The future: get ready for the 15-minute city

A new vision: The switch to home working is driving a radically different idea of urban living

Are we on the verge of a completely new way of living? As part of a series on different visions of the future, we look at an exciting proposal to create small, super-convenient cities.

The year is 2030. It is a normal winter’s evening on Oxford Street. Gone is the purr of vehicles, the tooting of horns and the rushing of feet. Instead, cyclists pedal down the car-free avenues while Londoners enjoy a stroll, stopping to chat with friends and neighbours along the way. Above, the stars glimmer through the unpolluted air.

This could be the London of the future. A combination of advancing technology, alarm about rapid climate change and the impact of Covid-19 promises to radically transform our cities.

The process of urbanisation has long appeared inevitable. Cities are engines of economic growth and technological progress. For decades people have flocked to them like flies to a lamp, hungry for the opportunities they offer. Metropolises have consequently become sprawling megacities, flush with wealth – and riddled with poverty.

Yet the tide might be beginning to turn, from the mega to the micro. Brent Cross Town, a new development on the cusp of London, follows the concept of the 15-minute city. It aims to provide residents with all the amenities they need without them having to travel outside their neighbourhood.

Existing centres might become less hectic. In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo has turned roads into footpaths, parking spots into cycle lanes and junctions into al fresco dining spots. The French capital has become calmer, cleaner and more localised.

Key to these changes is a realisation of cities’ negative impact on our wellbeing. According to the Centre of Urban Design, city-dwellers face a 40% higher risk of depression and a 20% higher risk of anxiety than those living in the countryside.

Recently, the pandemic has spotlighted physical risks of living in densely-populated areas. Only 2.6% of Americans live in New York City. Yet during the virus’s first wave, 23% of the country’s deaths from Covid-19 occurred in the metropolis.

The disease has removed people from city centres, as lockdowns force people to work from home. Many are in no rush to return to expensive, time-consuming commutes and days spent counting down the hours on the office clock. Some have even taken the chance to vacate the big cities altogether.

In the Middle Ages, Europe was characterised by a network of smaller towns, each with its own specialism. Some think that the future could see a return to this model: one settlement might be a magnet for artists; another a centre for athletes, and so on.

There are reasons to be sceptical about such a vision. Cities are durable. They have survived epidemics, conflict, depressions and fires. More than 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in World War Two, yet the Polish capital still thrives today.

Although densely-populated areas can be a breeding ground for diseases, they also contain the hospitals and labs providing their solutions, as the leading academic Jane Jacobs argues: “Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors.”

It is not the first time the city's death knell has been sounded. In 1995, American writer George Gilder called them “leftover baggage from the industrial era” and predicted that electronic communication would swiftly lead to their extinction. The 25 years since have seen cities swell even as digital technology has accelerated.

For many, the benefits of cities still outweigh the dangers. Elena Magrini of the Centre for Cities says cities “allow people to mix, to be together and share ideas”. After the privations of the pandemic, the variety and vibrancy of the metropolis might seem more attractive than ever.

Are we on the verge of a new way of living?

Urban decay

It is time for change, say some. Cities are awash with pollution and inequality and they hamper our mental health. The pandemic has brought the dangers of big-city living into stark relief. Now that digital technology has enabled us to transcend the need for physical proximity in the workplace, crowded urban areas should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Not in a million years, say others. From Shakespeare’s plays to contemporary medical research, cities have incubated many of humanity’s greatest achievements. Zoom and Skype cannot recreate the thrill of bustling streets and abundant life, nor the variety of attractions and chance encounters that a metropolis offers. Cities have problems, for sure, but their benefits ensure they are here to stay.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in a big city or a small town?
  2. What is more important for a city: its buildings or its inhabitants?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of a new 15-minute city, incorporating places for living, working, shopping, healthcare, education and entertainment.
  2. You are the mayor of a fictional new city. Write an article persuading people to move there, outlining your settlement’s particular benefits and amenities.

Some People Say...

“In Rome you long for the country; in the country you praise the distant city to the stars.”

Horace (65 - 8BC), Ancient Roman poet and satirist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is incontestable that human societies have tended towards urbanisation over time. In Britain, this process accelerated with the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th Century, before soaring with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th. In 1801, 17% of people in England and Wales lived in larger cities; by 1891, the sum was 54%. Today, this process continues in the developing world: by 2007, for the first time in human history, over half the world’s population lived in cities.
What do we not know?
There remains debate over whether cities have a positive or negative effect on the environment. Cities are responsible for three-quarters of the world’s CO2 emissions. As cities grow, they fragment, and sometimes destroy, habitats. On the other hand, large cities in developed countries enable more efficient use of natural resources and emit less CO2 per capita than smaller settlements. And by concentrating the human population in fewer places, they allow nature to flourish elsewhere.

Word Watch

Urbanisation
The increase in the proportion of people living in towns and cities. It is predicted that by 2050 three billion people will live in cities.
Megacities
A city housing a population of 10 million or more. According to the UN, the smallest is Bangkok (10.2 million) and the largest Tokyo (37.5 million).
15-minute city
An idea proposed by the Franco-Columbian urbanist Carlos Moreno that describes a city in which all daily amenities are located no more than a 15-minute walk from every resident.
Death knell
The ringing of a church bell to announce a death, common practice in Britain until the 20th Century.

Subjects

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