The 15-Minute City: Good Urban Planning or an Attack on Personal Freedoms?

Published: Posted on

At the recent Conservative Party Conference, the 15-minute city was highlighted as an attack on personal freedom. 

In this blog, Magda Cepeda-Zorrilla looks at what a 15-minute city is, gives examples of where it’s been implemented and whether it might restrict people’s freedom.

The Department for Transport (DfT) recently released the Plan for Drivers document, which states that it will explore options to stop local councils from using the so-called “15-minute cities”, to police people’s lives.

But what are 15-minute cities? Where is this urban scheme currently being implemented? And why is it being argued that the scheme is used to “police peoples’ lives”?

At the end of 2021, in the post-COVID pandemic, I had the opportunity to write a thought-provoking document called Megatrends in the West Midlands: Future Mobility. In this document, I talked about how the post-pandemic presented the possibility of reinventing the cities to become more sustainable and inclusive. I also brought attention to the new megatrends to adapt to the future of mobility and talked about concepts such as hyper-proximity, compact city and the 15-minute city.

In this blog, I want to focus on these three concepts because they are interconnected and, although they vary across the cities, all are based on the same principle: inverting the transport planning pyramid and prioritise walking and cycling (Nieuwenhuijsen, 2020), as well as encouraging the use of public transport rather than private vehicles.

The following sections will describe what hyper-proximity means and what the characteristics of a compact city are; then I will explain what a 15-minute city means, which cities have adopted this urban scheme, and finally I will explore the argument that the 15-minute city might limit people’s freedom.

Describing hyper-proximity and compact city

Hyper-proximity is a concept introduced by the cities of Groningen and Utrecht in the Netherlands as well as Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark. The concept is based on the idea of “developing social, economic and cultural interactions, of ensuring substantial densification, while increasing spaces for public meetings and mixing, travelling by foot or cycling and ensuring that digital technology becomes a factor of social cohesion and inclusion” (Moreno, 2019)

The compact city refers to a city with “higher densities that are contained and reduce urban sprawl, protect agricultural and amenity land, and make more efficient use of the existing urban land. There is a mixture of uses in close proximity that claim to encourage sustainable modes of travel such as walking, cycling, and public transport. Environmental, social, and economic benefits result from less dependency on cars and a reduction in GHG emissions. Higher densities and the close proximity of a larger population would mean that local businesses become more viable” (Jenks, M. 2019).

What is the 15-minute city?

The “15-minute” city is an urban model based on the idea of ‘neighbourhood units’ developed by Clarence Perry during the 1920s. Other variations of this concept are the ‘urban cells’ or 30- and 20-minute neighbourhoods that have also emerged across the globe in the past decade (Deloitte). The “20-minute city” was described by Kent Larson in 2012 and is an urban model that “creates safer, healthier and happier communities, but also helps to reduce the amount of traffic on our roads and improves air quality for all” (Sustrans, 2023).

The 15-minute city was proposed in 2016 by urbanist professor Carlos Moreno, where “locals are able to access all of their basic essentials at distances that would not take them more than 15 minutes by foot or by bicycle and with hyper proximity and accessibility for everyone at all times” (Moreno, et al. 2021). According to researchers, the main attributes of this urban scheme are these:

  • It is intended to function as a model for reconnecting people to their neighbourhoods and localising city life.
  • In terms of physical planning, it is heavily based on attributes that have been used in the past, namely accessibility, walkability, density, land use mix, and design diversity.
  • It aims to restore the urban planning concept of proximity by bringing activities to the neighbourhoods and not people to the activities.

According to Carlos Moreno, the 15-minute city is based on four principles: proximity, diversity, density and ubiquity, where neighbourhood development must cover six primary social functions: housing, employment, shopping, health care, education and entertainment.

Where have 15-minute cities been implemented so far?

Following there is a list of the cities where the 15-minute city or its variations have been implemented.

International examples

  • Barcelona (Spain) implemented the ‘superblock’ approach and has seen a 31% increase in the number of ground-level commercial establishments – rising from 65 to 85 – indicating a positive impact on commercial activity.
  • Bogotá (Colombia) implemented a ‘vital neighbourhoods’ vision, including a series of children’s priority zones centred around childcare centres.
  • Buenos Aires (Argentina) is working to bring green space, fresh food markets, health services, recycling points and other amenities to every neighbourhood, and improving walking and cycling infrastructure – including by creating one of the world’s largest car-free zones.
  • Melbourne (Australia) Melbourne has developed 20-minute neighbourhoods in three areas where everything – shops, schools, parks, doctors – is within a 20-minute walk, a bike ride or on public transport.
  • Milan (Italy) is upgrading streetscapes through its open squares and roads programmes, sustainable urban mobility plan, and introduction of a 30 km/h city speed limit (down from 50 km/h) on 60% of the road network.

  • Paris (France) is treating schools as neighbourhood ‘capitals’, enabling these properties to serve multiple functions alongside childhood education, and working to strengthen local commercial networks, services and production under a ‘Produced in Paris’ brand.
  • Portland (Oregon, USA) benefited from baseline studies that sought to understand the potential of 20-minute neighbourhoods, and an anti-displacement action plan that aims to ensure equitable development and reduce displacement and its impact – both developed with the participation of residents.

Examples in the UK

  • Ipswich in Suffolk: Ipswich Central, the Business Improvement District for the town centre, announced the plan in 2021, with the objective of growing the number of residents and encouraging new housing developments, as well as creating a “Connected Town Centre”.
  • Birmingham: At the beginning of 2023, Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) announced the city’s 15-minute transport plans. One of the main ones is to rearrange all the amenities in the city within 15 minutes’ distance of residents, by foot, vehicle, bicycle or motorbike.

  • Bristol: is looking to develop a 15-minute neighbourhood. Its plan involves Chelsea Road in Easton, which is a two-way street that sees a high level of traffic every day, making it hard for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through.
  • Sheffield: In 2022, Sheffield’s council proposed to introduce 15-minute neighbourhoods into the city. Which would aid the regeneration of local and independent businesses due to the higher affluence of people.
  • Canterbury: Plan to focus on the further development of the city’s infrastructure, adding new homes, jobs, schools, community spaces, green areas and hospitals.
Will a 15-minute City limit people’s freedom?

The majority of the public in the UK (62% being in favour of the idea) would support their local government in the adoption of a 15-minute city (YouGov), however, some critics of this urban model have a “dystopian image of the city”, where people would be confined to the 15-minute radius of their neighbourhood and would lose the freedom to move between areas (City Monitor, 2023). Other critics, such as the urban designer Jay Pitter, argue that implementing this model and any of its variations outside Europe will require “drastic interventions and investments” and might not work if current embedded segregation in city planning is not addressed first (O’Sullivan, 2021). Although current urban issues may need to be addressed to implement 15-minute cities, specifically about losing freedom doesn’t seem likely based on the principles of the model.

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, for instance, has stated that “A 15-minute city does not confine us to our neighbourhoods or restrict our ability to travel, […] it simply means that it will become more possible and pleasant to meet more of your day-to-day needs, like buying groceries, within a short walk or bike ride from home if you want to. […] Being able to do more, close to home, does not change your freedom to travel further whenever you would like to”. In the UK, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said that “15-minute cities aim to provide people with more choice about how and where they travel, not to restrict movement.”

In conclusion, every city is unique and requires careful planning and evaluation of the urban model that fits better with the city’s characteristics. The hyper-proximity, compact city and the 15-minute city’s main premise is that most things that people need such as housing, employment, shopping, health care, education and entertainment are located within a 15-minute walk or cycle from their residence. This means adopting an approach towards city centres offering services within walking distance. In compact and dense but friendly cities, people can reconnect to their neighbourhoods and can help boost the economy since the pedestrian streets can encourage shopping. Consider an urban model where people are at the centre of the planning has many benefits in the short term and in the long term and can lead to a more sustainable and inclusive society.

This blog was written by Dr Magda Cepeda Zorrilla, Research Fellow, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

Sign up for our mailing list

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *