White picket fences, a dog, two children, and a daily commute into the office. The American dream has been a driving force behind the way our cities are built—and how much time we spend behind the wheel. The pandemic exposed that this regular commute was, at large, unnecessary for individuals and businesses to succeed. As our worlds became more confined and localized, we also had the time to pause and think about how the post-pandemic world could be better.
The 15-minute city is a concept created by Carlos Moreno that advocates the creation of a city of neighborhoods where people find everything they need in terms of work, retail, and leisure all within 15 minutes of their home. “Many people never visited shops close to their homes before because they were busy. They didn’t know their neighbors or the parks nearby,” explained Moreno, Professor at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. “The pandemic made us discover this. We have rediscovered locality and this has improved quality of life.”
However, our cities today aren’t set up like that. In fact, commuters in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC lead the nation with the longest commutes of about 40 minutes each way. The white picket fence American dream has led us to a life that operates in two 15-minute villages, one where we live and one where we work. Moreno’s idea was formed in the search for an attachment to place, or amour des lieux as the French-Columbian would say, but living in two different places makes this ideal challenging to attain and quite the opposite of a smart city.
The 15-minute city framework should be used as the framework and filter out anything that doesn’t align with it.
The pandemic accelerated the adoption of many technologies but also gave renewed energy behind 15-minute cities. “The 15-minute city framework should be used as the framework and filter out anything that doesn’t align with it. Through this funnel process, it becomes clear quickly how to start rethinking a city,” explained Cindy McLaughlin, CEO at Envelope, a company that modeled the complex New York City zoning resolution into 3D software and is scaling the software into other cities. “New York City is lucky as it’s preindustrial and already organized as 15-minute villages. We can make tweaks to make it a much higher functioning city while other cities like Denver are built around highways, and are harder to change.”
Making the most out of what you have
Creating the healthy, sustainable, and efficient urban environment in a 15-minute city is founded on optimizing available space. Planning should revolve around accessibility, but not necessarily mobility. This refocuses emphasis from cars, streets, and highways to pavement, sidewalks, and bike paths as the connective tissue within a city. City bike shares have seen a rebound since the start of the pandemic in New York City, San Francisco, and London with NYC numbers back at 2019 levels as of September 2020. Meanwhile, public transportation in the city remains at about 40 percent of previous levels.
As the pandemic accelerated remote work, buildings began to question how best to use their space. “The chasm created by the pandemic sent shockwaves through commercial real estate,” said Eldad Gothelf, Director of Zoning Services at the tech-enabled zoning services firm, Envelope. “If there’s just a 25 percent drop in office space, that is about 125 million square feet of space that needs to be filled in New York. What do we do with those buildings? Reuse, repurpose.” Downtown office buildings may be turned into apartments while suburban malls may be turned into offices, like the Cary, North Carolina mall that is now HQ for Fortnight producer Epic Games.
The result is similar: bringing living spaces into central business districts and bringing offices to suburbia. Instead of two 15-minute villages that need to be commuted between, the people can stay where they are in their one 15-minute city. This change passes the “15-minute funnel” test.
These spaces have operated in the same way for years with overall success and change can be scary, especially after such a tumultuous, unexpected year. Another initiative behind this future of cities is C40 Cities which believes cities are the engines of recovery and that investing in their resilience is the best way to avoid economic disaster. If people are able to work close to home in hybrid or co-working spaces, their lifestyles are more resilient to unexpected changes. Meanwhile, Smart Growth America’s “Foot Traffic Ahead” reports that walkable urban places can demand 75 percent higher rent over the metro average, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities.
Change can also be time consuming and expensive. “We need to give landlords a generous period to convert their buildings. Vacancies are bad for everyone,” said McLaughlin. “There are ways to provide tax exemptions for building owners that convert buildings to something that is more necessary like affordable housing and ways to create development bonuses. You can build more if you convert it to something new.” Other incentives could include tax credits for a local small business or a particular kind of establishment deemed to be needed in that neighborhood.
Getting from point A to point B
In the 15-minute city, almost everything is within reach and accessible without a car. With 30 percent of emissions coming from transporting people in and out of central business districts, there is no way to accomplish current climate change goals without eliminating that portion. The move towards hybrid offices and flex working environments supports a car-less or at least a car-lessened transportation culture.
One movement towards this is in proposed highway removal bills. While there seems to be endless money to build highways, there is much less available for studying feasibility and how people are impacted by building or teardown projects. A new bill known as the “Highways to Boulevards Initiative” to advocates is a $435 billion economic justice bill aimed at helping communities tear down urban highways and then rebuilding the surrounding neighborhoods. Central to the mission is keeping in mind the needs of local, often underserved, communities.
Milwaukee replaced an elevated freeway spur of just under a mile with a boulevard, restoring the street grid to enhance access to downtown, surrounding neighborhoods, and the Milwaukee Riverwalk. Peter Park, former Milwaukee planning director stated that building a city is the long play. “There are no examples of a neighborhood that improved when a highway was cut through or over it. But every in-city highway removal has improved economic, environmental, and social opportunities for the local community,” stated Park.
Again, the issue of incentives to change transportation comes up. Recently NYC Mayor de Blasio discussed the future of bike boulevards in the city but was rather vague on the details saying that it encourages bicycle use, discourages cars, and connects areas. It’s important to make decisions from a place of knowledge and development groups have largely fallen short on educating communities about development. “People need to know what it takes to buy and transform. We need to move away from good versus evil and admit that we have a problem, but we can fix it if we band together,” explained McLaughlin.
A crystal ball for redevelopment
With data supporting the past success of converting and evolving current spaces into a 15-minute city, scenario analysis provinces a better expectation of what the future could look like. Looking at the Jackson Heights Post Office in Queens and with current zoning restrictions, a redevelopment of the site could yield a six-story, 110,000 square foot mixed-use hub that could provide community facility space (like the post office), some commercial space (co-working, office, retail, etc.) and residential space above. Or, with rezoning discussions in SoHo and NoHo about The Public Theatre being reimaged as a mixed-use development, scenario analysis can determine if the area can handle the extra density while envisioning the changes.
The 15-minute city isn’t a silver bullet but creator Moreno said, “We must use 15-minute cities to focus on the common good. With enough funding and support, deployed in the right way, we can guarantee they are for the people.” Fortunately, we have the necessary technology tools and motivation to make the changes that should have been done years ago.
There is a lot of planning and data that goes into creating a 15-minute city that couldn’t be done without recent advancements of technology, especially AI. Discussions around the 15-minute city framework and Envelope’s CEO, Cindy McLaughlin will be at Blueprint 2021, a gathering of the leaders changing real estate this October in Las Vegas. Focused on tech startups, VCs, and industry players to connect and do business, the conference brings together the right people to discuss what’s next in commercial real estate.