15 minute cities / neighbourhoods – a good or a bad idea?

Dave – the editor

There has been a lot written about the concept of 15 minute cities/neighbourhoods – this is just a small, random selection:

:15 CITY

What is a 15-minute city and how will it change how we live, work and socialise? – euronews | 17.09.21

What is a 15-minute neighbourhood? – Smart Transport | 14.09.21

What is a 15-minute city? – City Monitor | 21.09.20

Type 15 minute city/15 minute neighbourhood into the search engine of your choice and you’ll come up with page after page of results that will make for some interesting reading.

It’s a controversial concept to say the least. While on the one hand, having a lot of life’s needs within a 15 minute walk or a short trip on public transport is arguably desirable, there are critics who, rightly or wrongly depending on your point of view, see it as a strategy to limit people’s mobility. What I’m going to try to do with this piece is look at the pros and cons of the concept. Disclosure – I don’t drive so I get around by walking and using public transport. As such, I do have a fair bit of time for the concept of a 15 minute neighbourhood where a lot of life’s necessities are within easy reach. However, I also understand the concerns of those who fear the imposition of this concept could be used to limit their mobility and therefore, their freedom. I also understand the anger that people would feel at having this concept imposed upon them while the rich continue to swan around the globe at will.

As there has been a breakdown of trust in government as a result of lockdowns and the other responses to the Covid crisis, it has to be acknowledged there’s a fair bit of scepticism around about the concept of a 15 minute neighbourhood and that it may have a freedom limiting ‘agenda’ behind it. There is a growing crisis of legitimacy and any initiative that is perceived to be imposed from the top down, benefiting one social grouping while screwing many others is going to struggle.

While we can see the concept working if there’s genuine and widespread community involvement, as things stand at the moment, there are some aspects that will be difficult to implement. These mainly centre around work. The last two years saw a massive increase in home working for what has been termed the ‘laptop class’. They’ve found that in order to do their jobs, they didn’t have to be in the office – they could do it from the comfort of their own home. Even with the return to work, many are only going back in to the office for a couple of days a week and are spending the rest of their time working from home. This explains why supporters of 15 minute neighbourhoods talk about the creation of neighbourhood hot desk style work hubs just so members of the laptop classes can get out of the house and interact with other people, albeit a carefully curated selection. Thinking about it, you can see why supporters of the concept would be drawn from the laptop class because it would make their already comfortable lives even more so. Having said that, the laptop class being what they are would still want the right to travel for leisure and culture – understandably so. Well, that’s if they extend that right to us mere plebs as well…

A huge Amazon warehouse right on the edge of Swindon and definitely NOT part of a 15 minute neighbourhood!

That’s us plebs who throughout the last two years, outside of the strict lockdowns, had no choice but to travel to our workplaces because what we did couldn’t be done from home. That’s warehouse workers, delivery drivers, truck drivers, store staff, builders, plumbers, electricians, NHS staff…the list goes on. The people doing the grunt work that kept the show on the road over the last two years. Many of these occupations involve long commutes, particularly warehouse and logistics workers whose premises always seem to be located out in the arse end of nowhere by an arterial road or motorway. While many aspects of life could fit into the concept of the 15 minute neighbourhood, work is one that in many instances, would prove to be a problem. That’s down to the legacy of decades of planning that have zoned industry, warehousing and out of town retail in such a way that they’re often a fair bit away from the residential areas where the workers actually live, meaning long commutes by road are an inevitability. A planning legacy that is going to be the source of increasing regret as soaring fuel costs impoverish those workers who have no option but to drive to and from their workplaces.

At this point, it’s useful to have some anecdotes that will help explain why the concept has its attractions but also, why there are enormous obstacles in the way when it comes to implementing it. We’re in the process of moving to the Bristol area to be closer to our family. Our criteria in finding a new home was a) ease of access to needs based shopping b) ease of access to doctors, dentists, opticians, library c) being close to decent public transport links d) being within walking distance of decent parks e) being within reasonable travelling distance of our family. Once we started to apply those criteria to various areas in and around Bristol, we found the number of suitable locations shrinking pretty rapidly! It was this process of detailed research into whether an area was suitable or not that crystallised the view I already had that much of the suburban and overspill town development we have makes people overly dependent on having to own a car.

A small row of houses right on the south western edge of Keynsham and which is currently 20 minutes walk away from the nearest CoOp convenience store – not a suitable candidate for a 15 minute neighbourhood!

We’ve settled on Keynsham, a town between Bath and Bristol and have found somewhere close to the railway station and the high street. Even Keynsham had its challenges for us as non drivers. We looked at some places on the southern fringes of the town which while pretty decent, were a fair walk from the local convenience store and would mean having to use a bus to get to and from the town centre. You don’t need us to tell you that after two years of Covid lockdowns and restrictions plus working from home, revenue for bus operators has dropped dramatically and they’re looking to cut services and routes in a desperate bid to stem losses. Our concern was that if we did pick a place on the southern fringes of Keynsham and the local bus operator started cutting services, we’d be screwed. We would end up having to rely on home deliveries which is a) expensive and b) not sustainable if it ends up with a load of white vans going hither and thither around suburban roads at all hours of the day and into the evening.

You also don’t need us to tell you that fuel prices are soaring and for a host of reasons – geo-political machinations, supply issues, profiteering greed – they won’t be coming back down again. So, restrictions on people’s mobility are being imposed by soaring fuel costs rather than the imposition of any nefarious top down agenda of control. Mind you, we’re sure some conspiracy theorists may well argue that the fuel price hikes are an intentional part of implementing an agenda of restricting people’s mobility! Living in a suburb or overspill town where it’s pretty much a necessity to own a car will bring home to many just how unfit for purpose and un-future proof this kind of urban development really is. That’s down to a combination of decades of suburbs being built on the assumption held by many planners of near universal car ownership that would continue into the future. It’s also down to developers plonking down new housing on the fringes of towns while making the same assumptions as the planners. Which is why unless they’re building a ‘garden village’ on a greenfield site, they will not contemplate including any shopping provision in their developments. When high fuel costs mean having to ration car journeys for a growing number of people, the limitations of living in suburbia will become starkly clear. That understandably is going to cause resentment.

One of a number of bus routes in the Bristol area threatened with cuts which would make travel between what are currently NOT 15 minute neighbourhoods and to and from the city centre even more fraught than it already is:(

Which is why public transport not just to and from the suburbs to the major centres but also between suburbs needs to be improved as a matter of urgency. It will take time to reconfigure suburbs so that people have to travel less to meet basic needs and also, to get to work. If people are priced off the roads or have to limit there car trips to avoid their income being eaten up by rising fuel costs, a decent public transport network has to be there to pick up the slack. There’s just one problem – a lot of the public transport network consists of buses and they run on diesel, the price of which is soaring! With bus services having lost a lot of revenue over the last two years, the rising cost of fuel is going to add more pressure on operators to stem losses and the only tool they have is cutting services. That’s going to lob a spanner into the works…

So far, I’ve focused on suburbs and overspill towns because that’s the environment we’ve lived in for all of our adult lives. As such, we can see the issues arising from assumptions about car ownership and the flawed planning decisions that have arisen from that. When we were looking for places to live, we did look at some of the areas closer to Bristol city centre such as Easton. In so doing, it was easy to see how the 15 minute neighbourhood concept could be implemented because a fair bit of what’s needed is already there. For example, needs based food shopping – a walk up Stapleton Road revealed that for all the problems the area has, there are plenty of food stores, many offering a very decent range of fresh fruit and vegetables. Okay, there isn’t a Waitrose along that road but what there is more than meets the needs of the local community. With the will and backing from the local residents, implementing 15 minute neighbourhoods in inner city and inner suburban areas is certainly more feasible than it would be out in the suburbs or the overspill towns.

One of the many well stocked food shops along the Stapleton Road in Easton, Bristol – an area where a 15 minute neighbourhood is a feasible proposition if that’s what the local community want.

Are there downsides to the concept of 15 minute neighbourhoods in city areas? One that struck us when we were in the Easton area of Bristol was the way it could further increase division in what we currently as outsiders can sense is a polarised city. While it’s desirable that many of your basic needs could be met within a 15 minute walk from your home, that shouldn’t rule out being able to move freely around the city and also, feeling welcome wherever you are. That means being able to visit a park in a neighbouring area and not having to worry about certain elements telling you that you ‘don’t belong’ there: Arrest following ‘racist and Islamophobic’ attack in Bristol park – B24/7 | 27.09.22. If the implementation of 15 minute neighbourhoods leads to further polarisation and isolation of communities in what would effectively be ghettos, then the concept needs to be interrogated. It has to be a combination of accessibility, mobility and connectivity, otherwise people will rightly question the agenda behind the concept.

On balance, there’s a fair bit to be said in favour of the idea of a 15 minute neighbourhood, albeit with a number of caveats, particularly when it comes to people’s freedom of mobility not being restricted as a consequence. In order to avoid any suspicions of an agenda at work, ideally, the concept would be one developed and owned by residents in their communities. Owning the development and implementation of the concept would eliminate any resentment or fears of restrictions on mobility. Within the current structure of society, there are measures that can be implemented to amend planning policy so that going forward, accessibility to shops, doctors, libraries, schools, parks, etc., is given as much of a priority as mobility and connectivity. When we say connectivity, we don’t mean just cars but public transport in the form of rail, light rail, trams and buses. The key point is ensuring there’s a balance between accessibility and connectivity. Whether this is achievable with local government not always seeming to get the hang of joined up thinking remains to be seen.

Almost last but by no means least, a 15 minute neighbourhood has the potential for local assemblies where re-callable delegates from each street can meet on a regular basis to make decisions on how their community grows and develops. Those delegates can then report back to their street and then consult ahead of the next meeting. That would truly be bringing power down to the grassroots! Somehow, we think that this is not quite what the majority of those promoting the concept of 15 minute neighbourhoods have in mind. Still, there’s no harm in having goals to aim for, is there?

With the way things are currently structured, there are too many barriers in the way of developing neighbourhoods that work for us in terms of accessibility within them and mobility between them. The barriers are basically the consequences of a system that’s geared for profit and control as opposed to doing what is right for us, the people. For sure, taking into account the caveats listed in this piece, progress can be made towards 15 minute neighbourhoods if that’s what residents want. However, to achieve the control we really want over how our neighbourhoods and communities develop is going to require radical social and economic change. Anything short of that and we’re just tinkering around on the margins on the terms and conditions of those who presume to rule over us.

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