The 15-Minute City, Deconstructed
What is the 15-Minute City? It’s every city ever built by humans on this planet until a century ago, but with a catchy new name. If a city’s old parts haven’t been destroyed in the past century, it’s the areas that attract the most tourists. And people will travel across continents and oceans to experience the best of them.
Forty years ago, a few pioneers decided to start building 15-Minute Cities again. Actually, they built 5-minute cities because they didn’t think people would walk for 15 minutes—and, in the early 1980s, they were right, because people were so conditioned to driving everywhere back then. Seaside, Florida, is where it all began. Time magazine called it “the little town that changed the world.” For the first time in the modern history of sprawl, people could toss their car keys in a drawer or hang them on the wall and leave them there for days. When people returned from Seaside vacations, they came back asking, “Why can’t we build this way at home?” And soon, the New Urbanism was born.
The term “15-Minute City” is much newer. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo laid out the concept in her 2020 re-election campaign, and it has spread across the world since then. People who understand the idea realize that it’s much like the most-loved parts of most cities. This post is about what the 15-Minute City is and what it includes, not what it’s not. For what it’s not, see the conspiracy explosions of the past few weeks that, as far as I can tell, originated in Oxford, England.
The 15-Minute City begins at your front door. It’s not confined to the boundaries of your neighborhood or any other natural or synthetic boundaries. Its measure is simply this: how far can you walk or bike in 15 minutes? So the 15-Minute City of one of your neighbors a couple blocks away is slightly different from your 15-Minute City. And it’s not a question of how far you’re able to travel, but rather of how far you’re willing to travel on foot or bike based on risks. For example, a location might be within three-quarters of a mile from your front door as the crow flies, but if there’s a river in between, there’s little chance you will swim the river to get there. Here’s our 15-Minute City in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
There are several important destinations in your 15-Minute City, and the destination types below are listed with the most important ones first. There are also some notable omissions based on scale. For example, you won’t find transit stations because while they are widely seen as being necessities in larger places, many small cities, towns, and villages can have great 15-minute functionality without them, depending on whether they are standalone place or the suburb to a larger city. Your front door is the starting point, not the destination, but home type choices are important to the 15-Minute City, so those choices are listed with the attributes at the end.
Nothing is more important to limiting the time we’re forced to spend behind the steering wheel instead of with our families and friends than the ability to make a living where we’re living. Jobs occur across your 15-Minute City in scales from employment centers to live/work streets to corner stores and workshops to work-from-home. The most resilient places do more grassroots incubation and growth and less multinational-corporation-chasing. The Village of Providence, pictured here, has thousands of jobs but only hundreds of homes in its two neighborhoods, so it’s a serious new employment center begun just over 20 years ago.
Daycare is essential to millions in the workforce with children, but that need is greatest to those working from home, because even if the daytime caregiver is a grandparent, children feel free to completely dominate their parents’ working hours. If you’re a parent, daycare is a must in your 15-Minute City. Work-from-home is here to stay for some percentage of the workforce and is a driver of the 15-Minute City because the ability to get to your daily needs from home makes home a much more viable workplace. Carving out a corner of our living room for my office was our first step into work-from-home a decade ago. We’ve done it off-and-on since the late 1990s, but have rarely gone to the office in recent years.
The 15-Minute City makes it easy for people to open a business and become an entrepreneur. It’s important to be able to start small with a Single-Crew Workplace because that dramatically lowers the barrier to entry. Because he started with a food cart instead of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, we were able to help our son the chef get into business for himself at more than an order of magnitude less cost than bricks-and-mortar, a cost we would have been unable to bear. So starting with a Single-Crew Workplace made all the difference to him between remaining an employee at someone else’s place and pursuing his own dream.
Some think of town centers as open-air shopping malls, but retail didn’t occupy more than about 18% of historic American downtowns. Craft workshops (even home workshops) are a great fit in your 15-Minute City because the scale of their staff and their shipments is small. My father was a cabinetmaker and built many sets out of his basement workshop.
The top necessity in your 15-Minute City is neighborhood groceries. Ideally, there are several groceries in your 15-Minute City, because I’m one of the few people who will walk 15 minutes with a 30-pound bag of groceries. As with other needs, the key is scale. You’ll probably find only one or two 30,000-square-foot markets in your 15-Minute City, but there’s no reason there shouldn’t be numerous corner groceries and bodegas within very short distances. America was once built this way; it was only a century ago that the myth of incompatible uses and Euclidian zoning kicked all the neighborhood groceries out of the neighborhoods. Here’s the dirty little secret: It’s not the use that’s incompatible, it’s the scale. Small neighborhood groceries have existed in neighborhoods across the globe since the birth of cities long ago; a Walmart Supercenter would completely destroy a neighborhood.
Your 15-Minute City should include an old-line hardware store that carries 95% of your hardware needs. For the other 5% you’ll need to go out and fight traffic on the highway to get to Home Depot or Lowe’s, but having a good hardware store nearby gives you choices. This highlights an important fact about the 15-Minute City: contrary to the recent confusion, there will be times with all of these necessities that you need to go out to the big-box retailer by the highway to find what you need. That’s completely normal; it’s a part of my life, too. But having hardware and other necessities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride gives me choices that don’t exist in an automobile-dominated place.
Pharmacies are essential in your 15-Minute City. Most of what they sell is fairly lightweight, so they don’t have to be right next door. If it’s a full 15-minute walk, it’s unlikely to be a physical challenge to carry a prescription home. And most of them sell a lot of houseware items today, so think of them as a “branch hardware store” that’s closer than the one just mentioned, since pharmacies are more numerous. Most banking is done online now, but sometimes you need to actually go talk to someone. You’ll find a choice of bricks-and-mortar banks in a 15-minute city. Ours is just three blocks away.
Single-Crew Workplace shops arranged around a market court have a long history in 15-Minute Cities going back to the forums, markets, and bazaars of antiquity. No 15-Minute City was ever complete without them. Because they’re so interesting, and because they’re great places to incubate new businesses, we should work to bring them back in more places.
Bookstores were considered obsolete just a decade ago with the rise of e-books and the failure of several large bookstore chains, but they have recently made a surprising comeback at the neighborhood scale. People have discovered that the e-reader experience isn’t as pleasant as reading a paper book. Neighborhood-scale bookstores are more interesting because you can find things there that the predictable chains would never carry.
Your first place is your home. Your second place is where you work (which could be at home). Your third place is somewhere you can bring a book or a tablet and stay and read or work awhile, if you buy a cup or a glass of whatever they’re selling. Third Places are hyperlocal; they’re “where everybody knows your name,” as the old Cheers theme song goes. Coffee shops build Walk Appeal because nothing is as interesting to humans as other humans, and people can sit enjoying their coffee for quite some time, extending the effect. Small neighborhood pubs should be scattered throughout your 15-Minute City. If they’re a 5-minute walk or less, people aren’t tempted to drive, and can easily walk (or stumble) safely home.
Large civic spaces (squares or plazas) should be located so that everyone in town is within a 15-minute walk of one. Historic downtowns have these because a century or more ago, cities understood their importance. These civic spaces are where large numbers of people can gather for concerts, celebrations, seasonal events, and other events. There should be many smaller civic spaces like squares, parks and playgrounds, so nobody is more than a 2 minute walk away from the smaller civic spaces.
There are about 10,000 people per US post office, so there could easily be 2 or 3 in your 15-Minute City. But because the US Postal Service quit delivering to home addresses in newly-constructed places years ago, your mail might be much closer to you. In most new places, developers do the absolute minimum and just install gang mailboxes. But Seaside, and now many other New Urbanist places, put the mailboxes in a building designed like a post office where you can check your mail out of the weather. These have become good places for conversations with your neighbors.
It wasn’t very long ago that there was talk of libraries becoming obsolete with the rise of the internet. But libraries, like bookstores, have made a comeback. Library options are growing today, from city libraries to informal Tiny Libraries on neighborhood streets. And libraries are redefining themselves in the age of Google with several new offerings.
Cities were once built with small elementary schools distributed across the city so that schoolchildren could walk to school, either in groups with other kids on the block, or with a few parents as well, in a “foot-bus.” And on rainy afternoons parents can park on neighborhood streets until school’s out, unburdened by the usual several acres of “stack lanes.” As a matter of fact, if stack lane requirements in my home state of Alabama were applied to the school in the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Pienza, Italy, the stack lanes would require the entire 11-acre historic city to be bulldozed. Today, schools are usually built at industrial scale somewhere out on the highway where everyone has to drive. So if you want an elementary school in your 15-Minute City, you’ll need to choose a place to live in the historic parts of town where they still exist.
Maker Spaces are a new type of learning experience. They’re part laboratory and part classroom, where future entrepreneurs are figuring out new stuff and learning new skills that will serve them (and maybe you) well for years to come. The key to a successful Maker Space is that it should be inexpensive space that just keeps the weather out and the electricity on. Because its needs are so modest, Maker Spaces are often morning’s first light in the recovery of a neighborhood from serious disinvestment.
FOOD & DRINK
Here’s a classic French Quarter chamfered corner entry to a white-tablecloth restaurant on a quiet mostly-residential stretch of street. Of all the places to eat in your 15-Minute City, these tend to be the quietest, and so don’t have to be on major streets or squares.
Sidewalk cafes are Walk Appeal superfood and great indicators of many beneficial things in your 15-Minute City. Places to see and be seen, neighbors get acquainted there, people get acclimated to the local environment, harbingers of more prosperous times…the list is long.
Farmers markets are great for your 15-Minute City for two reasons: they’re the best way to get locally-grown produce and artisanal food products, and because they usually occur only on Saturdays, they become a neighborhood cultural event.
Sandwich shops are another 15-Minute City staple, and they can be tiny. Mike & Patty’s is a Single-Crew Workplace regularly rated as the best sandwich shop in Boston. Mike serves; Patty cooks. The place has a line out the door whenever they’re open.
If you build higher Cool Factor, you’ll have more visitors. So your 15-Minute City needs a good supply of B&Bs scattered through the neighborhoods, but not on the quietest streets. Here’s one thing about B&Bs that’s not often considered: when there are several of them nearby, some people will choose not to build a guest suite, making their houses more affordable because they can put up occasional guests in a nearby B&B for a lot less than the higher mortgage payment each month to pay for the guest suite.
Boutique and full-size hotels should be scattered across your 15-Minute City, but here’s a fact not widely understood: the combination of the two puts the hotels on steroids. The Village of Providence in Huntsville, Alabama, mentioned and illustrated elsewhere in this post, has three hotels with hundreds of rooms each, and each of them is the highest-occupancy hotel of their flag in the entire region. But Huntsville is a small city in the region with a population of only 200,000 or so, and Providence is located off a major growth corridor, so how is this possible? Providence has built a thriving town center where you can get to most things in this post in a very short walk. Not only do residents appreciate this walkable convenience, but travelers do as well, hence the regional championship occupancies.
Medical establishments can thrive in your 15-Minute City. Those with a retail component like optometrists do well on Main Streets. Doctors, dentists & chiropractors do fine near Main Streets, but shouldn’t be on them because it’s important to keep the sidewalk vitality as high as possible there. Veterinarians are good on side streets, but shouldn’t have outdoor kennels because of the noise. I say that from experience because our vet is a couple blocks away, and one howling dog in their outdoor kennel can transform into dozens in seconds.
Real estate agents are hyper-local, usually focused on properties for sale or lease in the immediate surrounding neighborhoods. Properly branded, they can generate a lot of buzz for the neighborhood in which they are located. This makes them one of the few service businesses that can contribute to the vitality of a Main Street. They do well off-Main Street as well. Insurance agencies are found across classic American downtowns, but like doctors, dentists, and chiropractors, they don’t contribute strongly to the vitality of a Main Street and should therefore locate on cross streets or parallel streets a block or two over.
There should be a handful of barber shops, hairstyle salons & other personal services in your 15-Minute City. People leave refreshed and feeling better about themselves, so these businesses pair well with civic spaces like squares & plazas with many opportunities for social interaction.
Your 15-Minute City should be full of other service businesses such as dry cleaners. And here’s an important thing about service businesses: I dress pretty casually these days, and so I need a dry cleaner maybe once a year. Other services may be things I never need, but someone else will.
A theater (movie, performance, or both) is a great addition to your 15-Minute City; some consider them essential. Because theaters can draw a crowd, they are best located on a neighborhood square or Main Street.
Our 15-Minute City in Tuscaloosa includes a world-class mix of championship sporting venues rarely found elsewhere. But sporting venues are found in neighborhoods across the world. Whenever possible, integrate them into the city or town instead of embedding them into a sea of parking where everyone must drive. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are famous for this in major-league baseball. Other examples abound.
You won’t find a cultural arts center in everyone’s 15-Minute City, but maybe you should. The building type is simple: a flat floor with wide-open spaces. You could literally have a cultural arts barn. Or rescue a downtown building and build out apartments above for income.
Street entertainers and street artists are strong indicators that you have a good 15-Minute City. They never show up in auto-dominated places because nobody slows down long enough to enjoy their work.
Places that transform themselves into 15-Minute Cities attract a lot of young talent because they have a much higher Cool Factor than places with much fewer choices. Boomers and their parents grew up with few choices (ABC, NBC, CBS), but young talent won’t tolerate that. Have more choices.
Significant percentages of today’s young talent are famously averse to driving. When I was young, getting your drivers license on your sixteenth birthday was a notable rite of passage, so today’s approach is unthinkable to Boomers and Generation Jones, of which I am a member. But here’s the hard fact: places committed to auto domination are choosing not to attract young talent, which is the first step to becoming a ghost town someday. Choosing to create a 15-Minute City fabric of urbanism is a more optimistic choice for your city’s future.
Wherever you choose to live in a 15-Minute City, you’re more likely to get to know your neighbors because places not dominated by cars make it easier to get acquainted. After these two women finished visiting, I asked the lady on the porch, “I think I got a pretty good picture, do you mind if I use it? And was the other lady a friend of yours?” She answered “Yes, feel free to use it, and no, she’s a new neighbor I just met.”
There are so many standards and measurements of neighborliness, and some of them go back for thousands of years. The keys are these, in my opinion: love your neighbor as yourself, and treat others as you would like to be treated. Great cities are built on principles such as these.
A good 15-Minute City doesn’t just have lots of choices on where to do business within walking or cycling distance, but also lots of choices on where and how to live. This is a great cottage court in New Town at St. Charles, just across the river from St. Louis. Young talent thrives on a range of housing sizes, from Tiny Cottages to mansion apartments. And most of the middle ranges are Missing Middle Housing, which are housing types likely found across your hometown, but which haven’t been built in a century or more.
All photos by the author.