For some years, urbanists have used the phrase ‘15-minute cities’. And for most of that time, nobody paid any attention to them. In recent months, however, this term has burst out of its specialist corner to become the object of furious disputation, both in the darker reaches of the internet and within the Conservative Party. When Tories talk about the built environment, it’s never too long before the name of Roger Scruton is invoked. And because I worked as Scruton’s research assistant on the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, I get hauled out to opine on what he would actually have said. So here I am.
The first thing to say about 15-minute cities is that, notwithstanding much of the social media hubbub, they are not the same thing as low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). A 15-minute city is one where residents live within a 15-minute walking or cycling distance of lots of things, like shops and schools. A low-traffic neighbourhood is a neighbourhood where the local authority has prohibited through-traffic. You can have 15-minute cities without LTNs, as in most areas built up to the 1930s. You can also have LTNs without 15-minute cities: in a way most post-war cul-de-sac housing estates are like this, although through-traffic is blocked by the structure of the street network rather than by bollards or planters. You can be in favour of one but not the other without inconsistency. They are just different ideas.
The second thing to say about 15-minute cities is that they are quite hazily defined. The key question is which things have to be within a 15-minute journey for a city to merit the ‘15-minute’ attribute. A spectrum of possibilities opens up, from the silly to the sensible.
On a silly definition, a 15-minute city is one in which residents are within 15 minutes’ cycling of everything they need. Historically, of course, lots of cities were like this. Google Maps calculates that one can cycle from the Porta Tufi to the Porta Camollia of Siena in 11 minutes, or from the Temple Bar Memorial to the Tower of London in 12. So, had bicycles existed, medieval Sienese and Londoners could have got to everything they needed well within 15 minutes; and even without them, they weren’t far off. But these cities achieved 15-minute-ness by being very small. Medieval Siena had about 50,000 people, medieval London about 80,000, with levels of crowding that would be intolerable to us now. Short of building a lot of skyscrapers, we aren’t going to fit many more people than that into a ‘15-minute city’ under the silly definition.
Now, many people like living in small cities. But many people also have reasons to live in bigger ones. The underlying reason for this is what economists call their ‘agglomeration effects’, that is, roughly, the fact that people often become more productive when living near to one another. A brilliant solicitor forced to live in a remote hamlet may not be able to use any of their distinctive skills, and may indeed make a very bad agricultural worker. Living in a small town, they might get a solid job with a local practice. Living in London, they might get a job with a world-leading company, earning far more and contributing far more to the economy. This is basically why floorspace in successful large cities is a lot more expensive than it is elsewhere: people get paid more if they are more productive, they can be more productive by living in urban centres, so they are willing to pay more to live in those places.
Under the silly definition, 15-minute cities would be inconsistent with all agglomeration gains of cities with more than about 80,000 people. If seriously implemented, this would require the destruction of all the world’s great cities, crash the global economy, and plunge billions of people into poverty. That is obviously not a good idea.
It does not help to say that a city should be ‘polycentric’, such that London could still exist as a geographical unit, but broken down into 15-minute-compatible sub-cities. According to the silly definition, one should be able to get to everything in 15 minutes. If that is so, what is the point of clumping all these 15-minute sub-cities together? By definition, their residents can get to everything they need without leaving their 15 minute unit. The whole point of large cities is that they offer residents at least some things that they can’t get in their 15-minute radius, be they universities, hospitals, theatres, corporate headquarters or parliaments.
So much for the silly definition. But there is also a sensible definition of 15-minute cities, according to which a city meets the bar if its residents can walk or cycle to a range of local conveniences. Plausibly, these might include a primary and secondary school, a post office, a grocery shop, a pharmacist, a pub, a park, a playground, a GP’s surgery, a parish church, and a bus stop: crucially, however, they do not necessarily include every resident’s place of work.
Fifteen-minute cities in this sense are not necessarily impractical at all. All cities everywhere were built this way until the Second World War. Some countries still tend to build cities this way today, like Japan, Spain and the Netherlands. Cities built like this tend to have many advantages. There is a huge body of empirical evidence, gradually entering British public debate through organisations like Create Streets and the Place Alliance, that they conduce to residents’ health and wellbeing, besides being more environmentally sustainable. They also seem to be broadly popular.
Fifteen-minute cities like this became rarer in post-war Britain for several reasons. One was the modernist planning orthodoxies of the mid-20th century, whereby the state distributed residential, commercial and recreational uses in neat little blocks, tied together by arterial roads. Another was the enormous rise in crime in the second half of the 20th century, which made isolated, car-dependent housing seem safer. A third was dreadful urban pollution. A fourth was the prohibition on suburban intensification, which often froze densities below the level where they could support many local businesses. But modernist planning is totally discredited, crime has been falling for a quarter of a century, and urban smog is largely a thing of the past. It is no wonder that interest in 15-minute neighbourhoods is reviving.
Would Roger Scruton have said all this? Not in quite these terms – I certainly can’t imagine him referring to an ‘agglomeration effect’. But Scruton was an analytical philosopher, who believed in giving clear definitions; he was a realist, who mistrusted frivolous proposals to abolish the modern world; and he was a romantic, who respected traditional urbanism and the rich communal life that it fosters. I have no doubt that he would have dismissed ‘15-minute cities’ under the silly definition, and supported them under the sensible one. And he would have viewed the current brouhaha about them with mournful puzzlement, in the unlikely event that he noticed a minor Twitter storm at all.
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