Living in proximity, the 15-minute city

Il·lustració © Enrique Flores

The year 2020 has been a pivotal year in which two crises have been intertwined: the climate and the health emergencies, with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the crossroads of these two major crises, a world debate has initiated around the so-called “city of proximities”. The idea of ​​the 15-minute city advocates an urban reconfiguration to ensure that natural resource management and hyper-proximity are the keys to improving residents’ quality of life.


The year 2020: A year of environmental crisis

As the international community celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement this year and the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, the state of the environment remains a matter of concern. The goal of the Paris Agreement was to limit global warming to 2°C by 2100 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Five years later, the established trajectory and the expected results are not palpable. A similar observation is noted in the implementation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. The results are insufficient, worrying, and the world is in jeopardy on account of climate change, inequality and the extinction of biodiversity.

In 2015, at the initiative of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, one thousand mayors gathered in Paris to address climate change and to make their voices heard. Approximately one hundred of the world’s largest cities and the C40 Cities Network came together to develop ambitious initiatives and to ensure that each city had a climate plan in place to accomplish the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The role of cities is admittedly decisive in this paradigm shift, since urban areas are responsible for 70% of emissions, with more than 50% of the world’s population living in them and 65% predicted to do so by 2050.

The year 2020: A year of health crisis

The year 2020 is also a landmark year due to the health and planetary crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has affected the whole world and urban living, from the complete halt to activities and economic exchanges to its gradual reconfiguration within a strict health framework. This issue has borne a particular impact on how urban spaces operate. Firstly, its containment calls for reducing cities’ activities to a minimum. In many parts of the world, the restriction of movement to a one-kilometre radius of one’s home has forced residents to find local solutions to meet their day-to-day needs. In a second phase, cities had to adapt to facilitate social distancing and uphold preventive measures, and thus minimise the spread of the virus. The health crisis has been a source of upheaval across the world, which has sparked broader questions regarding social options and advisable urban, collective and economic organisations for a more sustainable and livable future.

The year 2020: Converging around the city of proximities

At the crossroads of these two major crises, a global debate has been initiated around the 15-minute city and the 30-minute territory. These proposals advocate an urban reconfiguration that makes hyper-proximity the key to improving quality of life. Our proposal resonated with the needs arising from the double environmental and health crisis: an urban set-up that limits the environmental impact of life in the city by significantly reducing carbon-intensive journeys, in which residents can meet their basic needs close to home and that, thanks to their quality of life, fosters their well-being and attachment to their area of residence.

The COVID-19 crisis accelerated the popularity of the 15-minute city. With the shutting down of cities, journeys were reduced to almost zero and essential purchases had to be made close to home. Furthermore, to prevent the spread of the virus during public transport congestion, alternative mobility solutions were quickly put in place. Cities around the world have shown their agility by deploying hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes, expanding restaurant terraces in spaces reserved for parking, and rolling out green initiatives in neighbourhoods... Strategic urban planning has constituted a real tool for the rapid and low-cost adaptation of urban spaces. COVID-19 has justified and decisively accelerated the introduction of the 15-minute city in many cities, thanks to the rediscovery of proximity, the use of active mobility and the strengthening of social ties. In my book Urban Life and Proximity at the Time of COVID-19, I present these concepts in greater depth to understand the impact of the health crisis on urban living.

In this regard, C40 mayors have integrated the 15-minute city in the common agenda adopted to emerge from the crisis and to bring about ecological recovery. The proposed measures are aimed at bring about a more livable, inclusive, equitable and resilient city. Mayors are taking action to implement urban development policies that foster proximity, active mobility and the rolling out of public service facilities that are close to residents. These initiatives imply a paradigm shift in the manner in which the city is managed.

The key notions of the 15-minute city

The idea of 15-minute city has sparked a worldwide debate. Its rapid spread across the world is testament to the enthusiasm shared by a new perspective on urban planning as regards the uses and role of time in our lives, in our living environment.

Although our means of transport are reaching record speeds, we still have the nasty impression we are “running after time”. Urban planning is characterised by an acceleration of the pace of life and the corollary is a feeling of being overwhelmed by a stressful routine. Thus, urban planning and temporality are closely linked: to address the widespread malaise, the city must adapt to the different paces and needs of its residents and users. This represents a major challenge because, when shared, the city is in fact polyrhythmic (individuals have different social and personal paces) and polychronic (the use of their places varies according to the time). To tackle this challenge, we have developed the concept of “the 15-minute city”.

At a time of environmental emergency, the sustainable city is imperative. It can only be sustainable if it can be fair, viable and livable at the same time. This means finding an urban model that exists and creates value through the convergence and intersection of three components: the environmental, the social and the economic dimensions. The sustainable city approach through polycentrism offers a new solution to sustainable urban development.

The 15-minute city (denoting the maximum journey time from home for residents to access the goods and services needed for their well-being and daily life) puts temporality at the heart of a new vision of urban planning; it challenges individuals’ use of time and space, in parallel with the city’s spatial and temporal organisation. In order to give residents back the possession of their time and breathe new life into their territory, the 15-minute city proposes changing our way of life to meet basic needs in hyper-proximity: housing, work, supplies, health care, and access to culture and sports.

This proposal for urban transformation breaks with functionalist urban planning and with the “automobile paradigm” that governs the organisation of our territories. In fact, our cities have been shaped by infrastructure-driven urban planning; spatial segregation has led to a separation and opposition between time and urban space. The deterioration of quality of life and stress are its consequences. Mobility engineering has endeavoured to bridge this gap with rapid means of transport, but which consume a great deal of time and energy on a daily basis. While for Le Corbusier “a city made for speed is made for success”, the key to urban well-being in the 15-minute city is to reduce the speed and distance of journeys. Pedestrians and cyclists are indeed the actors in this urban model, and their active and carbon-free journeys are in line with contemporary ecological challenges.

However, slowing down the city does not mean slowing down life. Conversely, social intensity and local economic dynamics must be given impetus by this means of urban organisation. By rediscovering time in their immediate surroundings, residents will have the opportunity to make better use of places with local initiatives. The city of proximities seeks to combine social and environmental responsibility and well-being, in daily life, through the deployment of low-carbon mobility, shared with local services, also supported by the possibilities offered by digital technology.

This new urban model proposes a virtuous cycle in which time, space, quality of life and sociability are closely linked. It is the point of convergence of three notions: chrono-urbanism, chronotopia and topophilia.

Chrono-urbanism: Linking day-to-day paces and spaces

The notion of chrono-urbanism emerges as a reaction to the phenomenon of desynchronisation and the volatility of social practices and lifestyles. Whereas urban planning is based on the principle of anticipating long-term social behaviour, it kind of planning fails in cities where “agitation, mobility, urgency and speed are established as new values”.[1] Chrono-urbanism proposes integrating the time dimension into urban planning, combining places, movements and time, that is, the built environment, flows and schedules. According to François Asher, this urban planning integrates the time variable in the same manner as the space variable in design and projects: it responds to a need for territorialised time regulations and envisions a temporal qualification of the various territories.[2]

[1] GWIAZDZINSKI, Luc, ‘Quel temps est-il?’ Eloge du chrono-urbanisme, 2013.

[2] ASHER, François, ‘Du vivre en juste à temps au chrono-urbanisme’, Annales de la recherche urbaine, 77, 1997, pp.112-12. Interview with François Asher in Millénaire 3.

The 15-minute city is at the opposite end of the spectrum of modern urban planning, whose infrastructure development has been a factor in spatial segregation on account of many functional specialisations. The exacerbated separation of space and time has ended up opposing them and we have lost something precious for urban living, the essence of life itself: the value of Time. The 15-minute city aims to put your living time, your useful living time, at the heart of urban living to preserve the quality of life. It proposes living differently, changing our relationship with time and, above all, with mobility time.

The 15-minute city, and its urban planning by uses, creates a new urban atmosphere: transitioning from forced mobility, in a fragmented city, to a chosen mobility, in a desired, polycentric and multi-service city.

Il·lustració © Enrique Flores © Enrique Flores

Chronotopia: Differentiated use of a place according to temporality

How can the challenge of chrono-urbanism – the adaptation of a city to the diversity of individual paces – be tackled when spaces are restricted and limited? The notion of chronotopia provides a solution and enhances the potential of chrono-urbanism. This term designates the evolution of the use of a place according to the time factor: chronotopic space can accommodate different uses according to temporalities. Squares are a traditional example to illustrate this term, since they can be a market place, place of celebration, car park, event venue, etc.

Based on the observation of a limited urban space and a high urban density, chronotopia aims to find new possible uses for spaces, challenging the pre-existing uses. It entails reflecting on the rhythmic sequences of a place to reveal its multiple possible functions. The diversification of uses in the same place has several benefits: for individuals, they are new places to meet, new living spaces to pursue activities or solve problems; for the owner, it allows the use of an existing facility or space to be optimised.

The same place can thus have a different use depending on the time of day (car parks, classrooms), depending on the day of the week (market, schoolyard), and depending on the time of year (university, conference hall, museum, nightclub). Strategic urban planning also invites us to think about chronotopia in a greater space-time, modifying the use of an empty place in the space-time available before initiating the construction works of a lasting urban project.

Topophilia: Attachment to place

Diversity of periods, diversity of uses, for whom? For what? The resident, the user, is the main subject of urban planning. The overriding goal of the execution of chrono-urban planning and the development of chronotopia is to serve residents, making their experience of the surroundings pleasant or even optimal. Such a space-time organisation implies taking into account the needs of these residents/users and integrating them into the project. This is in keeping with the dynamics of consultation/participation and control of use initiated in urban initiatives in the last twenty years.

The ensuing social intensity from bringing together different activities in spaces with multiple uses highlights the ambition to create moments of collective and individual contact, places of encounter and exchange. All these elements converge towards the same goal: to provide the user/resident with positive emotions.

We thus come to the third notion, topophilia, which literally means “love of place”. At the heart of this concept is people’s relationship with the city and their surroundings, and the development of an emotional (and therefore subjective) attachment. Facilitating the development of an affective relationship with a place is a strong ambition, the success of which hinges on many factors.

As a sustainable city, the 15-minute city also considers its relationship – and that of its residents – with nature, water and biodiversity. All research shows that a dense city, which has been able to integrate a green vision in its development, is a city in which the residents reduce their trips away and contribute to a high quality of social life and to  develop ties with the neighbourhood. Natural resource management is at the core of urban living and is a concern of the city of proximities. In addition to the aforementioned elements, other important aspects can be added to develop attachment to place: the appropriation and participation of users in the project and its execution; the design and set-up; the beauty of the place (art, architecture, surroundings, etc.); access to a nearby natural area; and the momentum of local initiatives and the creation of networks of actors that breathe life into the place.

Fifteen-minute cities: Plurality and diversity of spaces and territories

Exploring the 15-minute city and its concepts brings us to assert a methodology.

Firstly, its application puts uses and temporality at the heart of the project and means ushering in a profound change in practices and the flexibility of the urban initiative. Since lifestyles change very quickly, taking them into account implies flexibility and adaptability. It entails allowing the experience and the venture to be sampled to reveal the potential of nearby spaces.

Secondly, stemming from the 15-minute city model and its overall idea is the need to adapt it to different territories and scales with different histories and needs. The time factor is not the same in Paris, Barcelona, Bogotá, Montreal and Beijing. Similarly, the residents’ wants and needs differ. This means paramount importance must be afforded to the initial assessment, to the local dialogue and to building a proposal adapted to each place. The 15-minute city is not a magic wand! It is above all a journey to transform our way of understanding the urban environment and how to execute urban planning based on uses and not infrastructures.

Publicacions recomanades

  • Droit de cité. Carlos MorenoÉditions de l’Observatoire, 2020
  • Vie urbaine et proximité. À l’heure du covid-19? Carlos MorenoÉditions de l’Observatoire, 2020

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