The idea of the 15-minute city is one that is both very old and very new. In its current incarnation it was developed by Professor Carlos Moreno, a Franco-Colombian specialist in complex systems who describes it as ‘a new chrono-urbanism’ which will be part of a more sustainable future where cities are no longer built around cars.
As the name suggests, it is a city made up of neighbourhoods where residents’ daily needs – such as work, shops, entertainment and healthcare – are 15 minutes away from their homes, either by foot or by bike. It’s a deceptively simple idea but one which, if implemented widely, would have profound implications for everything from the urban landscape to our health.
Of course, it’s also a very old idea. In the pre-car world that existed up to about 1920, almost every city was a 15-minute city – and this accounts the attraction for living near the centres of older cities and towns, rather than in sprawling suburbs where most journeys are car journeys. Most of the inner parts of European cities are 15-minute cities.
Professor Moreno is not the only one thinking this way. Similar ideas come from ‘new urbanism’, thinkers like Professor Richard Florida of the University of Toronto and groups like UK-based Create Streets whose goal is to help various stakeholders create ‘beautiful, sustainable places of gentle density that will be popular [and] are likely to be correlated with good well-being and public health’. More generally, there has been a growing realisation that endless car-dependent suburbs are not and cannot be the future – car journeys in London peaked in the 1990s and have declined ever since. After a century, it seems, the sun is finally setting on the age of the car.
However, the idea of the 15-minute city has been given fresh impetus by the pandemic – travel has been massively curtailed and people have been forced to rediscover their local neighbourhoods. I myself have become a 15-minute man, rarely travelling further afield than Dulwich, which is a quarter of an hour bike ride west of my home in Brockley. Furthermore, one legacy of Covid-19 is likely to be far more people working from home at least part-time. This will mean greater demand for local amenities such as coffee shops, restaurants and supermarkets.
All of which brings us to London City Island. In a sense, it’s natural for this sort of thing. The site is a peninsula roughly 400m long and 140m wide. It has a footbridge at one end to access Canning Town station (and the Bow Creek Ecology Park) and road access at the other. But that aside, you’re surrounded by water. Geographically it’s similar to one of those medieval cities like Durham which were built on a narrow loop in a river for defensive purposes. It’s compact, walkable, on a human-scale and very self-contained.
Of course, making this work in a new development takes design. Good schemes are often hampered by a lack of amenities – and potentially good developments often ruined by cars. City Island has underground parking but is largely pedestrianised. It has squares and plazas and lanes and retail; cultural and leisure amenities such as bars, clubs and restaurants are dotted around. It has links to both London’s transport network and local bike routes. It even has a kind of secular cathedral in the centre, in the form of the English National Ballet. It is a 15-minute city.
City Island has squares and plazas and lanes and retail; cultural and leisure amenities such as bars, clubs and restaurants are dotted around. It is a 15-minute city
Art at nearby Trinity Buoy Wharf
I knew the area years ago. I lived in East London back then and am a cyclist. Even in the pre-Olympic days, you could cycle north along the River Lea all the way to Hertford. But south, you soon got lost in a snarl of roads and ex-industrial land. I think I once made it to Trinity Buoy Wharf which, back then felt like an artists’ collective at the end of the world. The Leamouth Peninsula was a relic of an industrial past.
Now it feels like part of the future. But it’s a future that draws heavily on the past. Part Manhattan, part medieval. A 15-minute city using a template which is 1,500 years old.
Rhymer Rigby is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author who regularly contributes to the FT, Times and The Telegraph
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