How the ‘15-Minute City’ Can Enhance Our Urban Fabric

The idea of the 15-minute city stipulates that people should be able to meet their daily work and recreational needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes.

August 20, 2020

The rapid pace of change and the need to adapt and become agile are becoming key pillars for the sustainable development and growth of economies and cities worldwide. More so as a result of COVID-19, governments may find themselves having to rethink the way cities function, with a focus on social interaction, enhanced mobility, and sustainability to ensure long-term economic prosperity. One specific concept that has come to the limelight is that of the 15-minute city.

The idea stipulates that people should be able to meet their daily work and recreational needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes. This model would then allow global cities to provide equal access to living, jobs, and services. Moreover, it would minimize the cost of infrastructure as it brings everyday essentials into existing neighborhoods and closer to the consumer, while reducing the carbon footprint of cities. Spearheading this trend globally is Paris, which has installed 'corona cycleways' (300 kilometers of temporary cycling and pedestrian paths) to ease crowding around public transport as businesses reopen.

Regional Potential

Given cities within the GCC continue to witness rapid growth and urban development, there is potential to incorporate this model within large-scale masterplans, particularly in Saudi Arabia which is undergoing a huge shift in its urban development. This also falls in line with some of the key objectives and main pillars of Vision 2030, which aim to ensure the economic, social, and environmental advancement of the Kingdom.

This essentially falls under the 'Quality of Life' Program 2020, which aims to improve the lifestyle of individuals and families across the various cities in Saudi Arabia. This is achieved by enhancing the participation of citizens in cultural, entertainment, sports and other activities that contribute to the quality of life and promote the status of Saudi cities globally (the Vision targets to have 3 cities in the top 100 most livable cities).

Inclusive Mixed-Use Developments

Essential to achieving this is creating vibrant communities in which individuals and families from various backgrounds interact and engage with one another and their physical environment. Unlike the traditional make-up of cities, where asset classes were unintegrated, a 15-minute city calls for urban masterplans that facilitate a social mix through incorporating residential , commercial, retail, and hospitality assets within communities. These must offer quality basic and lifestyle services with public spaces for all to boost the wellbeing of individuals.

This would typically involve the densification of communities to avoid an urban sprawl. However, this is more than just building as much housing as possible in a short period of time. A 15-minute city model would force developers to rethink the kinds of environments they are creating, ensuring sustainability, comfort, and social interaction are at the core of this. Essential features would include the development of street-level infrastructure (walkways and cycleways), repurposing buildings, developing creative solutions to ensure sufficient public services are available, along with providing both open and shaded green spaces as permanent fixtures. 

Developing Smart Cities

Innovation and technology have a role in facilitating this integration of communities within a 15-minute radius. As we adapt to living with the consequences of the pandemic, which include a shift towards flexible working practices for example, investment in innovative technologies that facilitate our day-to-day living and working has become essential.

As a result, technologies that enhance accessibility and promote collaboration through design and construction should be incorporated from the onset. Technologies can also be deployed to manage maintenance issues, energy consumption, and environmental impacts more efficiently. Introducing more sensors in buildings or public spaces will also allow for the optimal use of space, which would support in proper spatial planning versus densification. This also offers the opportunity to upgrade and repurpose spaces and assets.

While the success of these communities relies on the partnership and collaboration of all entities involved, local governments and policymakers are the key drivers of this, whether through fostering relationships with the private sector, or introducing new legislations. In addition, governments can focus on low-hanging fruits pertaining to each development to generate quick wins with minimal resources (time and money) particularly in light of budget constraints.

The 15-minute city is a modern-day urban experiment, which addresses and provides various practical solutions to modern day issues such as gaps in infrastructure spending budgets, the need for more inclusivity and diversity in communities, and the side-effects of climate change. In the long run, this creates more resilient communities and reduces vulnerabilities against unforeseen disruptions.