Coined by Carlos Moreno, an associate professor at the Sorbonne Business School in Paris, the concept of 15-minute cities became popularized in 2019 after Anne Hidalgo, Paris’s mayor, adopted it as policy. It was first introduced at the United Nations COP21 summit in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was adopted.
The idea recognizes that cities make up over 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions (while housing 56% of the world’s population, which is expected to increase to 70% by 2050). More specifically, industrial and motorized transport systems, which largely rely on fossil fuels and carbon intensive materials, represent 37% of all CO2 emissions out of the combined transportation, industrial, commercial, and residential sectors. While this may sound like cities are the cause of the climate crisis, their density is actually the solution.
15-minute cities hope to alleviate the climate crisis by reframing urban planning so that nobody would be more than a 15-minute trip from essential services like grocery stores, hospitals, and schools. This is part of a larger effort to reduce reliance on driving, especially in areas that are busier and often congested, in conjunction with other initiatives like low traffic neighborhoods, which would allow streets to be blocked off for full pedestrian use, and low emission zones that seek to limit pollution caused by cars in certain areas.
Moreno’s ideas come at a time when our climate is in dire need of long-term solutions. Cars have long been a leading source of greenhouse gases, and this is just one step in reducing the number of vehicles on the road that still allows residents access to the services they need.
15-minute cities also provide an avenue for solving many other issues that plague cities such as air pollution, access to fresh and healthy foods for marginalized communities, and creating more walkable spaces that promote improved health and community. Air pollution is a prominent issue that affects some of our most vulnerable populations, predominantly infants, young children, and the elderly. A reduction in the number of motor vehicles in an area may reduce air pollution and allow more space in urban areas for green infrastructure that pulls carbon dioxide from the air, allowing everybody to spend time outside without putting their health at risk. As climate events become more extreme, reducing human impact on the environment is key.
15-minute cities can provide an avenue for increased economic activity, as well as cheaper infrastructure. The density that 15-minute cities create means that government services have the potential to be more efficient. Constructing a paved road has relatively stable costs, regardless of the number of people expected to use it. Therefore, taxes, which can be more plentiful in higher density areas, can fund more services than in lower density areas. Additionally, if residents can access more goods and private services locally, they can keep more money in the local economy.
Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, as opposed to car infrastructure, is easier to build and maintain. A reduction in the number of vehicles also reduces strain on the wear and tear of roads and other public infrastructure. Car tires have been shown to release toxic chemicals and microplastics, harming not just humans, but the surrounding ecosystems as well. Bicycles carry much less weight than cars, and their tires have significantly less material, so the environmental benefits of cycling far outweigh any potential costs. The growing size of personal motor vehicles is also causing a disproportionate amount of damage to public infrastructure.
Many cities have moved forward with plans to implement the concept of a 15-minute city to ease their residents’ way of life, building more community and bringing with it a plethora of benefits along the way that speak to issues of climate change, food insecurity, and other issues of access. Furthermore, San Francisco strategic advisor Dan Luscher is not the first to point out that this concept is not new, citing precedence from garden cities in England during the 20th century to the New Urbanism movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Much like what’s happening in Paris, achieving a 15-minute city begins with small policy and regulatory changes. For example, changing local zoning laws to allow for multifamily homes, reducing the number of subsidized or required parking spaces, and increasing the accessibility of public transportation networks are all ways cities can become denser and create a 15-minute range of services.
U.S. cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle have all developed initiatives aimed at such policies. Los Angeles, through its Livable Communities initiative has worked to increase walkability and make zoning policies more flexible in what is known as a bottom-up approach, which urges residents to take action rather than wait for government programs and mandates. Moreno himself acknowledges that the implementation of 15-minute cities is a long and expensive process. However, as continued climate changes continue to affect our ecosystem, we must also create solutions that will create long term positive results for those that come after us.
Jessi Yu is a current junior undergraduate student at Dartmouth College working as an intern with the Business Development and Marketing team at ESI. She anticipates graduating in 2025 with degrees in sociology and government.