their working day from home and work within that locality where possible – showing that there are wider opportunities, if employers take heed.
The 15 minute city is a wonderful concept which big opportunities for increased social cohesion, happier citizens and lower carbon footprint, but a lot is going to have to change, including the attitude of employers. If your business is serious about corporate social responsibility, then you should be looking hard at how your business model fits in with the urban village.