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Top Mayors Pledge to Build 15-Minute Cities For COVID-19 Recovery

Source: Creative Commons.

As Washington debates how to begin the process of economic recovery amidst the ongoing pandemic, nine mayors from the U.S. largest cities are getting a head start — by focusing on building neighborhoods where anyone can meet her basic needs without getting in a car.

The international C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — which includes the mayors of Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angles, New Orleans, New York City, Portland, and San Francisco — made headlines back in May when it pledged “to build a better, more sustainable and fairer society out of the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis." The move was heralded by advocates for taking up the spirit of the Green New Deal at a local scale during the pandemic era, but it was scant on details.

All that changed with the recent release of the group's policy agenda, which takes an innovative idea as its cornerstone: the transformation of the world's megacities into "15-minute cities," or metropolises composed of neighborhoods "where all residents ... are able to meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes."

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made the "15-minute city" the signature of her successful campaign for re-election this year — and the concept has been widely embraced by climate activists who also care about ending our global traffic violence crisis.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the adoption of electric cars and investment in mass transit to curb transportation emissions — something for which the Green New Deal has been criticized — proponents of 15-minute city argue that we must think outside the DOT and start exploring holistic ways to "intensify" neighborhoods, or add housing, jobs and services within easy walking (or rolling) distance of one another.

"We’re not going to give our mayors a certification that says, 'Congratulations, you're a 15-minute city now,'" laughed Flavio Coppola, program manager for urban planning at C40 Cities. "But there are a number of key indicators that you can look at. What we really want is for cities to ask themselves are questions like: Do your residents have fresh food outlets in their neighborhoods? Is there a presence of critical public infrastructure, like good grade schools, within 15 minutes of most places? If you can’t reach the high school in a 15-minute bike ride, can a high-schooler at least reach it on transit?"

Such holistic thinking stands in stark contrast from many of the most popular carbon-reducing strategies, which tend to focus on greening long-distance transportation modes like cars. It's also, frankly, a departure from the most popular traffic violence mitigation strategies, which often over-focus on street design without considering how far residents might actually be willing or able to travel, even if a network of glorious protected lanes is right outside their front doors. After all, physical disability, a hectic schedule, having to maintain multiple jobs in different areas of town, or even simply not wanting to spend hours on a bike can all be major deterrents to active transportation, even in a world with relatively little traffic violence.

"Unfortunately, the free housing market sometimes can create stupid situations where we have, for instance, a worker with a job cleaning offices in a high rise on one side of the city, but she can only afford to live in an apartment on the other side of the city," said Hélène Chartier, head of the Zero Carbon Development program for C40. "For too long, we have accepted things that are not acceptable. So when we talk about going back to normal [after COVID-19], well — is it really normal that an essential worker has to live so far from where she works because there’s no space for someone [at her income level] nearby?"

The City of Melbourne, Australia adopted a slightly larger radius for their decentralized city, but the concept is the same. Source: Beesmart City.
The City of Melbourne, Australia adopted a slightly larger radius for its decentralized city plan, but the concept is fundamentally the same. Source: Beesmart City

Coppola and Chartier both acknowledge that decentralizing essential services won't be easy — and total decentralization isn't a realistic goal. It might be possible, for instance, to change a city's zoning laws to allow for a family doctor to open an office in every major neighborhood, but it's not possible or necessary to put a world-class cancer center on every corner. Nor will it be an easy task to unwind the mess of complex incentives that have concentrated doctors in large, urban and suburban hospital complexes, and left vast swaths of America without access to any physicians at all. 

But that doesn't mean cities can't try — starting with the lowest-hanging fruit in the policy realm, like ending exclusionary zoning.

"A lot of cities aren't even asking themselves the basic questions — about whether zoning allows for a grocery store in a food desert, or whether there's bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure present to get people there [without driving]," said Coppola. And, of course, cities don't need to stop with zoning reform: they can work actively to incentivize the construction or rehabilitation of decentralized services as a part of the explicit effort to get Americans back to work during our ongoing economic crisis.

But the 15-minute city is not without its detractors. Among the most common opponents are NIMBY groups, many historic preservationists, and anyone else who fears his home value will collapse without the exclusive building and zoning standards that have historically perpetuated segregation.

Some sustainable transportation advocates are also wary of the idea, which some fear could corrode support for transit-oriented development. TOD typically aims to cluster jobs, housing, and services around train and bus lines, but doesn't always seek to provide a short transit commute between the places where residents meet those essential needs.

"The idea is not to oppose transit-oriented development, but to highlight the ways that we’ve maybe gone too far in organizing many cities around the transit-oriented model," Chartier counters. "In many places, we've segmented the city: this is where the people must live, this is where people must work, and then we have this big transit line connecting them. That isn't always the best way."

Chartier and Coppola also argue that improving access to basic services can be done in a way that doesn't displace poor residents in the process — but it must be done by design.

"What we need to do first is a good, analytical assessment of what amenities are where, and who’s benefiting from them — and then we need to focus on the most vulnerable first," said Coppola. "If we start with the places that are completely underserved, and determine what those residents need most, everyone will benefit from that process."

Time will tell how the nine C40 mayors will prioritize their efforts — and whether other mayors will follow their lead. The C40 methodology focuses specifically on the largest "megacities" with the largest potential to impact carbon emissions, but the organization provides free resources that any city can use. 

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