The 15-minute city: ‘I proposed a new urban lifestyle based on reducing the commute’

Carlos Moreno created eco-friendly concept that became more plausible in the pandemic

The concept of the 15-minute city, where most daily requirements are within a short cycle or walk, came alive during the Covid-19 pandemic, with people forced to abandon the daily commute and reassess what was available locally.

However, for Carlos Moreno, the Paris-based academic credited with coining the term, it is more than just a pandemic flash in the pan. It is, he says, vital for the future of humanity.

His concept long predates the arrival of Covid-19. “The first time I evoked the 15-minute city was just after Cop21 in Paris, almost six years ago. I said that if we wanted to respect the roadmap for having carbon neutrality by 2050, during the next decade we needed not only to deploy the technical solutions – electrical vehicles, building with new materials etc – we needed to radically change our urban lifestyle.”

His target was, in particular, the office commute. “In the urban environment it is the main factor for generating, on the one hand pollution, and on the other the decrease in the quality of life. On average people lose two hours for a round trip from home to work. We have accepted until now the unacceptable; we have accepted the loss of our useful time. I proposed a new urban lifestyle based on radically reducing this.”

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Erode the commute

He sought to erode the long commute by “exploring proximities” – investigating what was already there and could be more fully exploited, or repurposed to deter commuting and to develop a more liveable neighbourhood.

In Paris, where Moreno is a scientific advisor to mayor Anne Hidalgo, this has been most evident in the requisitioning of car lanes for cyclists and pedestrians, but has also seen schoolyards, empty for large parts of the day, opened as public parks or sports grounds in the evening.

The 15-minute initiative also involves the better use of buildings, again with places empty at night used as cultural spaces, or vacant buildings bought by local councils and rented at reduced rates to businesses which are seen as advantageous to the local community, but which may struggle in the general rental market, such as book shops or grocers.

“It’s about mixing living with working, to have local shops in proximity, to localise jobs, to localise new economic activities based on services – hairdressers, sports centres. To reconquer public spaces not for cars but for humans, for playgrounds, for elderly people, for cultural activities.”

While passionate about cutting the commute, Moreno is not a fan of the kitchen-table office.

“Working from home is not necessarily a good thing. We need to avoid making working at home the standard because it isn’t possible for all people to have good conditions at home for working, if they don’t have enough space, if they have children.

“We also need to maintain socialisation for working. I prefer the concept of decentralised work, to have decentralised locations for going to work in the proximity maybe for several hours, or one, two or three days a week. Then if you do go to the central corporate tower, you are doing it because it is totally necessary.”

‘Utopian’

Although he has been developing these concepts for several years, he acknowledges the advent of Covid-19 has given cities additional impetus to take them on.

“Six years ago several people said this is a very good idea but it is utopian, it wasn’t possible to have a workers staying close to home. But with the pandemic, in just a few days the whole planet was constrained to change. This is evidence that we could live differently, we could commute differently, we could work differently.”

Moreno is optimistic public pressure will ensure there isn’t a slide back to pre-pandemic levels of commuting and he cites several studies which indicate that, in particular, workers in the 18- to 40-year-old bracket want to stay working locally.

“They have the possibility to rediscover useful time... People have two more hours in the day for other activities, time for family, friends, for themselves, for cultural activities, for cooking... That is very powerful leverage for the 15-minute city.”

Moreno, who is the keynote speaker at the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) annual conference on November 3rd, acknowledges there is resistance to the concept, with some fearing the death of the city centre, or employers unwilling to continue with new working arrangements.

“But it is not acceptable to continue to work in the same way as the last century,” he says. “Yes we will have resistance, but we don’t stop to satisfy this attitude of the last century. We are not constrained to watch the future, we need to change the future, because this is for the survival of humanity after 2050.”