“This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.”

— Plato

“The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.”

— Desmond Morris

“It is more difficult to rule yourself than to rule a city.”

— Jordan Peterson

“A great city is that which has the greatest men and women.”

— Walt Whitman

“I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”

— Steve McQueen

“A city that outdistances man’s walking powers is a trap for man.”

— Arnold J. Toynbee

“New York City is a great monument to the power of money and greed… a race for rent.”

— Frank Lloyd Wright

“A city is a large community where people are lonesome together.”

— Herbert V. Prochnow

“No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in a morning.”

— Cyril Connolly

“I was born and raised in New York City, Manhattan, uptown.”

— Ana Ortiz

Our big cities are a big mess. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they are rapidly getting worse. Cities once were centers of civilization and culture. No longer. Why is this happening, and why now? Can anything be done to recover from this? Well, how about creating a bunch of 15-minute cities. Good idea or bad idea?

Apart from the growing danger of getting nuked by one or more belligerents, the state of cities seems like it should be one of our greatest concerns. Of course it is, but the concern is so often myopic, and driven by bumbling politics and uncaring special interests. Actions are as likely to be harmful as effective. More likely, in most cases.

So,  whatever can we do about the mess of many of our cities?

In particular, might the concept of “15-minute cities” be of any real value? To answer this question, for myself at least, it seemed important to try to understand why so many cities are so messed up. Who is responsible, if anyone? Or do cities just go through some kind of a natural life cycle so that nothing much can be done in general?

Before getting into the 15-minute solution proposals, we need to understand a bit more about the cities mess that must be addressed.

What is wrong with our cities today?

Ethan Huff writing in Natural News reports on huge declines in business activity in major cities:

“New research by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley found that San Francisco’s central business district is currently operating at just 31 percent of what it was prior to the plandemic – Cleveland and Portland, meanwhile, are operating at just 36 percent and 41 percent, respectively.”

“Using data from smartphones that track users’ movements, Berkeley researchers discovered that formerly bustling American cities are now in shambles due to business closures, “smash-and-grab” incidents, and other factors that are deterring visitors.”

The reasons: crime, homeless encampments, open-air drug dealing, and infrastructure decay are among the many causes of city malaise. Residents and commuters are abandoning the once-vibrant city centers. Hybrid working arrangements are making this transition far easier than in past.

Blame for this sorry situation is being aimed at all of the usual suspects, as usual. But what if this transition is part of a natural cycle of growth and decay? What if the misery we see today arises from the decay process, and not (so much) from the usual suspects?

Are cities simply going through a natural life-death cycle?

Charles Hugh Smith via Natural News describes the growth phase of cities: “Why some cities may no longer be viable”:

“The human migration from the countryside to cities has been an enduring feature of civilization. Cities concentrate wealth, productivity and power, and so they’re magnets to talent and capital, offering newcomers the greatest opportunities.”

“Cities are efficient, packing population, productivity and wealth creation into small areas. Slums and sweatshops are immensely profitable, and cramming people into centers of manufacturing is far more efficient than scattering people and production across a landscape.”

“Cities generally arose on coastal harbors, navigable rivers or the confluence of overland trade routes, as these hubs enabled profitable trade and transport of goods protected by defensible barriers.”

“In sum, cities offered unmatchable advantages over more widely distributed settlements, trade and production. Given their typically strategic location and regional dominance, they tend to become political, military and cultural centers as well as economic / financial heavyweights.”

He then goes on to blame “… globalization and financialization have hollowed out the traditional economic foundations of cities in favor of services and entertainment …” rather than the usual suspects.

Again, is this simply what happens to cities in their natural life cycles? If so, what about Rome and London among quite a few other ancients?

Sir John Glubb, British soldier, scholar, and author, did a study of empire durability over many centuries. Oddly enough, he found that empires lasted roughly 250 years on average, with not much variation. America, for example, is at its 247th empire year counting from 1776.

Sir John Glubb’s theory of the rise and fall of empires.
Sir John Glubb’s theory of the rise and fall of empires.

Rome and London were cities at the center of such empires. The empires fell according to Glubb’s cycle, but the cities continue. More or less, at least. It seems that whatever keeps cities alive is not tightly connected to the empires in which they are located. Cities decay and die for other reasons.

Cities are highly-interconnected complex systems that can become fragile

I have argued this with respect to nations in an earlier post. Interconnectedness in complex systems makes them inherently fragile and subject to major disruption, unpredictably, by relatively small disturbances. It makes such systems less able to respond quickly to disturbances – agility – and less able to adapt to changing conditions effectively – adaptability.

Agility and adaptability are not abilities that you can build into cities, at least in general. They either have the necessary abilities when trouble hits, or they don’t. Nobody builds cities for agility and adaptability purposes so far as I know.

Smaller cities, however, seem less likely to become ossified. They may be required to adapt regularly as needs and opportunities arise. Or maybe not, as the table of fastest-declining cities and towns below indicates. So, city size may not have much to do with city declines.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Our recent (and perhaps not yet complete) COVID experience was a real stress test for cities everywhere in terms of agility and adaptability. The urgent need to respond effectively was almost global. The window for major action was small, placing a huge requirement for agility. The degree of success of resulting actions by government and businesses clearly indicates their adaptability.

The world routinely generates stress tests

You may have noticed that there is always something messing up the world and its cities, often in quite nasty ways. That’s just how the world full of people works, and has probably always worked. Even in the absence of people, as the dinosaurs unfortunately experienced about 65 million years ago. The world is a prolific stress-generator.

This means that cities everywhere must be strongly agile and adaptable. But who has heard of a city actually trying to strengthen either of these crucial abilities? They mostly responded to whatever seemed to be happening, typically not proactively. Their responses so often made things worse.

But there may yet be hope …

The 15-minute city

As with so many things in our overly-complex world, Wikipedia provides a helpful starting point on 15-minute cities:

“The 15-minute city (FMC or 15mC) is an urban planning concept in which most daily necessities and services, such as work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city. This approach aims to reduce car dependency, promote healthy and sustainable living, and improve wellbeing and quality of life for city dwellers.”

“Implementing the 15-minute city concept requires a multi-disciplinary approach, involving transportation planning, urban design, and policymaking, to create well-designed public spaces, pedestrian-friendly streets, and mixed-use development. This change in lifestyle may include remote working which reduces daily commuting and is supported by the recent widespread availability of information and communications technology (ICT). The concept has been described as a ‘return to a local way of life’.”

“The concept’s roots can be traced to pre-modern urban planning traditions where walkability and community living were the primary focus before the advent of street networks and automobiles. In recent times, it builds upon similar pedestrian-centered principles found in New Urbanism, transit-oriented development, and other similar proposals that promote walkability, mixed-use developments, and compact, livable communities. Numerous models have been proposed about how the concept can be implemented, such as 15-minute cities being built from a series of smaller 5-minute neighborhoods, also known as complete communities or walkable neighborhoods.”

“The concept gained significant traction in recent years after Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo included a plan to implement the 15-minute city concept during her 2020 re-election campaign. Since then, a number of cities worldwide have adopted the same goal and many researchers have used the 15-minute model as a spatial analysis tool to evaluate accessibility levels within the urban fabric. In early 2023, conspiracy theories emerged that described 15-minute cities as instruments of government repression.”

It is good that this as yet untested concept has achieved conspiracy theory status. This means that the concept is strong enough to threaten someone’s agenda. If the-powers-that-be were ignoring the 15-minute city concept, then it would indicate that it is something impractical or beneath their notice.

Defining the 15-minute city.
Defining the 15-minute city.

The underlying communities concept seems especially important. Cities like New York City grew around very populous boroughs and communities. NYC has 5 boroughs – Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island – that are subdivided into 59 “communities”, and almost uncountable neighborhoods. The neighborhoods look to me like what I’d imagine a supersize community to be.

15-minute cities in concept are like communities, but not quite

Traditional neighborhoods, or communities, seem like a good concept for city design, aka urban planning. Neighborhoods are defined geographically by locations. Communities are defined by groups of socially- and economically-related people.

Andrew Stone writing in ITS International briefly describes the origins of 15-minute cities: “15-minute cities: Path to dystopia or storm in a side street?”:

“Popularized by Carlos Moreno, a professor of urban planning at Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris, the 15-minute city concept emphasizes proximity, walkability, bikeability and public transport in creating livable and sustainable cities where people can access all the basic necessities of daily life within a 15-minute radius of their home.”

“But it has deeper roots that can be traced further back – for example, to American-Canadian journalist, author and urban activist Jane Jacobs, one of the first to argue in the 1960s that cities should be designed at the street and neighborhood level around the needs and desires of people, rather than being driven solely by the needs of automobiles.”

Jane Jacobs, urban activist and author, has written something of a classic on this topic in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. From Wikipedia:

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a 1961 book by writer and activist Jane Jacobs. The book is a critique of 1950s urban planning policy, which it holds responsible for the decline of many city neighborhoods in the United States. The book is Jacobs’ best-known and most influential work.”

“Jacobs was a critic of ‘rationalist’ planners of the 1950s and 1960s, especially Robert Moses, as well as the earlier work of Le Corbusier. She argued that modernist urban planning overlooked and oversimplified the complexity of human lives in diverse communities. She opposed large-scale urban renewal programs that affected entire neighborhoods and built freeways through inner cities. She instead advocated for dense mixed-use development and walkable streets, with the ‘eyes on the street’ of passers-by helping to maintain public order.”

“Jacobs begins the work with the blunt statement that: ‘This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.’ She describes a trip to Boston’s North End neighborhood in 1959, finding it friendly, safe, vibrant and healthy, and contrasting her experience against her conversations with elite planners and financiers in the area, who lament it as a ‘terrible slum’ in need of renewal. Branding the mainstream theory of cities as an ‘elaborately learned superstition’ that had now penetrated the thinking of planners, bureaucrats, and bankers in equal measure, she briefly traces the origins of this ‘orthodox urbanism.’”

Having lived in the Boston area for over three decades, I found the North End to be charming, and a place often visited. It was definitely not an “urban slum”, which is clearly an urban planning term for “needs work”, whether it really does or not. No slum, no urban planners. Might the 15-minute city be just another urban planning fantasy?

Jane Jacobs doing her thing.
Jane Jacobs doing her thing.

Conspiracy theory, or urban planning fantasy?

Neither, in my non-humble view. Behind both of these are agendas, not real analysis – based on my life of doing system analyses of all kinds. It is just an attractive idea that needs careful consideration before either attacking it or spending money on it.

The problem that I see is fundamentally system-based. A community is a system of people who share needs, interests, culture, capabilities, security, resources, and other such stuff. Not location-based, since communities have now formed with members located all over the world, thanks to the magic of today’s communications technologies. Communities are about sharing, rich commonality, and group interactions.

Communities fill vital human needs for belonging and for sharing resources and abilities. They form naturally (if not messed with by ruler-types) among groups of people formerly co-located but today located anywhere. Communities are about people, not geography.

In my mind, this makes the 15-minute city concept interesting, but severely limited in that it does not explicitly incorporate human community needs.

You can’t just plop (technically speaking) a 15-minute city concept just anywhere you find a suitable location – as defined by urban planners – and suitable sources of financing. Doing so eliminates the full set of community requirements, which often emerge naturally from co-located people. From groups of people who are often quite different from one another in many respects.

Is the 15-minute city at all workable?

Yes, at least I think so, but not as presently defined. Boston’s North End is just such a community, which evolved naturally from the days when Paul Revere and General Gage were in charge of things. Layering a 15-minute city concept here would almost certainly be destructive to such a natural neighborhood.

Where this concept might be useful is in major city neighborhoods that are presently amorphous and haphazard – and largely or completely geographically defined. The result might be some kinds of “mini-neighborhoods” – several of these making up a large city neighborhood. Since people tend naturally to locate in mini-neighborhood  groups, possible sites for improvement in “livability” might already be defined by these.

Lose the “15-minute” definition

Nothing has to be 1-minute or 30-minutes away (by walking) in practice. The geographical scope should be defined by the activity and people that reside in a target area. What might make their lives “better” in some respects?

The 15-minute descriptor just brings trouble in the form of “lockdown” type connotations, naturally creating accusations of “conspiracy theories”. The accompanying dictate to minimize or eliminate car traffic can easily be construed as an effort to reduce freedom. And to facilitate surveillance.

Urban planners and their supporting politicians, despite largely (I hope) the best of intentions, act in ways that in effect tell people how to live. Some and possibly many people enjoy driving out to see new places and shop in different centers and stores. This freedom of movement is important.

Walkability is great, but not so much in winter

Northern regions of the U.S. often make winter walking both difficult and dangerous. Car travel, even on snowy slippery roads, is often far safer. Cities and even towns today do a great job of road clearing and salting. And there is the not-small matter of cold temperatures and biting winter winds. Walkability?

Not to mention the routinely uncleared neighborhood sidewalk sections that I have experienced for most of my life. Some folks are just not into shoveling and snowblowing for a whole host of good reasons. Icy patches are downright dangerous even if the sidewalks are 95% or more cleared and salted.

Driveability may well be far more important in such places. Bike lanes are good in that they tend to keep bikers out of traffic lanes. Bike lanes are bad in that bikes can come up beside you unexpectedly just as you are getting set to turn right or park. On balance though, probably more good than bad.

You just need flexible walkability and driveability in general. No 15-minutes.

Real neighborhoods develop organically

What should be in a neighborhood, aka “15-minute city”? Hint: Don’t ask the planners; ask the people who live there. Unless of course the plan involves ripping the whole place to the ground and rebuilding from scratch. Neighborhoods are not locations but people, residents. People are different, so neighborhoods will be different – or should be.

In days long past, neighborhoods were relatively self-contained in terms of providing goods and services. Few people had horses or carriages. These were in many respects mini-towns. Whatever residents needed had to be available nearby, probably within real walking distance – of miles, not minutes. Kids walked to schools, if you can imagine such a scary thing.

Geographically-defined neighborhoods, such as by the 15-minute walk concept, can rarely in practice be made into such self-contained mini-towns. Economics is likely to dictate what can be provided “nearby” (however defined). Many people won’t like a car repair shop close by. Many existing neighborhoods simply can’t accommodate many types of businesses that are located on outskirts of most small towns.

The Andrew Stone article quoted above goes on to say that:

“They are not without academic supporters. Sociologist Richard Sennett argued in his book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City that the 15-minute city concept can fail to capture the complex and multifaceted nature of city life and argues for a nuanced approach to create livable and sustainable cities. The model may work well in dense, walkable cities like Paris, but may fail in suburbia or Los Angeles-style sprawl. Restricting travel into vibrant city hubs, meanwhile, is not even necessarily desirable.”

“Australian sustainability professor Peter Newman warns against planners placing too much focus on the physical form of cities, at the expense of the social and political factors that shape urban life. Has the rise of home working, for example, created its own momentum towards 15-minute cities as tele-commuters stay put?”

“Others point out that 15-minute cities may perpetuate existing inequalities, in assuming that all residents have equal access to local resources and opportunities. Access to cars may be a necessity to some disadvantaged citizens with little labor choice, doing jobs far from home. The gentrification resulting from 15-minute cities may drive up real-estate values and with it economic inequality.”

How urban planning without “15-minute” works in reality

Despite the article (above) title, there are some encouraging examples of planners addressing real immediate traffic and congestion problems without (much) “15-minute city” baggage:

“The ‘Superilles’ or super districts of Barcelona. The Spanish city of Barcelona has been experimenting with so-called Superilles or super districts. The concept takes several housing blocks and puts them into a super block. Only residents or delivery services have access with cars and the maximum speed limit is 10 kilometers (6 miles) an hour. “

“Many streets are blocked for cars and are instead being used in different ways. Former parking lots have been given over to trees, vegetables and flowers, and are now places where children can play and people can while away their time on benches in the shade.”

“’Tactical urbanism’ is what Büttner [mobility expert at the Technical University of Munich] calls this approach. The concept is being tested for two to six months ‘in order to see whether the situation has gotten better or worse,’ he says. ‘In that case you can still say ‘let’s go back to the way things were before.’ But if it’s got better then you can make it a lasting measure.’”

“Currently, 60% of public space in Barcelona and 85% of streets are used for traffic. More than half the city’s residents are faced with noise and dangerous air pollution, which is considerably higher than World Health Organization limits. The new districts should reduce motorized traffic by 21%.”

The WEF and the UN are strong supporters of 15-minute cities

These organizations, along with many affiliated ones, are today pushing hard – very hard – for a one world government. Run of course by themselves. They want centralized global control based on endless and complete surveillance. They are quite open about these aspirations, and they are well along toward realizing them.

Their strong support for 15-minute cities is amply confirmed by this March 2022 paper by Lisa Chamberlin via the WEF on “The surprising stickiness of the “15-minute city”:

  • “Urbanism trends come and go but the ‘15-minute city’ framing of walkable, mixed-use urban development is a lot more than a fad.
  • The historical roots of the 15-minute city are connected deeply with the current moment—one we will be living with for a long time to come.
  • As climate change and global conflict cause shocks and stresses at faster intervals and increasing severity, the 15-minute city will become even more critical.”

“Urbanism trends come and go: Broadacre City, Radiant City, EcoCity. Yet the ‘15-minute city’ concept—which implies having all necessary amenities within a short walk, bike ride, or public transit trip from one’s home—has demonstrated stickiness not just as an idea, but as a powerful tool for action – from Paris to Seoul, from Bogotá to Houston.”

Anyone who wonders why the 15-minute city concept has been targeted by all manner of objectors, aka conspiracy theorists, should read about the WEF and UN plans for just such city restructuring. They even cite China’s dictatorial machinery as a role model. From WEF’s founder and chief honcho Klaus Schwab in late 2022, this clear statement of support:

“Last week during an interview in Chinese television, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab admitted as much when he claimed that the communist regime in Beijing should serve as a “role model” for the rest of the planet.”

Umm …

A 15-minute city possibly being done right

While 15-minute cities may be very difficult to create within existing city infrastructures, targeting a completely new site – or by redeveloping a former state prison site just outside Salt Lake City.

Jim MacRae has a nice article on this interesting Utah project in American Infrastructure: “Creating the First ‘15-Minute City’ in the US”. The site plan shown below shows the project as an overlay on the actual site.

“Planned as a 600-acre mixed-use development, The Point will become a key economic catalyst for approximately 14,000 people. The hope is that it sets the tone for similar types of developments across the nation. “

“To live up to its promise of a ‘15-minute city,’ The Point will feature an open space network with a comprehensive pedestrian and bike system allowing anyone to get to their destination within the property by foot or bike in less than 15-minutes.”

“Supplementing the pedestrian/bike paths, the project will have an electric circulator vehicle that will frequently loop throughout the development with multiple stops in each sub-district, providing another way for people to move around, especially during times of inclement weather.”

“One of the primary goals for The Point is to adopt a “one-car approach” so that people don’t have to be burdened by the cost of owning and operating several cars because of the transit options that are available. For those who may not live or work at the Point, the development will have  a bus-rapid transit line that will connect it to the existing commuter rail stations that are within a few miles of the site, providing access to cities along the Wasatch such as Salt Lake City and Provo.“

“To further encourage residents of The Point to walk or use their bike, the center of the development is a pedestrian-priority zone that will limit vehicular access within it. This 40-acre sub-district will have retail, entertainment, office and hospitality uses, anchored by a large central park. “

“The Point’s 140-acre open space network will provide a variety of parks, recreational amenities, community gardens, greenways and trails. The system will have a positive impact on the surrounding environment, with 50% of the public areas dedicated to naturalized landscapes, and increasing the biodiversity of the site by 100%.”

The Point of the Mountain development  (The Point), located just outside Salt Lake City.
Development to start in 2024 on first ‘15-minute city’ developed in the U.S.
The Point of the Mountain development  (The Point), located just outside Salt Lake City.
Development to start in 2024 on first ‘15-minute city’ developed in the U.S.

Will it ever get built? If it does, will it evolve naturally into a community of some sort – or just decay into yet another suburban housing development? Any bets? Or, maybe even … a new “State” prison in 15mC disguise?

Bottom line:

Pretty clearly today, our big cities are a big mess that is rapidly getting worse. Once centers of civilization and culture, many appear to be in a state of terminal decay. Of the varied efforts to remedy this sorry situation, the concept of 15-minute cities seems somewhat promising. These would be (or should be) built around natural community characteristics – not urban planning theories and politics. The Point project next to Salt Lake City may have the right approach with its greenfield plan, assuming that it doesn’t become just another characterless suburb. Plans involving retrofitting and upgrading areas in cities without strong neighborhood cultural ties seem likely to fail after great wastes of money.

Related Reading

  • Everything you ever wanted to know, and likely much more, about 15-minute cities is available from Andres Duany and Robert Steuteville in the CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) Public Square journal: “Defining the 15-minute city”:

“The 15-minute city is gaining significant traction politically and in planning circles, but what does it mean? Definitions vary, and there is so much slack in the concept—depending on what transportation modes are included—that even conventional suburban sprawl might qualify under some circumstances.”

“The term offers a two-fold opportunity for urbanists. First, the 15-minute city is a simple enough concept that it resonates with a wide range of people. It was used as a cornerstone of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful reelection in Paris, France, in 2020, and lately former HUD secretary Shaun Donovan has adopted the concept as a key to his New York City mayoral candidacy. Urbanists have an urgent opportunity to help define the 15-minute city, and what it means to sustainable planning and urban design, before it is discredited as a mere political slogan.”

“Second, the concept can add substantively to the practice of urbanism because it deals with a neglected scale of planning that is larger than the neighborhood, but smaller than the metropolitan region. It shows planners where to locate facilities that serve multiple neighborhoods. It employs conceptual radii drawn on plans in a similar way to urbanists’ familiar quarter-mile ‘pedestrian shed’.”

“The ‘15-minute city’ may be defined as an ideal geography where most human needs and many desires are located within a travel distance of 15 minutes. While automobiles may be accommodated in the 15-minute city, they cannot determine its scale or urban form. Based on automobile travel, most metropolitan areas may be 15-minute cities.”

Robert Steuteville adds a serious degree of skepticism as to the practicality of 15-minute cities, also in the CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) Public Square journal: “The 15-minute neighborhood gets its 15 minutes of fame”:

The pedestrian shed. New urbanists have always used another primary access standard relating to time—the five-minute walk. There’s a standard that is relevant and universal. The five-minute walk, also called a pedestrian shed, is based on the typical size of neighborhoods—about a quarter mile from center to edge. The size of neighborhoods, in turn, relates the human body—a factor that has not changed over the centuries. Even today many people will choose to walk a quarter mile, if the conditions are good, rather than drive and face the hassle of parking. When you extend that radius to a mile—a 20-minute walk—you can still get there by bike in five minutes or a little longer. Hence the 20-minute (or 15-minute) neighborhood could be thought of as an extension of the five-minute walk.”

“What’s missing from the ‘15-minute neighborhood’ conversation is the rigor of new urbanist thinking. New urbanists could greatly add to this dialog by analyzing more precisely what the concept could mean, and how it could be applied, in a variety of cities and towns. Without better analysis, the ‘15-minute neighborhood’ may achieve its ‘15-minutes of fame’—as Andy Warhol might say—and fade with other popular shorthand terms for a walkable and livable city. That would be a shame, because there’s more substance to this concept than one can find in a currently popular soundbite.”