New London Architecture

Is the 15-minute city having its 15 minutes of fame, or is it here to stay?

Monday 02 August 2021

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Holly Harrington

Architect
PDP London

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[1], and Carlos Moreno[2], 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[3]. 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.

 


So how could we do this in London? 

Thanks to London’s pre-industrial roots, local assets such as high streets and local hubs are already there and waiting for us to embrace them again. According to studies by the Greater London Authority, 90% of the population has access to a high street within 10 minutes of their home[4].

During the many lockdowns, most of us started relying on our local high street again to provide for our basic needs: the ever important daily life-saving coffee, as well as brief physical outlets, like a ten minute walk outside the house. Using these high streets could enable a 15 minute city with a network of reinvigorated islands. There is a clear opportunity to insert any missing facilities, like flexible co-working spaces, cafes, and cycle shops, into vacant and under-used spaces and retail units. Shop fronts could also be reactivated for different uses such as live/work studio units which could double up as retail and gallery spaces for artists and makers. 

Bringing people back to the area for certain portions of the week by enabling flexible working, will mean people will buy lunch, groceries, and other daily items on the high street again, boosting the local economy. Starter high streets could then act as catalysts for the growth of these smaller hubs within the overall mother city. With a series of more intensified and activated local hubs, it would not only be the city centre that could be vibrant throughout the day and night. Scale is important; we cannot create new universities, hospitals and stadiums every 30 minutes across London. In this sense a 15 minute ‘city’ may be slightly misleading. What we want is a network of smaller activated hubs that work together like an archipelago.

Whilst, to a certain degree, this would mean the decentralisation of the city, it does not mean the death of the city centre. Far from it, I believe. The concept is not to relieve the city centre of its purpose entirely, nor to decant all uses and facilities to surrounding areas, but rather to ease the load and create more balance. 

We would need to flip our current planning strategy of zoning, allowing the city and our surrounding areas to become more dynamic, vibrant islands than before. If we insert certain additional facilities into primarily residential areas, we then may need to insert different facilities into the city centre. Ideally we would re-use and adapt any vacant office space to provide multi-facilities to enable CBDs to become 15 minute cities of their own. Just like the smaller islands, the city centre will also reinvigorate itself, bringing both activities and people back - such as food markets, housing and creative industries that may have been pushed out over the past decades - thus making the city more exciting than ever.

Whilst some of the ideas seem like big changes, I think a perspective shift is required from all of us who inform, create and manage cities in their built and social form to allow this slight shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle. In truth, I believe these changes could boost local economies, potentially creating more jobs, in turn boosting the overall economy. We are in times of change, which means our view of the city, what it is, how it looks and how we inhabit it should also change. 

My view of the 15 minute city is that it ultimately gives flexibility and choice for everyone who inhabits it. We should have the option to work from home, work locally, and still work in the city centre for part of the week, or every day, if we choose. If the silver lining is to be found in this crisis, it is that we are adaptable and resilient. Our city can follow this lead. Whilst the idea is having its 15 minutes of fame, I think it is safe to say it may not just be wishful thinking, it could be the beginning of our future cities.

 

[2]Welcome to the 15 Minute City: https://www.ft.com/content/c1a53744-90d5-4560-9e3f-17ce06aba69a, 10/12/2020

[3]Jacobs, Jane. The Death & Life of Great American Cities, 1989 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Death-Life-Great-American-Cities/dp/0712665838

 

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Holly Harrington

Architect
PDP London


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