A guide to 15-minute cities: why are they so controversial?

Posted on: 6 May, 2024

Why has the 15-minute city concept become the centre of heated debate, controversy and conspiracy theories?

According to research by TUC, the average person spends 59 minutes travelling to and from work per day. Even with the widespread adoption of remote working, this is five minutes longer than it was a decade ago, and outside of large cities, the vast majority (70%) of commuters are travelling by car.

The increasing length of commutes are just the tip of the iceberg for how far modern professionals and families travel by car. From grocery shopping and school runs to social visits, hospital trips and taking holidays, today’s population travel further and to more locations than ever before – locations that are often many miles apart from one another.

This, coupled with the exponential growth of our cities and networks, have led many urban planners to review the way our cities and neighbourhoods are designed, in an effort to counteract the increasing greenhouse gas emissions that result from travelling.

One solution that has been proposed is the 15-minute city. But what exactly is this concept? And why has it become the centre of political debates, protests and conspiracy theories?

What is a 15-minute city?

As the name suggests, a 15-minute city (often referred to as FMC or 20-minute neighbourhoods) is an urban planning concept where everything a resident needs can be accessed within a 15-minute journey. Rather than making an entire city traversable in 15-minutes, it instead means designing local areas to have everything civilians need within this distance.

The intention of this human-centric design concept is to reduce the use of cars and instead promote walking, cycling, and use of public transport. As such, 15-minute cities tend to emphasise features like green and public spaces, bike lanes and public walkways rather than roads.

Where does the 15-minute concept come from?

The 15-minute model was recently revived in 2016 by scientist and business professor Carlos Moreno and gained significant traction in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, it’s being put into practice by many urban planners across the world.

In truth, the 15-minute concept is an extension of urban planning models that already existed. The concept underpinning Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Gardens Cities of To-morrow’ published in 1902, continued through the idea of the neighbourhood unit, which was introduced by urban planner Clarence Perry in the 1920s as an attempt to design self-contained neighbourhoods as cities began to industrialise.

In more recent times, the town of Poundbury in Dorset (pictured above), built in 1994 and championed by King Charles III, can be seen as an early incarnation of a 15-minute neighbourhood, with its design intended to allow easy, local access to amenities and facilities.

This was supported through new urbanism ideas such as the compact city, and by many of the recommendations arising from ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’ led by Sir Richard Rogers in 1999, which included Andrew Wright Associates bespoke ‘From Neighbourhood to City’ diagram (pictured left).

In 2021, Carlos Moreno further developed his concept in an article where he listed the six essential functions residents should have access to within a 15-minute journey of their home:

  • living
  • working
  • commerce
  • healthcare
  • education
  • entertainment

Why is the 15-minute concept important?

The global population is growing exponentially. As more and more areas are urbanised and population density increases, urban planners need to align the demand for infrastructure with the need for sustainable development.

The built environment is responsible for around 40% of global CO2 emissions per year, from construction through to operation, demolition and redevelopment. As a sector with such a significant role in the climate crisis, we have an opportunity to adopt sustainable processes in the design, planning and creation of our cities that can make our net zero ambitions a reality. The 15-minute city is one of the most significant innovations in this regard, and alongside concepts like green infrastructure and biophilic architecture, holds great promise.

5 examples of 15-minute cities

Today, this urban planning principle is already being utilised on a large scale in many cities across the world. Here are several examples:

1. Paris, France

In Paris, Carlos Moreno’s home city, there are already 50 fifteen-minute cities in operation. Moreno has been working with the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, on the introduction of the concept, commenting that it has become ‘the backbone for creating a new urban plan’ in the city.

Interestingly, Paris was already well-placed to adopt this model before Moreno’s work began – as BigThink points out, an overwhelming 94% of Parisians live within five-minutes of a bakery.

2. Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne, Australia’s fastest growing city, is incorporating this planning framework to ensure it continues to meet the needs of its communities and futureproof its services and facilities.

This won’t be without its challenges. Melbourne is one of the largest cities by land area in the world, and one that has already well-established infrastructure that will need to be revamped and retrofitted.

Learn more: A guide to retrofitting (and how it could help us reach net zero)

3. Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, has also adopted this urban planning concept, choosing to refer to them as ’15-minute neighbourhoods’. As Inge Roosendaal, Senior Planner with Ottawa Public Health, commented:

“We wanted a cohesive framework that would capture the concept of our five Cs (compact, connected, convivial, complete and cool) … we pitched the idea of the 15-minute neighbourhood and it resonated with our stakeholders and communities.”

4. Barcelona, Spain

Along with Paris, Barcelona is viewed by many as the ideal template for a 15-minute city. Work is already underway to improve its walkways and cycle lanes, and digital twins – digital replicas of systems and environments – are being used by to help simulate how planning and structure changes will impact the city.

Learn more: Technology will define the future of sustainability

5. Shanghai, China

It’s not just in the West and Australia where the governments and cities have committed to the fifteen-minute model. Shanghai became the first Chinese city to commit to this urban planning approach, in an attempt to combat its urban sprawl. By 2035, the city plans to have 99% of public service facilities accessible within 15 minutes’ walking distance, and 90% of green space accessible within five minutes.

Why are 15-minute cities so controversial?

It wasn’t until 15-minute city plans entered the mainstream during COVID that they started to attract attention. While the concept is currently being implemented in Europe and Asia, it’s received significant criticism in both North America and the UK.

According to Bloomberg, these cities have ‘been positioned by conspiracy theorists and far-right influencers as a totalitarian plot’. It’s also been suggested that the idea both a precursor to ‘climate lockdowns’ and ‘part of a broader scheme by international bodies like the World Economic Forum (WEF)’.

In the UK, the term has recently been abandoned by the city of Oxford, with it slated as ‘toxic and incendiary’ after protesters marched earlier this year against the plans. British MP Nick Fletcher went as far as branding it as ‘a socialist concept’. Some of the opposition has been so fierce in fact that creator Carlos Moreno has received death threats.

5 benefits of 15-minute cities

For all of the controversy that surrounds it, there are numerous benefits to this concept that have already been seen in real-world applications, including:

  • Less reliance on vehicles

15-minute cities are by design intended to reduced use of vehicles, as all of the amenities and destinations residents need will be accessible within a short distance. This offers a wide range of benefits, from reduced traffic congestion to decreased CO2 emissions and the encouragement of greater physical activity.

  • Reduced pollution (and better air quality)

Another benefit of reducing people’s dependency on vehicles is the subsequent reduction of pollution. Air pollution resulting from cars and buses contributes to one in ten deaths globally and, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), causes 8.43 million premature deaths per year.

Adopting an urban planning model that reduces the need for transport can help address traffic and congestion and, as a consequence, improve air quality. It can also help address noise pollution, which has been directly linked to health, stress-related illness and hearing loss.

  • Boosts local economies

Even though the 15-minute model is most famously being implemented in large cities, it’s equally applicable to smaller and less urbanised area, where it can help to encourage more footfall and create employment opportunities for residents, providing a valuable boost to local economies.

  • Enhances public health and wellbeing

Lack of pollution, cleaner air, an increase in green spaces and easier access to amenities will encourage residents to go outside, walk and partake in physical activity. This has a knock-on benefit for their physical and mental health, and will help combat depression and loneliness.

Learn more: What is urban greening (and how is it creating the cities of the future)?

  • Improved social opportunities

Along with commuting, social visits and entertainment are among the most frequent journeys any resident is likely to take. Adopting this urban model can help create more closely-knit communities, where residents have ample choice for where to socialise and engage with one another.

5 limitations of 15-minute cities

While the 15-minute city idea has become the centre of many unfounded conspiracy theories, the concept has also attracted fair criticism from planning professionals:

  • Fuelling class divisions

Many fear that the implementation of the 15-minute city model will drive further inequality in cities and fuel class divisions, pricing out people with lower incomes from being able to live in and even access certain areas.

  • Obstacles to implementation

Implementing this urban planning model on a large scale – particularly in cities and towns that are already well established – requires significant coordination and oversight. It’s a process that is bound to encounter obstacles, from overhauling transportation planning and providing pedestrian-friendly infrastructure to regulatory barriers, equity and funding.

  • Increase congestion

Despite its aim to reduce traffic, one concern of this planning model is actually the impact it could have on congestion. Part of implementing this plan will require the transformation of existing transportation planning and routes, which can actually create more traffic and congestion outside of these areas if not handled appropriately.

  • Mobility concerns for those with disabilities

While this urban planning concept might improve accessibility for some, there are concerns that it could actually exacerbate difficulty for others, particularly people with disabilities.

As author Anna Zivarts commented in an article for Bloomberg:

‘Focusing on this 15-minute window of “easy time” puts us into the mindset of prioritising efficiency, which fits conveniently into a framework that values speed over access.’

Many argue that the concept of a 15-minute journey is relative, and for those with disabilities, this planning framework fails to cater for them and will actually make accessing facilities for them even more difficult.

  • Overwhelming of essential services and facilities

Another potential drawback of this concept is its impact on facilities and services. If residents are conditioned to travel to amenities within a 15-minute walk, ride or bus journey, healthcare services can eventually become overrun in areas with higher population density – particular during seasonal illness and in situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is the 15-minute city concept really the future of urban planning?

Despite the controversy, the 15-minute city concept – or at least its principles – looks set to influence and shape the future of urban planning in the environment. Localised city planning with access to amenities will be a key objective for planners moving forward, and will align closely with the sector’s goal of realising a sustainable built environment.

As Amanda Lewis, Programme Leader for UCEM’s MSc Urban Planning, commented:

“The degree of beneficial impact of harnessing the underlying principles of the 15-minute city cannot be underestimated. Despite its potential limitations (which have yet to be fully researched), so long as the model is applied with careful consideration and by ensuring it is supported effectively by sufficient local facilities, well-planned street layouts, and adequate public transport, neighbourhoods will become safer and healthier through both the reduction of vehicles on the road and having cleaner air to breathe.

“A walkable city promotes sustainable communities – surely a desirable outcome for all.”

Urban planning is an exciting field that has a pivotal role in the design and function of our cities and communities. If you want to have a part in helping the built environment realise a sustainable future, UCEM’s MSc Urban Planning will give you the knowledge, skills and technical understanding you need.

Find out more: MSc Urban Planning – University College of Estate Management