The Covid-19 crisis in the U.S. has torn a hole in city budgets, decimating urban economies across the country even as infections continue to roar back and the specter of second-wave lockdowns loom. Las Vegas faces “the most serious fiscal crisis” it’s ever faced. The pandemic is hitting Houston’s finances harder than Hurricane Harvey, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner. Tallahassee, Florida, city officials are trying to “defuse a time bomb” due to $23.4 million in lost revenue this year. Local governments may face a cumulative shortfall of hundreds of billions of dollars, small businesses are closing at staggering rates, and when the temporary boost in unemployment benefits expires, municipal sales tax shortfalls may get even worse.
An international coalition of cities believes that the only path forward for mayors is funding green stimulus plans focused on job creation. The newly released Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, released July 15 by C40 Cities, an international coalition of urban leaders focused on fighting climate change and promoting sustainable development, was developed by the organization’s Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. The far-ranging series of plans offers a green prescription for financial stabilization that emphasizes several familiar pillars of progressive urbanism — renewable energy investment, energy-efficient buildings, improved mass transit, and spending on new parks and green space. One core idea: Cities are the “engines of the recovery,” and investing in their resilience is the best way to avoid economic disaster.
One of its recommendations has a more novel ring to it. The agenda recommends that “all residents will live in ‘15-minute cities.’” That term echoes the transformative ambitions of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has doubled down on car-free transit and pedestrian infrastructure in the French capital. Hidalgo made the idea that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride a centerpiece of her recent reelection campaign. The C40 proposal suggests that following such a model would help global cities live up to the document’s promise of equitable access to jobs and city services for all, and rebuild areas economically hard-hit by the pandemic.
“Fifteen-minute cities, micromobility, and more space for walking and biking are innovative solutions that will help our cities rebuild and restore our economy while protecting lives and cutting dangerous pollution,” Carol M. Browner, former EPA administrator and board chair of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement supporting the agenda.
It’s not a new idea: Inspired in part by urbanist Jane Jacobs’s philosophy that proximity makes cities vital, various planning philosophies, including New Urbanism, have promoted more dense, walkable development — and simply “putting things closer together” — for decades. But the C40’s embrace of the 15-minute city concept may be the most concise and catchy way to repackage the idea as a pandemic economic recovery tool.
“Even though it seems difficult to replicate, it’s the right way to go,” says Dario Hidalgo, the senior mobility researcher for the World Resource Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities (no relation to the Parisian leader). “Walking and cycling present huge opportunities for small businesses in the neighborhood to thrive. It’s not just the reduction of emissions.”
As infection fears have limited transit and travel, this vision of close-knit districts — supported by infrastructure that allows bikes and walkers to rule — may be coming of age. Several cities around the world used shelter-at-home lockdowns to kick-start car-free infrastructure projects. Milan, Italy, added 35 kilometers (22 miles) of bike lanes downtown and will pedestrianize several school streets by September. Tallinn, Estonia, is building a 13.5-kilometer (8.3-mile) green corridor to thread together neighborhoods. Ottawa, Canada, announced plans for 15-minute neighborhoods last August; Portland, Oregon, has sped up long-standing plans to ensure 90% of residents live in “complete neighborhoods,” which have turned 90 miles of roads into neighborhood greenways. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing an extensive bike lane network. Even New York City — where lagging efforts to limit vehicle traffic and boost space for bikes and walkers during the Covid-19 crisis have been a frequent complaint among critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio — has closed some streets to cars.
It’s Paris, however, that’s been the poster child for this shift: The French capital swiftly moved to install a regime of “corona cycleways” to ease transit crowding and prevent traffic from surging back into the city as businesses reopened. Recent images from the city show an almost Copenhagen-like renaissance of urban bicycling.
Adding this kind of infrastructure isn’t just about allowing people to be outside safely, says Montreal mayor Valérie Plante, whose city plans to add roughly 300 kilometers (186 miles) of temporary cycling and pedestrian paths this summer: It also supports local business. “We want to encourage people to buy local, and forget Amazon,” she said at a July 15 press conference.
Can such a model work as an economic development philosophy in the wide swaths of the United States where car-centric planning patterns dominate? From a financial perspective, walkable development does win out; “Foot Traffic Ahead,” a collaboration between The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis (CREUA) at the George Washington University School of Business, Smart Growth America, Cushman & Wakefield, and Yardi Matrix released last year, found that so-called “walkable urban places” demanded 75% higher rent over the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities.
Hidalgo, the Colombian researcher, believes in the power of such a plan, but also feels that the Paris example isn’t easily translated. With a well-developed transit system and densely developed urban core, the City of Light has always been a great place for strolling and traveling by foot. “Now they need to do something that’s different than we’ve seen in other cities — they need to bring activities to the neighborhoods, not people to the activities,” he says. “Cultural life, medical facilities, they need to decentralize urban life. They can push policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep the economy going, a double-win for the city.”
Steven Bosacker, who directs the GMF Cities program for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says that “Paris does have lots of resources and culture, but this 15-minute change is very doable in cities of any size. That’s what I hope people take from this moment. All cities have been disrupted, and there are shifts that everyone can make towards a better quality of life in their community.”
Melbourne, Australia, for example, has a more U.S.-style development pattern. Lord Mayor Sally Capp, part of the C40 task force that developed the green agenda, said that her city ranks with Phoenix and Houston when it comes to sprawl. Pushing out has allowed Melboune to build more affordable housing — but that has only led to “unaffordable living,” she tells CityLab. Local leaders are now shifting transportation policy, including adding 40 kilometers of new bike lanes, speeding up plans to put in place more “20-minute neighborhoods,” and shoring up mass transit.
“Every city is talking about how to leverage the moment and reposition itself and focus on a sustainable future,” she says. “If we don’t leverage these moments to make material change, we’re crazy.”
WRI’s Hidalgo believes that this kind of neighborhood-level development can work in the United States, in certain cases. Cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, which have relatively limited transit systems (from a global perspective), can create this kind of concentration and walkability in urban cores and in pockets of denser development along certain transit lines. The problem with this pattern is that, without large systemic shifts, even the most forward-thinking developments end up as islands of walkability in a sea of cars, he says. “Drive, park, and enjoy being a pedestrian momentarily; that’s what you do at Walt Disney resorts,” he says. “That’s not what you’re supposed to do in cities.”
One example of the challenges of converting suburban sprawl into 15-minute-city-style development can be seen in Tysons Corner, Virginia, a redevelopment project near the nation’s capital. Over the course of more than a decade, developers converted a block of mostly office and commercial space near a Metro line to D.C. into high-density, mixed-use residential development. The transit-oriented development succeeded in creating the density needed to bring in and support small businesses, but it lacked the kind of street-level infrastructure needed to realize the goal of a true pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly community, says Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who just wrote an analysis of the project’s planning and political maneuvering. Instead of a 15-minute city, the neighborhood became another “island of walkability,” and for the most part, residents still followed the traditional urban pattern of living in one place and commuting into a central city every day for work.
“It’s not just a matter of adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks,” she says. “There are lots of arterial roads there and, without real political trade-offs from local officials, and efforts to narrow streets and slow down traffic, it won’t ever be truly walkable.”
Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, traditional working, shopping and commuting patterns in the U.S. have been disrupted. Remote work has transformed the lives of millions of white-collar professionals, and many offices are unlikely to reopen soon. Meanwhile, many commercial spaces — suburban office parks, shopping malls, and low-density retail districts — are struggling for survival. Hamilton sees plenty of places where a walkable “mini-Tysons” type of redevelopment may become politically feasible. But developers and local leaders need to go beyond surface densification and make big infrastructure shifts.
Hidalgo argues that the 15-minute concept could hold more promise for cities such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and his hometown of Bogotá, where the higher percentage of transit and bike riders and more extensive existing mass transit infrastructure can help nurture a network of walkable neighborhoods.
This is a very challenging time to be embarking on expensive new transit projects, however. In the U.S., states and cities are facing massive budget crunches, and the federal government has perhaps never been more actively hostile to public transportation funding (and urban needs in general). Bosacker says that, while resource shortages will be extreme, starting small can yield big changes, especially when framed as part of a larger stimulus plan. The speed at which pedestrian, biking, and scooter infrastructure has been ramped up during the pandemic shows how quickly things can change. Small tweaks to zoning or permitting for sidewalk cafes and cycling infrastructure can build momentum for larger shifts when budgets return. As Carlos Moreno, the French academic who coined the 15-minute city idea, said, the idea is “not to wage a war against cars” or “build a Louvre every 15 minutes”: It’s simply a way to help shift priorities.
“A crisis does have a way of revealing what’s already broken,” Bosacker says. “If cities aren’t using the revealing nature of this pandemic, how it’s highlighting disparities and racial inequities, shame on them. As difficult as it’s going to be, it’s a real opportunity.”