21 September 2021 | 7 minutes.

The 15-minute city: from forced to chosen mobility

Pedestrian area close to Lubyanka Square, Moscow.

Photo: Marco Verch

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Carlos Moreno
Scientific director of the Chair “Entrepreneurship – Territory – Innovation”, Panthéon Sorbonne University – IAE Paris

Carlos Moreno, Scientific director of the Chair “Entrepreneurship – Territory – Innovation”, Panthéon Sorbonne University – IAE Paris

Carlos Moreno developed the concept of the 15-minutes city in 2015 as a plan to reduce cities’ greenhouse gas emissions but keeping a social perspective. However, it was not until the COVID-19 pandemic that the concept became a reality. Moreno explained to REVOLVE the ideas behind this concept and how it aims to rebalance urban inequalities.

Where does your interest in cities come from?

My interest in cities starts a long time ago. I am from Latin America. I was born in Colombia, and I came to France in my twenties. I had the opportunity to travel around the world, which allowed me to understand that the world had become mostly urban. When I left Colombia at the end of the 1970s, only 30% of the population was urban. These numbers have shifted today with 80% of the population living in cities. Travelling I realized that cities play a major role and that without them there is no economic growth or social development. But at the same time our urban way of life poses an ecological and climate threat to the world, as cities are the main contributors of greenhouse gases.

Professionally I specialized in computer science and worked hard to develop new paradigms using technologies for complex infrastructures – and the city is one of the largest concentrations of these infrastructures. I was part of pioneering movements on cities such as ‘Smart Cities’, and it was from the ‘Smart Cities’ movement that I became more interested in lifestyles than in the use of technology.

What made you shift and look at the social rather than the technological side of cities?

Technology is a powerful tool, but it is only a tool. It cannot be an end in itself. When I participated in this pioneering process on ‘Smart Cities’, I understood that it was a dead end. No matter how much technology you put into traffic, the problem is not how to make traffic flow more smoothly. You have to understand why people travel so much by car and avoid those journeys, rather than making traffic flow more smoothly.

When did you develop the 15-minute city concept?

I started to introduce the human component to the ‘Smart City’. I created a concept that was the ‘human smart city’ to give the ‘Smart City’ a center of gravity that revolved around the citizen. I finally realized that this ‘Smart City’ thing is a bit dangerous because it gives a lot of leeway to technocentrists. At that point I preferred to talk about the living city, referencing Jane Jacobs, who developed this whole concept of the leading role of the inhabitant, the compact city, where public space is a place of appropriation of the city and of democracy and local services.

From the living city, I arrived at the need to create proximity as a new priority, coinciding with COP21 in 2015. At that time, I explained that to reduce CO2 emissions we had to change our lifestyles. Given that in cities mobility is the first source of emissions, the question was not how to move more and further in a cleaner way. The question we had to answer was why we move so much in order to create new centralities and reduce the pendulum effects of mobility. The idea was to create a much more polycentric city, with a happy and human proximity – areas in the vicinity that provide living, working, shopping, physical and mental health care, access to culture and green spaces. This then allows for ecological, humanistic behavior, giving residents much more access to their neighborhood and the resources they own.

Starting in 2015, I proposed the idea of the 15-minute city, but everyone saw it as utopian because they said that no one would work close to home. However, the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020 causing a global shockwave that made what I had proposed five years ago a reality. So, it became a concept that went around the world.

How has COVID-19 impacted policy-makers’ long-term visions to make urban living more sustainable and pleasant for residents?

Even though many politicians take short-term measures, the reality is that we are confronted globally simultaneously almost for the first time with two threats. One, climate change, of which we are already seeing the effects of in Western Europe with major floods or extreme heat waves. This threat is no longer a distant one but an everyday reality for Europeans. And, the second threat, the pandemic that has us in check and has forced us to change the way we live.

Politicians are confronted with these threats, and they have found in the 15-minute city the right concept at the right time. It offers a very concrete figure for local governments to say that if they implement the 15-minute city they are working on proximity, viable economic consolidations, and models of social bonding.

The 15-minute city is a concept of humanist ecology that says ‘yes, we can do things differently’. Proximity becomes the central axis of many urban policies, which requires an important presence of local governments so that proximity does not give way to gentrification. We want the 15-minute city to become a polycentric city that serves everyone and not just a few neighborhoods for those who can afford to pay for better services.

Allen & Pike Malls, New York. Photo: Payton Chung

How does the concept of the 15-minute city challenge inequalities and create fairer cities?

We have to start from the reality that we are living in in our cities today. We already live in cities that are fragmented, segmented and even segregate its residents. In the 15-minute city, we are talking about a city of proximity – always in plural. It is a polycentric city that aims to irrigate the city with services that balance all social needs.

In the proposal we have made for the 15-minute city, we speak of six essential urban social functions to be satisfied and rebalanced in all areas:

  • To live
  • To work
  • To get supplies
  • To take care of our health – physical and mental
  • To have access to culture
  • To be able to relax with biodiversity and green areas

We seek to break with the fragmented city and to rebalance the center with the periphery, integrating economy, ecology, and social issues at the heart of a new urban policy.

Can this concept be exported to any city in the world?

The 15-minute city started in Paris because the city’s mayor Anne Hidalgo proposed this concept as the backbone of her new candidacy. She was based in the fact that ecology had to give way to an urban behavior in which proximity plays a role not only in ecology but also in revitalizing the economy and strengthening the social bond.

However, this concept has had a lot of international impact lately because the C40 decided to give the 15-minute city a leading role in the post-pandemic recovery roadmap. In this way, we have seen that cities like Milan have made this concept the centerpiece of their urban policy. From there, many cities around the world entered into this vision.

All that is needed is a political decision to put in place a new urban policy that gives priority to the convergence between ecology, economy and society with this notion of happy proximities. We don’t want to isolate people in 15 minutes. What we want is that by having that happy proximity of 15 minutes everywhere we are creating more interaction than when you have to travel for an hour to go to work in another neighborhood.

Could the 15-minute city threaten the mixture and movement of people that enriches social and cultural life in cities?

The vitality of a city is not getting up at 6am to commute for 1h30 to get to your work. That’s not vitality, that’s stress and anonymity in your neighborhood. This is a rhythm of life that does not correspond to urban humanism.

We want to revitalize the city, give it life, but with an urban humanism. We want to give humans the notion of wellbeing, which is divided into three: personal, social, and ecological. We want to get out of the contemporary urbanism of cities in which there is forced mobility. We want to move away from forced mobility towards chosen mobility.

How does an urban planning based on the 15-minute city concept builds more sustainable cities?

Sustainable cities are defined by the convergence of three elements: ecology, economy and society. Sustainable development is that – creating ecological, economic and social value. Creating cities that are ecologically livable, economically viable and socially pleasant.

The 15-minute city offers all the elements to achieve that convergence. It is ecology because we move less with a more sustainable behavior in terms of carbon emissions. It is also proximity because we make more and better use of existing infrastructures. It is solidarity because we have more time to get to know our neighbors and use urban spaces to create social fabric. And it is also citizen’s participation. These are the four major elements that contribute to real sustainable development of cities