The pandemic has given us all pause for thought, seeing our once vibrant, buzzing cities empty and desolate suggests it is also time to think about the future city. Recently revived by Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, and Carlos Moreno, the world is looking to the 15 minute city concept, what it is, what it looks like and how we can do it.
The idea is that most of the things we need on a daily basis can be found within a specific walking or cycling radius from our homes, which automatically brings to mind a town rather than a city. So, what would this mean for our capital and other global cities like London? How does this idea of a much more local town-like environment fit into a large, complex, sprawling city?
This 15 minute city concept is not an entirely new one, but one which has been discussed for decades back to Jane Jacobs, and William H Whyte. Jacobs touted that proximity is the key in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here we are many years later with real cause to investigate these theories again.
During my diploma studies, I started exploring boundaries, borders and identities of areas. My research led me to realise that London has done well to hold on to distinct characteristics and cultures of each borough despite being part of a larger agglomeration. To me it seemed as if all these separate boroughs and areas within were like islands of their own distinct character. Urban islands, with borders and boundaries of their own but still connected to adjacent areas, so all playing a part in the overall archipelago that is London. Roads, cycle lanes, distribution networks, green spaces and wetlands present themselves as the sea flowing between each of these islands - replenishing and supplying the islands with their needs.
This flowing tide of people, circulation and supply has been altered lately, skewed more in one direction - like our environmental situation - to that of a less sustainable one. The pull of the city centre has become the mother island pulling all resources inwards and draining the other islands of their people and facilities. Of course this is, to a certain degree, the natural order of a city versus a town and this will not radically change otherwise we would no longer have cities but a multitude of towns. This is not a solution that anyone wants, yet a rearrangement or shift in this balance could benefit us all.
Our current planning zoning system designates land for particular uses, where residential is generally kept separate to commercial, retail, and industrial uses. In some cases this has resulted in areas like Canary Wharf, which is mainly an island of offices, plagued by solitude at weekends. On the other hand, we also have primarily residential areas with very few facilities nearby unless you hop on a tube to central.
The 15 minute city approach turns this on its head and promotes a more diverse set of land use within a smaller area, meaning residential, commercial, civic, educational and even light industrial could be in much closer proximity to one another.
The existing zoning system has formed our cities, as has our actual 9-5, with transport systems extending further out into the countryside, carrying us to work in the city centre. Caffeination stations, and other retail, line our routes from the train stations to the main working areas to help revive us from potentially long and stressful journeys; where some of us have to fight for space on crowded buses, tubes or trains. With so many workplaces and facilities located mainly in the city centre, it has pulled people away from our local areas for the majority of the week causing an unsustainable scenario where our local high streets dwindle and die.
Our daily commutes have become the main arterial routes, and while ever expanding to accommodate growing demand it also appears eternally insatiable to the daily need of commuters. The pandemic however, has halted the daily rat race, giving us an opportunity to review, adapt and create a ‘new normal’. Our daily rhythm has already shifted and most of us do not miss the commute. We are now offered a rare opportunity to review how we inhabit, navigate and form our cities going forward.