Market Insight

15-minute cities – a people and planet first approach, but not without its challenges

October 24, 2023
15 minute city
The 15-minute city, also known as the 20-minute neighbourhood, is the “utopian vision of local living” in which people can access most of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their home.

The term 15-minute city was coined by Paris-based urbanist and Sorbonne Professor, Carlos Moreno, and has gained in popularity throughout 2023 and is based on the principle that communities should be designed around the needs of people.

Whilst Moreno introduced the idea in 2016, it wasn’t popularised until 2020, when Paris Mayoress Anne Hidalgo adopted it, gaining traction in the UK during the pandemic.

An urban design / planning concept which highlights the importance of ease of access to local shops, healthcare and green spaces, it has supporters, sceptics and challenges.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has championed the idea and has called for the creation of 15-minute neighbourhoods as a way of promoting more sustainable, healthier, and happier communities, arguing that they help to reduce car dependency, promote active travel, and support local businesses.

Growing public support

The public seems to be in agreement with the RTPI, with research from YouGov suggesting that the majority of people (62%) would support their local authority in making their area a 15-minute neighbourhood.

As a result, we have seen a number of UK towns and cities adopt the concept as part of their local planning policy.

The Healthy Streets for London initiative is a prime example of this, aiming to create streets that are safe, accessible and attractive for walking and cycling. The initiative acts as the framework of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy and puts human health and experience at the heart of planning the city.

Meanwhile, in Manchester we have seen the adoption of a 15-minute neighbourhood concept as part of the “Our Manchester” strategy, which aims to reset priorities “to ensure Manchester can achieve its aim of being in the top-flight of world-class cities by 2025, with equality, inclusion and sustainability at its heart.”

Whilst around since the 1960s, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are becoming increasingly popular as a way to not only reduce traffic congestion and pollution, but to improve access to town centres through public transport too.

Oxford City Council is leading the way in this area as it aims to deliver a sustainable, reliable, and inclusive transport system through permanent LTNs. But it hasn’t been without  opposition, with some conspiracy theorists believing it to be a restriction on free movement or ‘climate lockdown’.

Conspiracy theories aside, the 15-minute town offers us a vision for a more liveable, connected and sustainable future, where people can enjoy a high quality of life, whilst reducing their impact on the environment.

Where there is an opportunity to masterplan town centres with a 15-minute neighbourhood in mind, local councils will do it and we are seeing it built into large-scale regeneration projects more and more from a planning perspective.

David Ramsay, Head of Planning, Vail Williams LLP.

Improved access to leisure & retail facilities

We know that 15-minute neighbourhoods promote healthier lifestyles, offering ease of access to more leisure and retail facilities.

As part of the decentralisation of public services, we are seeing more community health hubs – a lot of which are being co-located with a variety of other uses and services.

In line with this, planning uses are broadening out, bringing both cost and convenience benefits for the end user.

Those town centres with more provision of walking and cycling lanes, bring with them physical and mental health benefits.

However, unlike in the Netherlands or Luxembourg where the car is not king, it remains the case that our towns and cities are not, and have never been, designed with cyclists in mind.

Whilst the Highway Code may have changed to make the pedestrian take precedent, we need both a culture step-change and a transformation in the quality of our roads and the size of our pavements and bike lanes, to make cycling safer in the UK.

Reduction in carbon emissions

According to the World Health Organisation, pollution particulates in the air are responsible for an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths each year.

The 15-minute city, together with a rise in the use of electric vehicles and hydrogen powered cars and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZs), are resulting in less driving and an improvement in air quality in our towns and cities.

In August, London’s ULEZ was expanded to cover almost all areas inside the M25, with other schemes either already in place or in planning from Manchester and Birmingham, down to Portsmouth and Southampton.



Economic benefits

The 15-minute city also supports local, independent businesses by increasing footfall and reducing the need for long-distance travel to access essential convenience services.

Today, people tend to do a big shop online then top up locally. If you ‘shop local’, you reinvest in local economy and people increasingly want to do that and are more aware of the traceability and sustainability of the produce they buy.

This is resulting in a more circular local economy, creating jobs whilst promoting a much-need move away from retail homogeneity, giving independent stores more of an opportunity to thrive.

This trend accelerated in the pandemic, and we witnessed a rise in demand for retail within suburban areas, with retail vacancies reducing as a result.

However, we have also seen express stores from larger brands capitalise on this, which has the potential to drive independents out over time.

Improved urban design

The concept of the 15-minute city promotes compact, walkable communities with open spaces and active transport, which are much more attractive and liveable urban environments.

Where there is an opportunity to masterplan town centres with a 15-minute neighbourhood in mind, local councils will do it and we are seeing it built into large-scale regeneration projects more and more from a planning perspective.

But we need to be mindful to retain space in our towns centres to respond to the return to the office, delivering a range of flexible office space, including coworking hubs in sustainable locations.

We could also see planners do more to promote the 15-minute neighbourhood as part of major edge of town residential schemes, creating the opportunity for new schemes to serve entire age demographics – from housing and retirement villages, to shops, schools, pubs and leisure facilities.

Placemaking challenges

There are many examples of cities that have successfully implemented the 15-minute neighbourhood concept – from Paris’ 100% bicycle-friendly streets by 2024 to Oregon’s “neighbourhood greenways” to name just two.

However, “if 15-minute cities are to be implemented, we need to understand how to apply the concept to existing 20th century neighbourhoods,” according to the RTPI.

The principle of local service provision and walkable neighbourhoods has been a core element of planning for over a century but could “present a challenge to many existing planning paradigms.”

Many of our towns and cities pre-date the 20th Century and have arisen not by design, but by default.

As a result, providing a variety of services and amenities within a small area can prove difficult in some towns and cities, particularly those with limited space for new development.

Not only this, the services required in a particular area also need to be based on demand and research and this is where we need to see better communication around the impact of low traffic neighbourhoods.

Councils therefore need to look at the 15-minute neighbourhood in the context of a whole-scale review of placemaking, encompassing town planning, transport, infrastructure and land ownership. With this will come the need for bold and brave decisions. Not to mention the need to address power supply and landownership hurdles.

Even if these obstacles are overcome, funding such an approach will be difficult, and many Councils agree that funding is the primary barrier to the adoption of this this urban planning concept.

Despite the hurdles, the potential is clear – the 15-minute neighbourhood could transform our towns and cities for the better, to deliver a sense of place and purpose – and our town centre repurposing team can help.