The Six-Foot and 15-Minute City

“Find everything you need daily within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home.” This concept of the 15-minute city was made popular by the urban planner Carlos Moreno and adopted by the Paris City Council in 2019 as an urban policy guideline. It is a human-centered and climate-friendly approach, based on closeness:

  • Easy access to equipment and services in the neighborhood.
  • Mixed uses.
  • Multi-center city (equipped autonomous neighborhoods) and the right density (just enough for an urban lifestyle, avoiding overcrowding).

Within the 15-minutes city, the accent shifts from territorial mobility to close and easy access. The strategy no longer focuses on opening roads more efficiently, but quite the opposite: reducing displacements. Ideally, in a 15-minutes city, long-distance mobility is significantly reduced, and residents no longer depend on their private vehicles or public transportation such as trains or subways for daily commuting.

Carlos Moreno – The 15-Minute City

What one should find close to home, 15 minutes away, are the convenience stores, small businesses, and services that change a commuter town or bedroom suburb into a real liveable city: cultural, leisure and sports facilities, medical care, school, a park… From the urban planner’s perspective, having everything so close means more efficient and disseminated land use, avoiding bottlenecks and crowds. And this is precisely where the 15-minutes city meets the six-foot city of the “new normal” era: by spreading out facilities, by changing residential neighborhoods into lively mixed-use areas, we manage to avoid overcrowding in downtown areas.

But where can we find the extra space needed for the six-foot city? What can we do on a small scale? First, we can reclaim the streets. Big cities like Paris, New York, and Barcelona lead this fight against the car in recent years by reclaiming streets for pedestrian and bike use. The post-Covid context is accelerating this trend.

“The Six-Foot City is an altogether different organism. An alien environment. Or at the very least, a radical reconstruction of the settlements we know. In no uncertain terms, the Six-Foot City is fictional.” says Erick Villagomez, independent researcher and designer in urban landscapes, and Editor-in-chief at Spacing Vancouver.

“Flexibility, imagination, and creativity—grounded in a thorough understanding of our diverse needs—should be the aspirations of the present and future. A fact pointed to by the humble history of how our ‘personal’ dimensions permeate the built environment.”

Erick Villagomez

Both in the 15-minute city and the six-foot city, the street is the core, the meeting place, the center of outdoor activities, a pedestrian, green place, for different uses by hours. Rescued from intense vehicle traffic, streets become livable; they welcome children’s playgrounds, terraces, and street art displays and shows, increasing synergy and integration. The urban space by excellence reclaims its humanity, which Jane Jacobs already longed for in American cities half a century ago.

In Barcelona, which in many ways, is already a 15-minutes city, the streets of the superblocks are a successful example of this trend. According to Deputy Mayor Janet Sanz, in a recent local government survey, 90% of the population favors public space measures for pedestrians, bicycles, and public transport use. This year’s edition of the 48H Open House is dedicated to the 15-minutes city as a “healthy city.”

In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo talks about this trend as an “ecological transformation of the city”: the reclaimed streets become playgrounds, including vegetable gardens. Some of them turn into “children’s streets” for several hours each day.

In New York, according to the former transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the next step in reclaiming the streets is using them as open-air classrooms, poll centers, and outdoor receptacles for any needed activity. The roads are as adaptable and resilient as the city itself.

The 15-minutes city is a guideline for the near future, but it is not a new concept for thinking of the city in terms of time. 

Before the pandemic crisis, we used to measure the scope of an urban agglomeration and the viability of urban extensions with Marchetti’s constant (referring to commuting time, which tends to stay unchanged as transportation becomes faster and more available). 

Now we’ll have to add new parameters to the equation: the need for private space, the rejection of public transport due to the fear of crowded areas, and some people’s preference for teleworking, are radically changing the way we move in and around the city.

We need a new approach to proximity: reconsider our personal space and how we consume space in the city. In the Great Reset, the 6-foot city and the 15-minutes city are closely related. We need all things close, and people just not too close.

Could this reset bring us closer to the pre-modern city’s lifestyle, where the mix of uses was characteristic?  After all, today’s downtowns and lively neighborhoods are heirs to those old towns who mixed housing and facilities on the same streets before zoning became mainstream. 

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