Time to think 15-minute cities for health and equity
Most cities in North America were built for the car, resulting in urban sprawl that requires commuting time. In recent decades, cities began to undergo an urban transformation to become more compact to provide residents with active transportation opportunities that can benefit physical and mental health and to be more sustainable. One design concept for compact communities is the 15-minute city, where all life necessities such as work, school, grocery stores, and child and medical care can be reached within 15 minutes of one’s home without driving.
This concept became more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many people worked from home and lessened outings due to public health measures (e.g., lockdowns), neighbourhood amenities became important. The emphasis on local shopping to obtain essential goods and active transport grew, along with implementation of open or slow street programs, and temporary bike lanes. With a shift towards working from home, and the discovery of their own neighbourhoods, some residents may continue to value local life going forward.
Compact communities do have attractive attributes but if not implemented with equal access to amenities, a 15-minute city may be inequitable for underserved neighbourhoods. Not all neighbourhoods experienced street improvements or had access to essential goods during the pandemic. In Canada, only 20% of the population live near “amenity-dense” neighbourhoods (i.e. employment, grocery stores, schools, transit stops). In much of Canada, amenities are geographically dispersed and thus require transportation and travel time, limiting for people who may not have the means or be physically able to travel. As proximity to amenities can be a driver of socioeconomic outcomes for both residents and businesses, disparities in equitable access is an important consideration.
Defining the 15-minute city
The 15-minute city, developed in 2016 by urbanist and Professor Carlos Moreno, identifies six basic social functions that occur close to one’s home: living, working, commerce, healthcare, education, and entertainment. The core concepts are not new, but provides a chrono-urbanism model that considers two essential components of urban life: time and space. In essence, time saved commuting to life’s social functions can be optimized for other priorities in life.
The four main guiding principles of the 15-minute city are:
- Proximity - availability of amenities for social functions accessible within 15 minutes by active transportation.
- Density - Optimal number of individuals who can support a diversity of amenities in a given area.
- Diversity - Mixed land use of residential, commercial and entertainment components, with diverse cultures and people. Provide housing options to accommodate different socioeconomic levels and enable residents to live closer to jobs or work from home.
- Ubiquity –Diverse amenities in all neighbourhoods that are accessible and affordable to everyone.
In order to achieve proximity in the 15-minute city, multiple uses is suggested for each square meter of existing built land. Schoolyards can double as neighbourhood parks during off-school hours, and school buildings can be used as community centres in the evenings. However, this functional change of a property may also present environmental health considerations. For example, if schools were to be used at night, infrastructure supports such as night-time lighting and HVAC systems would need to operate after school hours.
The 2021 City Pulse Survey of residents in 10 cities found that good neighbourhood design, employment opportunities, and multi-modal transportation options were preferred in a great city. Cities that feel too large and busy, and where housing is unaffordable, made people want to move to smaller cities and suburbs. The concept of the 15-minute city may provide features that many people desire of a smaller city. In Canada, the exodus of residents from cities to the suburbs during the pandemic may also create a demand for smaller service hubs in neighbourhoods as reflected in the 15-minute city.
Health and non-health benefits of the 15-minute city
The 15-minute city provides many benefits that can influence health, social, economic and sustainability outcomes. Some of the benefits include:
- Increased physical activity from active transportation opportunities leading to health benefits and prevention of chronic diseases.
- Increased social connections where residents are more likely to know their neighbours, trust others and participate in community life.
- Improved street safety and reduced injury from more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and slower traffic speed. Improved independence for seniors, children, and people with disabilities if developed with an inclusion lens.
- Increased neighbourhood satisfaction and liveability from improved access to amenities and public transportation in mixed-use neighbourhoods.
- Increased economic activity in mixed-use neighbourhoods.
- Improved sustainability from reduced vehicle use, reducing carbon emissions benefiting air quality.
With Paris at the forefront since 2019, the 15-minute city model has become global with some common aims such as installing bicycle paths on every street and bridge, creating alternative use of infrastructure outside of operating hours and increasing office space in neighbourhoods. In Canada, Vancouver has been planning aspects of the 15-minute city since the 1970’s through regeneration of its downtown area, including doubling the downtown population and adding schools and cultural venues to neighbourhoods. Table 1 highlights selected examples of Canadian cities that have incorporated the 15-minute city into their official plans:
15-minute city model
. Official Plan is premised on transformation from a city of distance to a city of proximity, based on the 15-Minute Neighbourhood concept.
. Analysis of existing amenities and services within a 15-minute walk and the walkability and safety of environments through mapping.
. Challenge of implementation in bungalow-belt and suburban communities. Goal for gradual evolution of increased public transportation, diverse housing, and employment.
. Goal for rural villages: have them evolve into rural 15-minute neighbourhoods with main streets that provide essential services.
. Edmonton has over 300 neighbourhoods divided into Districts, comprised of multiple connected neighbourhoods.
15-minute city Included in Community Wellbeing Plan
. Equity, where all belong, is a central vision of plan. To create spaces that support physical and mental health and resiliency.
. Components of 15-minute city incorporated into plan goals: short distances, room for community, equity, social investments.
Table 1 – Adaptation of 15-minute city in some Canadian cities
One constraint to implementation is that existing infrastructure can be difficult to change readily and without infusion of resources. Many cities may need to adapt its benefits to what is feasible for their local geography; for instance, Ottawa and Edmonton’s city plans reflect the adaptation of the 15-minute city for their suburban and rural areas.
Potential considerations when planning for the 15-minute city
Although the 15-minute city aims to be inclusive and accessible, some issues with inequality may arise. These include and are not limited to:
- Applicability to suburbs and rural areas – The 15-minute city was conceptualized for European cities designed around pedestrians. The suburban sprawl of North American cities may make its implementation challenging. Smaller communities may also have limited funding for modifications.
- Gentrification – Walkable neighbourhoods may correlate with an increase in housing prices, drive poorer populations out of gentrified neighbourhoods, and opposed by residents fearing displacement.
- Segregated neighbourhoods – North American cities were created with segregation in its colonial history. Marginalized communities may be poor, unsafe, and lack desirable amenities. Opportunities exist to prioritize change within these neighbourhoods.
- Accessibility - People with different abilities may not be able to afford living in compact communities especially if on limited income. In building compact communities, accessible features may be absent, e.g. rest stops, auditory crosswalk signals, wider sidewalks.
- Quality of pedestrian experience – With development of walkable neighbourhoods in a 15-minute city, if the quality of the pedestrian experience does not have Walk Appeal, it may not be inviting or safe for people to walk or bike in, and they may opt to drive.
Input by public health in planning of the 15-minute city
As environmental public health (EPH) practitioners undertake more projects around the built environment, awareness of the 15-minute city may be useful if their jurisdictions plan for such communities. With a view to promote and to protect health in the context of designing and planning a denser, compact community, public health can add a voice for inclusiveness planning and considerations of environmental health issues. They can: provide health evidence, promote health benefits, and advocate for health equity in compact communities to planners and policy makers to support decision-making and the review of master plans.
- Refer to examples of inclusive community engagement, such as the East Scarborough Storefront.
- Inform decision-makers about the capabilities of public health to contribute localized knowledge of health disparities and community health profiles.
- Collaborate on food safety and security considerations across the food system in compact communities.
- Advise on waste management at the residential or neighbourhood level with consideration of sustainability.
- Provide education on health impacts of potential environmental contaminants such as water, soil, air, radon, and pests in high-risk neighbourhoods.
- Advise on storm water management and educating about air quality at the neighbourhood level, especially with the increased occurrence of severe weather events from climate change.
The 15-minute city concept can work to provide benefits that can improve quality of life, reduce carbon footprint, and to help promote health and health equity. Connections with local residents in underserved populations in planning efforts can address equity concerns. In also recognizing that spaces can be flexible and adapt to multiple uses, the 15-minute city can provide a more liveable and accessible community for all.
- Healthy Built Environment Toolkit
- Planning and Community Health: A Practitioner’s Handbook.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Pam Moore for providing input into the connection between environmental public health practice and the healthy built environment. (Pam’s Blog for NCCEH: Creating healthy community places and spaces for individual with diverse abilities.)
Anna Chow was an EH and KT Scientist at NCCEH.