COVID-19 has ripped cities apart at the seams, with a popular chorus emerging that the metropolis is dying and anecdotes running rampant of residents fleeing to suburban and rural oases. But before the chaos of 2020 unfurled and our activities screeched to a halt, these urban centers weren’t flawlessly encasing our lives and pursuits.
There are “ecological, equity and time-use costs,” to the cityscape as we know it. “Every element we consider absolutely essential to a 21st century city was initially forged in the aftermath of some crises,” said Derek Thompson, staff writer for The Atlantic and moderator of “The Rise of the 15-Minute Neighborhood,” the first of Blueprint and Aspen Institute’s virtual Future of Cities townhalls. “This is relevant obviously because not only cities, but all people, all over the world, are going through … the same global pulse of the pandemic.”
Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said in the panel discussion that the United States spent the past century designing cities for cars, and “left behind a sad legacy.” But, she noted, these thoroughfares also present “a lot of opportunity.”
The Opportunity Born of Crisis
Unanticipated downtime during our pandemic-induced altered reality has revealed a fruitful opening for reflecting and reimagining the built environment and transportation systems that give structure to our lives.
“Pandemics change our micro-geography,” author and urbanist Richard Florida said at Friday’s event. “They change the distribution of functions and the shape and form of cities. That’s what’s happening today.”
In under a year, city leaders and their residents have relocated everyday happenings — from school to voting to dining — to the streets. Parking lots have transformed into cafes and popped tents to provide healthcare services, while living rooms have gone live as broadcast studios and porches are the new living rooms. A hopeful cadre of innovative individuals envisions a world in which “15-minute neighborhoods” could be the most sustainable tool to achieve recovery and resilience post-pandemic.
“Everybody knows what a great city feels like,” Sadik-Khan, who now works in an advisory role at Bloomberg Associates, said. “Great spaces, places, easy-to-walk streets—built mostly on a 15-minute footprint.”
The Birth and Development of the 15-Minute Neighborhood
First coined by Professor Carlos Moreno, scientific director of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Sorbonne and special envoy to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the 15-minute city was born in response to the climate crisis and prioritizes urban planning efforts around how people spend their time.
The concept proposes that people remain within their neighborhood boundaries to meet their essential needs. These nooks would be seeded with options so that residents feel no compulsion to get in a car. As New York Magazine put it: “The virtuous city will fragment into a collection of villages that entices residents to stay put.”
“The first thing a lot of cities did when the pandemic hit was reclaim their streets from cars,” Sadik-Khan said. In Manhattan, for instance, 15,000 parking spots gave way to roughly 10,000 outdoor spaces this year for restaurants to serve patrons while respecting social distancing measures. “When I took away a parking lot in New York City,” during Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration, “it was going to be ‘carmageddon,’” Sadik-Khan recalled. “But now, it’s kind of the status quo.”
Of course, every city has nuanced needs and capabilities. But across the U.S., more than 50 cities have launched car-free streets in the wake of the COVID shutdowns.
Mereno suggests that the “mobility of the future is immobility.”
Enter REEF Technology, which works to modify parking lots, crafting them into logistics and operational hubs, and providing micro-retail that includes restaurants, shops, and experiences.
“We see an opportunity because of something we’ve learned from Carlos,” REEF Technology’s Global Head of Public Policy Padden Murphy said. “We’re entering ‘the big bang of proximity.’”
“We look at parking lots and parking garages as this embedded outcome, this hardware that was built because of the way we built cities for the last 100 years … What parking lots enable is for you to drive a car to get close to where you need to be. But what if you flip the script on that and you actually said all these underutilized urban spaces, what if we actually could network them and then layer them?”
Defining Priorities and Exercising Our Imaginations
Thompson acknowledged the benefits of creating connectivity and convenience but pushed his panelists to state their priorities in bringing 15-minute neighborhoods to fruition, noting elements such as housing, infrastructure, work, and the environment.
“If you don’t have equal access to schools, if you don’t have equal access to opportunity, then you have a failed system,” Sadik-Khan responded.
Florida conceded that “the real implication,” of the pandemic, “is going to be on the geography of work.”
What we’re currently witnessing among white-collar professionals who can work virtually and those who cannot sheds an unpleasant light on the inequality of privilege, opportunity, and access.
“Cities are not going to solve these problems on their own,” Florida said. “I think the leverage point is now … The fiscal bailout is coming, and that bailout cannot be handing money over to cities to do what they did.”
Each of the panel participants agreed that the challenges present significant opportunities for the cities of the future.
“We’re not limited by what our streets are today,” Sadik-Khan said. “We’re only limited by our vision for what they can be. And we saw this in 2020 as streets were the sites of racial justice protests, and they’re key to achieving an equitable and sustainable recovery … it’s not a question of engineering or epidemiology. It’s a question of imagination—and revealing the 15-minute city that’s hidden in our streets.”