March 28, 2023

Myths and benefits of the 15-minute city

UCalgary experts in urban planning explain how the concept encourages healthier living with less environmental impact 
Gavin McCormack
About 15-minute cities, Gavin McCormack explains: It encourages you to get out of your motor vehicle and be more active. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Imagine stepping out your front door and being able to take your kids to school, pick up groceries or head to work and arrive within no more than 15 minutes by walking, cycling, or taking transit. No matter where you live in the city.

This is the concept behind the 15-minute city, to encourage active modes of transportation to benefit the health of residents and lessen the environmental footprint of large cities, among many benefits. But urban planners and public health experts are bewildered that conspiracy theories propagated on social media have begun to undermine an aspirational way of life with side benefits of less traffic congestion and better pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

So what is a 15-minute city and what are the real benefits?

“It’s living in a neighbourhood that is walkable or bikeable, where you can easily access everything you need during your daily life,” says Dr. Gavin McCormack, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Community Health Services in Cumming School of Medicine.

The streets are well connected, there is infrastructure that makes cycling and walking safe and convenient, there are destinations and recreational facilities, and there’s green space for residents to use. It encourages you to get out of your motor vehicle and be more active.

The 15-minute city is a term that was coined by Prof. Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 2016. It has been adopted in some European cities including Paris. However, some on social media have begun claiming this is a way to lock residents down in their neighbourhoods.

There was even a protest organized earlier this year in Edmonton against that city council’s plans to incorporate concepts from 15-minute cities into city planning. In reality, there is nothing new here. Urban planners and public health proponents have been advocating for this for decades.

Concept is nothing new

“It can be traced back to the 1930s with the idea of the neighbourhood unit concept where we have at the centre of the neighbourhood, within a radius of walkability, the school and the main services citizens require in their daily lives,” says Francisco Uribe, assistant professor with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

“It’s really trying to bring back a type of community that existed long ago. Small towns or some neighbourhoods that grew organically where at the core you have most of the commercial activity mixed with residential and it would grow from that core.

"Over time these small towns and organic neighbourhoods were absorbed by bigger cities but retained that with mix of uses and commercial node that provided most of the services required by residents. For example, a small market plaza surrounded by commercial offerings or a main street that we’re familiar with in North America.”

The benefits of this type of design are wide ranging, from the physical health and well-being of residents to the environmental sustainability of large municipalities. Getting out and walking, even if it’s just to get to a transit station, or riding a bike, have proven health benefits in reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and more. When people are out in the neighbourhood on foot, there are greater opportunities to interact with friends and neighbours, and to meet new people, leading to a benefit of social cohesion in the community.

And when residents aren’t required to leave the community as much, it can lead to cost benefits related to infrastructure.

Francisco Uribe

Francisco Uribe

Financial sustainability

“When we have compact and complete communities we don’t have to spend so much on infrastructure,” says Uribe. “It’s more financially sustainable. These communities tend to be more compact, with more people sharing the space, taxpayers are able to sustain the infrastructure of the community in a more sustainable way rather than fewer taxpayers and businesses having to finance the maintenance of roads and other aspects of a sprawling infrastructure.

“When it comes to environmental sustainability, we know that these communities have a much smaller carbon footprint. When you’re not so auto-dependent and can walk and bike to more destinations, people will produce less greenhouse gas emissions.”

But both Uribe and McCormack say none of this can be done overnight. There are challenges, especially when it comes to retrofitting existing communities that were designed around the automobile as the primary mode of transportation.

“You do the best you can with what you have and over time it evolves until it gets better,” says McCormack.

“Calgary is very much a city designed for automobiles. It took many decades of development to get to where we are now, we’re not going to wake up tomorrow and all of sudden we’re all living in 15-minute neighbourhoods. It’s a slow process and there are so many players involved. It’s not just the city with a municipal plan, you have the developers, the real estate industry, the communities, the residents, political will. It’s very complex. But we’re moving in the right direction.”

Criticisms and conspiracy theories debunked

One of the persistent criticisms McCormack says he hears is that this is just part of the war on cars, it’s social engineering.

“I have heard and read people say they don’t want to be socially engineered, but we already are. The fact you don’t think there is any other option that using your motor vehicle isn’t random, there’s a reason for that and your preferences for driving your vehicle has been shaped by policies and design and culture,” says McCormack.

And what of the conspiracy theories, that this is all a plot to lock us down in our neighbourhoods to enable control over the population?

“This is ridiculous,” says Uribe. “I believe we have a responsibility to call it what is, it’s a baseless conspiracy theory intentionally crafted to enrage and manipulate people. They are spreading misinformation, they are draining public resources and potentially delaying important design decisions. It is harmful to our communities.”

He adds, “The reality is, we cannot afford to continue growing the way we are. Our cities are too spread out, low-density development that is creating or is perpetrating a lot of the problems we have right now and it’s going to get worse if we continue to do it this way.

“We can do this, yes, it’s ambitious but it is also realistic. We need strategies, we need political will, and we need citizens to support changes toward a more sustainable way of living.”

Gavin McCormack is an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and is also an adjunct associate professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape and the Faculty of Kinesiology. He is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Francisco Alaniz Uribe is an assistant professor and co-director of The Urban Lab, a research group at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

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