By Mike Eliason
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly referred to the “15-Minute City” concept as a way of recovering from COVID-19. In the September 19 Durkan Digest, the mayor said she had directed Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development to “explore the concept of a ’15 Minute City,’ as a potential framework for the next major Comprehensive Plan.”
The 15-Minute City is a sustainable cities concept developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, an advisor to several government and non-governmental agencies, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The concept is a city of complete, sustainable, connected neighborhoods, where every daily need can be met within a very short distance. The goals of a 15-Minute City include coordinated mobility, increased solidarity between residents, improved well-being, greener cities, more access to open space, rapid improvements to residents’ quality of life, and mitigating climate change.
As an architect deeply committed to decarbonized buildings and livable cities, I would gladly welcome a massive shift to a system this transformative and sustainable. However, Seattle’s next major Comprehensive Plan update won’t be adopted until 2024—meaning it would take over a decade to be realized. A framework that delays the transformation cities need to adapt to climate change (and COVID-19) for this long is neither climate action nor a path to economic recovery.
Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours.
Mayor Hidalgo, arguably one of the most visionary mayors in the world today, ran—and more critically, won—on a platform of massive ecological transformation during COVID. The ‘ville du quart d’heure‘ was a critical component of this. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris installed 50 kilometers of pop-up bike lanes within a few weeks of that city’s COVID-19 lockdown in preparation for recovery. More recently, Hidalgo announced Paris’s iconic Rue de Rivoli will be car-free—permanently. The city is transforming streets from spaces for cars to places for people and nature, with plans to replace 72 percent of on-street parking spaces with public squares, playgrounds, and pedestrian and cycling zones.
I am a huge fan of pedestrian zones. These are urban spaces where cars are generally not allowed, with exceptions for deliveries, accessibility, or resident access. They can vary in size from a single block to entire neighborhoods. In European and Asian cities, they are being expanded to areas outside downtown neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, under the leadership of Mayor Durkan, Seattle still has no fully realized pedestrian zones. The closest the city has come is low-traffic “Stay Healthy Streets,” which, under Durkan’s leadership, are located mostly in single-family neighborhoods, far away from businesses, parks, and apartments. Meanwhile, bike lanes were delayed for years or eliminated completely to appease motorists, resulting in unsafe streets. The Mayor’s proposed budget for 2021 also includes cutting tens of millions of dollars for safe streets and nonmotorized transportation. This is not climate leadership.
It isn’t just the failure to plan for a sustainable future that is problematic. Unlike the European cities that added nearly 1,500 miles of pop-up COVID bike lanes and a myriad of other mobility improvements, Seattle has not prioritized green mobility with pop-up bike lanes or true pedestrian zones. Instead, Seattle’s denser neighborhoods—which already have less access to open space than single-family enclaves—have seen their access to open space diminish during the pandemic, as playgrounds and parks have repeatedly been closed. Frustratingly, the mayor waited until the very end of summer to allow restaurants to use public spaces, and only a relative handful at that.
Fans of the 15-Minute City concept, including Seattle’s mayor, are also largely focusing only on the consumptive components of Moreno’s transformative idea—access to groceries, shops, cafes—while missing critical components, like massive increases in urban greenscapes, reconfigurations of open space, density, and access to health care. Paris, under Hidalgo, is taking action to allow more doctors to set up shop in neighborhoods, reaching a broader range of patients. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible for most U.S. cities where health care is heavily centralized in hospitals and medical districts, and revising land use codes won’t change that.
Fifteen-Minute Cities are about solidarity and radical decentralization. This includes: Neighborhood portals serving to assist and inform residents, and preventing the elderly from being isolated. Smaller grocery stores that are integrated into multifamily housing, instead of massive stores with parking lots, spread far apart. Integrating meeting and workspaces within neighborhoods, not just downtown. Multi-use public spaces that are accessible to more residents, from street intersections transformed into neighborhood squares, to school courtyards that become gardens accessible to the public on weekends and school holidays.
On the issue of housing, Moreno’s plan calls for ensuring “substantial densification” in a city that is already more than six times as dense as Seattle. As it densifies, Paris is building ample social (affordable) housing; the city’s goal is for social housing to account for 30 percent of its housing stock by 2030. Contrast this with most U.S. cities, where the “substantial density” needed to support a 15-Minute City is illegal, due to a preponderance of single-family only zoning that excludes affordable and multifamily housing. In Seattle, more than 80 percent of residential land is zoned for exclusive single-family use. Most of Seattle’s multifamily neighborhoods are not dense enough to support Moreno’s visionary concept, and Euclidean zoning—the practice of segregating the city by land use into zones such as residential, industrial, and retail— prevents the mix of uses that would enable a more sustainable city.
The 15-Minute City is a potent and powerful concept for cities that are serious about addressing livability, urban isolation, and housing inequality. It’s also an idea that can shape efforts to mitigate the worsening climate crisis. Mayors are already working on this globally: The concept was incorporated into the C40 Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, adopted this past summer by the Global Mayors COVID Recovery Task Force, which includes Mayor Durkan.
At the C40 Mayors’ summit in Copenhagen last October, Durkan stated: “Climate activism is not a choice. It is a necessity. … I would not have run for office if [my children] had not been so impatient about how the world needed to change, about how their future was on the line, and how our future had let them down. It is a moral necessity for us to act.”
I agree – climate action is a moral necessity. But it requires action and leadership that Mayor Durkan has not shown.
My wife and I have two young children. The future they will inhabit is most definitely on the line. But Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours. Mayors across the U.S. are either unable, or unwilling, to rise to the compounding challenges of housing crises, inequality, and climate change. We need mayors to incorporate the 15-Minute City as an actual component of recovery, not an election year gimmick. Our vulnerable elders, and our children, cannot wait another decade for climate action. The 15-Minute City must be fast-tracked today, and implemented in full, ideally with strong support from the state and federal levels. We must resoundingly defeat the climate delay of visionless mayors, so that we have an actual opportunity to realize walkable, livable, affordable, and deep green cities.
Mike Eliason is a dad, writer, and mass timber architect with a passion for passivhaus buildings, baugruppen, social housing, livable cities, and safe car-free streets.