New London Architecture

Against the 15-minute city

Friday 09 April 2021

Darryl Chen

Partner and Head of Urban Design
Hawkins \ Brown

The new London Plan has finally been adopted. Some might be wondering whether the four year undertaking is a missed opportunity to sign up to the growing 15 Minute City movement. I want to argue that London needs no such manifesto, and that in fact the 15 minute city does a disservice to the very idea of the city. Planners and urban designers in the public and private sectors ought to beware its pitfalls. 
 
The 15-minute city is a vision of self-sustainable neighbourhoods that will reduce carbon, increase active travel, and make us healthier and more neighbourly. Yet it forgets the very dynamics that make cities successful and attractive as places of personal opportunity and fulfilment.

Image: Thames Tideway Tunnel © Hawkins\Brown
The argument
 
London is famously described as a city of villages, but London’s economic and cultural success as a global city is not attributed to villages left alone to do their own thing. What we see instead are the compound benefits of agglomeration, specialisation and social diversification that comes when these villages – and their inhabitants - interact with each other. Think petri dish on steroids.
 
It was almost twenty years ago that I upped sticks to London. I had moved from the megacities of East Asia, as a stepping stone from suburban Australian life. The simple truth is that I wouldn’t have had the professional opportunities or education, met the people or seen the places that I have, had I stayed in what was a rather neat 15 minute city in my hometown.
 
Agglomeration gives benefits for a wider catchment of people. It allows businesses to find new markets and improve their services. It means that people can access bigger and better things beyond their own narrow geographic catchments: not every neighbourhood will have a V&A, a Wembley, a Westfield, or a Hyde Park. And where do culturally marginalised people find places for their self-expression? Villages have traditionally done a bad job of that. What about employment - how far am I willing to commute to my ideal job? Or even, how far do I need to travel to find a job that matches my skillset? Valerie Pecresse, president for the Ile de France, Greater Paris region, the very city championing the 15-minute city, admits something that is obvious to many people living outside the historic core: “Not all people have the possibility of having jobs within 15 minutes.”
 
The 15 minute city deprives us of experiencing those who are truly different to ourselves. It threatens social mobility and it limits the economic opportunity for enterprises to grow markets beyond their immediate catchments. The 15 minute city is not about cities at all, It’s anti-urban.

Image: Smithfield Public Realm
What it’s really useful for
 
But I do not deny the 15 minute city’s utility. The London Plan has long established a mature network of town centres of varying scale and catchment. Within this polycentric framework, ‘15 minute thinking’ can - and should - be used as a diagnostic tool to help our town centres meet the needs of local people. Furthermore, it can only strengthen towns beyond London that have lost talent and investment to UK’s few big cities.
 
Behind it are some laudable ambitions, and the hope is that it catalyses sustainable transport initiatives, social infrastructure and local civic engagement where these are currently lacking. Mapping of food deserts and lack of public open green space are part of the same audit that is the first step in levelling up within our cities.
 
So…
London is a global city par excellence, and it would be madness to deny the path we’ve taken to build it. 

We can have a thriving and healthy city with great public transport, business culture and social amenities on a global scale, but none of this is guaranteed by constraining our personal geographies. 

This is no trade-off between economy and environment, or of individual choice and community. We need to remember that pre-Covid and post-Covid we are city dwellers at different scales. We should aspire to increase access to everything the city has to offer for all, not set an artificial standard for urban life so high that it can only really be reached by those urbanites living at densities that naturally support a dense infrastructure of services.
 
Yes, let’s reduce commutes, promote cycling and walking, rediscover local assets, promote bottom-up participation, and invest in neighbourhoods. But let’s also continue to think big: invest in mass public transport, reinforce Central London’s gravitational pull, encourage town centre specialisation.. Let’s plan a city that continues to offer its inhabitants the choice to enjoy it at all scales from mews to metropolis. I celebrate the city.


Darryl Chen

Partner and Head of Urban Design
Hawkins \ Brown


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