10th July 2023

15-Minute city – The Future of our Neighbourhoods?


In recent years the idea for the 15-minute city has grown momentum. Simply put, it is everything a person needs should be within a 15-minute walk or cycle from any point in a conurbation.

This includes work, healthcare, leisure, shopping, and education.

Looking back to earlier this year in March, a select panel of experts gathered on the Manchester stand with Place North West at MIPIM, one of the world’s largest property shows, to discuss exploring the pros and cons of the 15-minute cities, while answering the critics.

According to the hosts, delivering these neighbourhoods will take time, starting with policy and strategic resolutions to enable investment and direct planning decisions to reshape their composition.

The question is how can we build support for change in our communities and evidence the benefits of 15-minute cities through pilot schemes, so change can happen as quickly as possible?

And how do we answer the right-wing politicians and a handful of conspiracy theorists who have branded the idea as a “socialist concept?

The following panellists give their answers:

  • Stephen O’Malley, chief executive, Civic Engineers
  • Professor Sadie Morgan OBE, co-founding director, dRMM
  • Phil Mayall, board director, Muse
  • Matthew Warner, director, Layer Studio
  • Chaired by Julia Hatmaker, editor, Place North West

So what is a ‘15 minute city’?

Stephen O’Malley opened, “It’s about accessibility over mobility: You access most things you want over the course of a week from proximity to the front door of your home, so you’re travelling less, but getting more.” This need heightened over the course of the pandemic, and fifteen minutes is a transport metric based on distance and what we can access over that time.

While it’s a modern-day label, offered Phil Mayall, it’s nothing new – our cities and towns were the archetypal 15 minutes, because we didn’t use public transport unless you were privileged: everything you needed had to be within 15 minutes or so.

There have been accusations it will take away people’s freedoms – does that make the concept dead in the water?

“The conspiracy theorists take five half truths and turn it into a magnificent theory we are all going to be chained to a central pole with a 15 minute leash. What we are doing, and have all been doing”, offered Matthew Warner “Is creating a network of communities that have those facilities within easy reach.” It’s the overlapping of communities, rather than a single, concentric circle. “We need to battle that argument with a positive step forward and engage with and teach people that this is what we have been doing for years and this is the way we need to be living.”

Having created the Quality of Life Foundation, Sadie Morgan joined in saying “We must think about the way we talk about ideas and visions – the importance of narrative, the importance of telling a story, creating a way to describe a future we want…It’s to make communities, places and spaces that improve the quality of our lives.”

What is the biggest obstacle on delivering these 15-minute cities?

Now with her Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group hat on, Morgan continued that it’s infrastructure. “It’s all very well creating places that are accessible, but you need to make sure you are outward looking, that you can move between cities and those agglomerations are connected.” We need to consider how we make those connections not just on a small scale, but on a bigger scale.

She continued, “We need to be more strategic in how we think, plan, and deliver, and that means properly mapping what we have, properly understanding land use, places where opportunities lie, where we need green space”, pointing out that we don’t have that level of understanding nationwide yet.

Strategic, coherent long-term investment is what is needed to help give the confidence for market creation in these neighbourhoods that are economically challenged.

“It could be supporting an initiative that will allow for mixed-use development to come forward in a particular [place] that can’t currently support it”, proposed O’Malley. “This is not something you can do everywhere at once. It needs that confidence of supply of investment, which is complex and at the gift of what the political cycles are”.

Let’s look 15 years in the future. Will there be more 15-minute cities? If so, what enabled them to happen? If not, what held them back?

O’Malley enthused, “I’m very optimistic because our future is in the hands of the younger generation who will expect a lot more from urban environments”. He continued that we have learned the lessons from what [his generation] had to experience, and which they acted as the test bed for. The [younger generation] will find themselves with much better choices of walking and cycling and not have to climb into a car for two hours a day.

Morgan, too, was optimistic, saying she hopes by 2038 we’re not talking about ‘15-minute cities’ because we would have seen a change in the way our industry is thinking about how we design, deliver, and create places.

We won’t be calling them ‘15-minute cities’, we’ll be calling them home.

15-Minute city – The Future of our Neighbourhoods?