The 15-Minute City Debate: What is it?

What is a 15-minute City and why is it causing so much debate?

The 15-minute city is an urban planning initiative stating that most daily necessities and services – like work, shopping, education, healthcare and leisure – should be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city. The goal is to reduce car dependency, promote healthy and sustainable living, support climate resiliency targets, and improve urban dwellers’ wellbeing and quality of life.

15-Minute City Graphic by Iowa School of Planning and Public Affairs

This concept has been well-received and thoughtfully developed over the last decade. In that time, it has been held up as an aspiration for people who work in the field. Industry veterans and New Urbanist thought leaders, Andres Duany and Robert Steuteville, wrote an article in 2021 that provided a comprehensive definition of the 15-Minute City, and built on this with another in December 2022—shortly before reception for the idea went a little sideways.

In early 2023, planners, politicians and civic workers were increasingly involved in some unexpected, and upsetting, debates over the idea. With conspiracy theorists spreading the idea that the concept of 15-Minute Cities is a scheme to restrict movement and control citizens, and highly divisive public figures fanning those flames, Canadian planners from coast to coast have been forced into some difficult conversations at their public engagement sessions.

For some experts in the field, it went well beyond some uncomfortable planning sessions. Carlos Moreno, the Colombian professor who coined the 15-Minute City Term, has a multi-decade history as an academic crafting theories on city design. When the negative emotions around this concept began to rise, he found himself on the receiving end of extreme hate and death threats as a backlash to his idea, which, we are inclined to re-state, are not meant to harm anyone—quite the opposite, in fact!

For a concept that encapsulates all the positive aims of designing cities into something of a catch-all buzz phrase, this negative interpretation has caused no shortage of confusion in the ranks. After all, it can be argued that most neighbourhoods built around the world prior to the rise of the automobile inherently followed the 15-Minute City model, almost out of necessity. The idea has never been about restricting freedoms. At its essence, it is much more about learning from what has worked in the past.

15-Minute City Graphic by DEZEEN

It can be tempting to dismiss conspiracy theories, but one of the key roles of planners is to educate and engage, so we have collected the following links to help anyone who is interested to come to a better understanding of this topic and its intricacies right now:

  • Myths and benefits of the 15-minute city (Riley Brandt, University of Calgary): An article highlighting the professional assessments and opinions that academics hold for the 15-Minute City in the fields of urban planning and community health, and their reaction to the discussions that have recently been taking place.
  • Meet the 15-Minute City’s Cousin: The 20-Minute Suburb (Patrick Sisson, American Planning Association): An article that explores an extension of the 15-Minute City concept which recognizes its potential shortcomings in accommodating the reality of suburban growth and the necessity of automotive transit for so many in the population, that looks to address zoning reform, housing affordability and sustainable transportation in a suburban context.
  • Cities see hyperlocal ‘activity centers’ as key to sustainable growth, less car dependency (Gaby Galvin, Smart Cities Dive): Similar to the last article, this article recognizes that the ideal of 15-minute cities cannot be implemented everywhere in the North American context, and offers up the development of Activity Centers that are supported by a strong transit network, that can act as a collecting point.
  • Towards the 30-minute city – how Australians’ commutes compare with cities overseas (David Levinson & Hao We, The Conversation): Taking the conversation from 15-Minute Cities, past 20-Minute Cities, and up to 30-Minute Cities, this article looks at the performance of transport infrastructure and how it connects citizens with jobs specifically. While the focus is localized the home of the authors in Sydney, Australia, it shows a comparative analysis of the performances of major cities in world regions across the globe.
  • The 15-minute city is a popular planning approach, but relies on ableist assumptions (Ron Buliung, The Conversation): As a sober consideration for the application of the 15-Minute City concept, this article pauses to consider the implications for those among us who can’t reliably count on walking and wheeling as a suitable option—and urges planners to account for them in the delivery of this model moving forward.
  • The ’15-minute city’ conspiracy spreads to Canada (Front Burner, CBC): Finally, if podcasts are your preferred medium, listen along as Tiffany Hsu breaks down the idea and how it has been twisted in the months leading up to the production of this episode.

15-Minute City Graphic by NOVATR

Commercial Drive in Vancouver - Car Free Day | Shutterstock

15-Minute City Pyramid by Architonic

Kensington in Calgary by Jeff Whyte -

15-Minute City Graphic by CHASE Canada

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