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What Is a 15-Minute City? (And Why You Should Care)


October 25, 2021  by  Steve Butler
Category:  Comprehensive Planning-Growth Management Cycling and Walking

What Is a 15-Minute City? (And Why You Should Care)

There has been lots of discussion in planning circles for several months now about the term“15-Minute City,” but what is the excitement all about?

Comprehensive planning has long focused on maintaining/increasing quality of life and delivering adequate public facilities and services. In more recent times, a greater emphasis has been placed on making communities and neighborhoods more vibrant, social, livable, and walkable. This increased focus is now more important than ever due to the impacts of COVID-19, with cities wanting to counter the social isolation resulting from too many people being cooped up inside during the pandemic.

Over the next few years a substantial number of Washington State local governments will be updating their comprehensive plans, and those planning processes will likely be considering some of the principles covered by the 15-Minute City concept.

What Is a 15-Minute City?

In an article by urbanists Andres Duany and Robert Steuteville, a 15-Minute City is defined as “an ideal geography where most human needs and many desires are located within a travel distance of 15 minutes.” In other words, from your home, you should be able to travel to a number of desirable community amenities, facilities, and services within a 15-minute span of time. Why focus on 15 minutes, you may ask? It is estimated that most people can and are willing to walk up to three-quarters of a mile, which, for most able-bodied adults, can be accomplished within a 15-minute timespan.

The list of amenities and services to be provided within a 15-minute walk will vary from community to community, but generally may include:

  • Parks and playgrounds
  • Libraries
  • Schools
  • Grocery stores
  • Pharmacies
  • Hardware stores
  • Espresso/coffee shops (at least in the Pacific Northwest)
  • Health care (including medical and dental services)
  • And the list goes on… (with individual communities identifying additional facilities and services that are important to them)

The concept started with a pedestrian focus but some groups have expanded it to include bicycle and even mass transit use. The latter two transportation modes would increase the 15-minute radius as one applies the concept to those two transportation types. In other words, the distance able to be traveled by a typical bicyclist would be greater than the distance that could be covered by a pedestrian within the same 15-minute timespan (it has been estimated that a bicyclist could travel approximately three miles within 15 minutes). Of course, the distance covered by a bus would be much greater than that by either a pedestrian or a bicyclist. For those communities without good bicycle facilities and/or transit service, however, it may be best to focus at least initially on pedestrian “walksheds” (i.e., roughly a three-quarter-mile radius). Some cities, such as Portland, use the term 20-Minute City and explicitly include travel by both walking and biking.

Why is it important?

In a general sense, most people want to live and work in places that are inviting, human-scaled, and pedestrian-friendly, with lots of services and amenities that are conveniently accessible — this is the underlying premise of the 15-Minute City concept. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the (hopefully) impending “new normal,” people have seen the benefits of living where goods and public facilities are closer to home. In particular, the importance of public gathering places within a short walk to residential neighborhoods has become more recognized, albeit spaces that are big enough to allow users to meet social distancing requirements has been a priority.

But there are other reasons why the 15-Minute City concept is important. Health benefits accrue from the concept because proximity and ease of access to amenities will promote more walking, which may help reduce the growing obesity rates in the U.S.

From a climate change perspective, having access to amenities and services reduces the need to hop in a car to do basic errands, which will reduce greenhouse gas emission levels.

There are also equity reasons for implementing 15-Minute City principles, especially when considering individuals who lack access to an automobile. If a person cannot walk (or bike or take a bus) to needed and desired amenities and services within 15 minutes, then they may not regularly go to a playground with their children and/or may do more of their household grocery shopping at a nearby convenience store where there aren’t as many healthy or fresh food choices.

It is also very important to plan for those individuals and groups with mobility limitations, like people with disabilities, for whom such a walkability standard is not applicable.

Applying 15-Minute City principles during comprehensive planning

Some communities have incorporated 15-Minute City principles in their comprehensive and/or long-range planning and more are considering their use. This approach could be started by drawing a three-quarter-mile radius around one or a cluster of specified amenities and service providers and then analyzing the data to decide whether to:

  1. Enhance existing facilities and focus the provision of new amenities and services to under-served areas; and/or
  2. Encourage new growth in areas that are adequately served by neighborhood-oriented commercial areas, parks, schools, and other public facilities/services.

Local 15-Minute City policies and implementation strategies could involve:

  • Zoning for allow for more housing types,
  • Incentives and zoning changes to encourage more neighborhood-oriented commercial businesses, and
  • Options for financing the construction of additional public facilities and amenities, such as parks and playgrounds.

Who is incorporating it into their planning?

The following cities, both in Washington State and elsewhere, are currently incorporating 15-Minute City (or, in the case of Portland, 20-Minute City) principles into their comprehensive and other types of long-range planning:

  • City of Bellevue Environmental Stewardship Plan 2021-2025 —  Strategy M.1.2 calls for the use of 15-Minute City principles to “promote and advance essential components of livability.”
  • City of Seattle — According to this post at the Urbanist, Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development will be exploring the concept of a 15-Minute City during its upcoming major Comprehensive Plan update due in 2024.
  • City of Portland (OR) — The Portland Plan references 20-minute neighborhoods.
  • City of Ottawa (ON)Engage Ottawa says the city’s comprehensive plan “describes how the city will grow and has a goal to be the most liveable mid-sized city in North America. To achieve this goal, Five Big Moves were adopted to frame new Official Plan, including the concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods.”

To add to the numerical mix, Kirkland (WA) uses this 10-Minute Neighborhood Analysis tool to help focus on “what it means to be a livable, walkable, sustainable, connected, and transit-oriented city.”

Conclusion

The 15-Minute City approach touches upon many of the issues that local governments are trying to solve today. Like any good planning concept, whether new or old, 15-Minute City principles are worth considering when undertaking your next comprehensive plan update and may actually help you achieve your community’s vision and long-range planning goals.

Helpful Resources

The author wants to thank Justin Sharer, MRSC Public Policy Intern, for his help in researching this blog.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.

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