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Introducing the 15-minute City

Ipswich, Suffolk, (Population. 133,000) recently announced that is set to become the UK’s first “15-minute city”. So, what is a 15-minute city, and can it be an upgrade on what exists now? Will the 15-minute city help to make urban centres more sustainable?

Picture 0 15 minute city

The current situation

Many of our town centres are becoming concrete deserts, as shops and offices become vacant. It is time for a radical approach to change the way our towns function.

The pandemic has changed how we use street space almost overnight, and as towns and cities gradually open back up, there is a unique opportunity to rethink how much city space is allocated to various land uses and the value of cars in towns centres versus other forms of mobility. This is where the 15-minute city concept can have a major impact on the decisions policy makers take and how that affects our town centres going forward.

The concept

At the heart of the concept is the idea that everyone living in a city should have ready access to essential urban services. We should all be able to access most of the places we need to go, i.e. for work, shopping, entertainment, leisure facilities and public services within a 15-minute walk or bike. Hence the term, “the 15-minute city”, first coined by Professor Carlos Moreno of Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris.

Picture 1 15 minute city

Moreno’s 15-minute city

Carlos Moreno’s 15-minute city framework highlights four key characteristics:

  • Proximity: All the services we need must be close.
  • Diversity: Land uses must be mixed to provide a wide variety of urban amenities nearby.
  • Density: There must be enough people to support a diversity of businesses in a compact land area.
  • Ubiquity: These neighbourhoods must be so common that they are available and affordable to anyone who wants to live in one.

The key phrase here is “affordable to anyone” regardless of social group or income bracket.

Ipswich: Building a Connected Waterfront Town Centre

Picture 2 15 minute city

Ipswich, Location Map

Ipswich has recently published two documents which outline an ambitious plan to create their own “Connected Town Centre”. Their vision for change is rooted in the 15 minute city concept, but comes from a realisation of the need to “turn our town around”.

In its own words the town council admits that “perceptions of the town are not what they should be.” They recognised as early as 2016 that:

  • The days of the traditional retail focussed town centre are done, at least for medium sized towns like Ipswich.
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that decline.
  • More people want to live in town centres and for their homes to be closer to flexible workspaces.
  • Leisure and recreation land uses had begun to replace retail units in the town centre.

Their rationale is that urban renewal and regeneration need to be focussed on the needs of residents not corporate retailers. Proximity is seen as the key to making urban centres vital again, and that means providing all amenities locally to city centre residents and recreating a sense of civic pride and urban neighbourhood.

What would this mean for Ipswich?

  1. It would mean a significant growth in the number of people living in the town centre encouraging new housing development on unused sites and converting redundant buildings and empty upper floors.
  2. A town centre where housing will be inclusive and financially accessible to all social groups.
  3. The encouragement of a wider range of complimentary land uses that will encourage people to live and stay locally: convenience stores, independent retailers, schools and educational facilities, music venues, an outdoor gym, and increased green areas, cycling and walking routes.
  4. The development of neighbourhood shopping parades.
  5. The emergence of flexible work spaces to take account of new ways of working, which will lead to a greater dependency upon local amenities.
  6. A greater focus of heritage, culture and the environment.
  7. The development of the town centre’s role as:
    1. A place to live for commuters to London who will increasingly work more from home.
    2. A destination for tourists staying locally.
    3. A place to visit.

Vision to Reality?

Having a vision for the future is one thing. Putting that into practice, however, is something else. Ipswich haven’t gone beyond the aspirational stage at the moment. However, it represents a major shift away from the normalised view that all towns must have a town centre dominated by a retail/office core, heavily dependent upon car-based access. Instead they see a town centre focussed on the needs and aspirations of localised communities, with cars to a large extent excluded.

The key question is how can that be achieved? For Ipswich the challenges are many.

  • Significant areas of the town centre will need to be re-modelled.
  • A wider range of businesses, many of them small, independent convenience stores and other uses need to be attracted.
  • A significant increase in residential land use is needed.
  • The town needs to undergo a significant “green” makeover.
  • Perhaps the biggest challenge will be in terms of winning over the local population and getting public opinion, local politicians and, of course, businesses behind the project.
  • All of which begs the question of where the money is going to come from.? Not only that but also how to overcome the various planning hurdles along the way. As yet there are no definitive answers.

A route to sustainability?

All the evidence indicates that current town centres in their present form aren’t sustainable, not just as retail and employment hubs, but also as places to live. The question is, would the 15-minute city be any different?

In many ways the outlook is positive:

  • The 15 minute city can be an attractive place for people to live and work in terms of reducing journey times, removing car borne air and noise pollution, and generating opportunities for new businesses to establish and grow.
  • A focus on building a dynamic mix of land uses: retail, leisure, recreation and services could help to develop more cohesive communities which in terms could lead to enhanced perceptions of locality and neighbourhood.
  • The focus on greening town and city centres adds to residents’ enjoyment of urban space and their overall feeling of wellbeing, as well as being a healthier place to live.
  • Developing town centres as cultural hubs and doing more to highlight aspects of their historical connections can also build a sense of place and make urban life more enjoyable for all.

In short, the city can raise the quality of life and in doing so retain its population.

But will it be as inclusive as some suggest? Will the 15-minute city be taken over by those on middle and higher incomes? Will it simply become a 15-minute city for the middle classes? After all that is exactly what happened in Hammarby, a revitalised inner suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. (See Factsheet #411 “What is a Sustainable City”).

How will low income groups be able to afford to live in these revitalised town centres even in rented accommodation? Given local authorities have little incentive or finance to build public housing it is hard to see those groups getting a foothold in the 15 minute city. Whilst It is true that private builders include a limited amount of social housing in new developments, it is doubtful that it will provide enough for low income groups to live in town centres.

And if low income households can’t afford to live in these rejuvenated town centres, will they end up being pushed towards the periphery of our towns and cities?

Overall Ipswich is to be applauded for taking a radical approach to rejuvenating its town centre and for putting people first. All towns and cities are unique and so it is likely that what will work for Ipswich may not work elsewhere and different interpretations of Moreno’s ideas may evolve. At least it is a step in the right direction.

Interesting Links

Ipswich Vision Strategy Documents

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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