Photo: A small barber shop attached to a commercial building in a northeastern Australia coastal town. Small storefronts like this are one part of the vision advocated by supporters of the 15-minute city.
American cities certainly look different these days. Quarantine has kept people inside, most only leaving their homes for essential activities like grocery shopping. Many small businesses have struggled with diminished economic activity. Even with a phased reopening in some cities, car and foot traffic are slower. A third of small businesses in New York City, as one example, may not reopen after the pandemic calms, a report from the business group Partnership for New York City found.
One problem businesses (and patrons) now find in some American cities is the great physical distance between commercial centers and the residential areas where millions spend their days, foregoing their commute to the office and working from home. This change in behavior may not be entirely temporary either. Companies like Twitter have already told employees they will be able to work remotely even after offices reopen.
An urban planning concept called the “15-minute city” is gaining foothold as a viable solution to pandemic woes. C40 Cities, a global network of cities combatting climate change, included the idea in its 2020 C40 Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery. At a time when city centers are desolate, bringing activity to the people and decentralizing commerce would benefit both the communities craving amenities and the small businesses struggling to survive.
In a 15-minute city, residents would be able to take a short walk or bike ride to school, work, shops, governmental services and parks. The benefits would extend to communities, ecosystems, businesses and the economy. Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are among 17 active North American members of C40 Cities.
The idea of localized, walkable living is not new. Activists in the 1960s, including Jane Jacobs, pushed for community-based planning, and more recent movements like New Urbanism tout the benefits of small-scale, pedestrian-centric city living. The 15-minute city, though based on time-honored principles, is an incarnation that meets the needs of the time. Coined by Paris-based urbanist Carlos Moreno, this approach localizes living, shifts the transportation paradigm, and ensures that communities and ecosystems are cared for.
Paris has already taken this decentralization to heart under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who published a proposal this spring for a “15-minute Paris.” The vision is for a more equitable, prosperous and environmentally-friendly city.
Yes, in a way, the 15-minute city claims to be a universal panacea, but not without great thought and effort. American cities that have been split by highways and freeways and spread across landscapes with swaths of suburbia will have to retrofit their neighborhoods meticulously.
There are humble places to start. In this pandemic, where a third of small business owners have had to tap into their personal funds, relocating shops can make a big difference. One strategy is repurposing and building accessory commercial units (ACUs) within residential neighborhoods.
The ACU — a concept from Portland, Oregon, urban planner Neil Heller — is a small commercial unit that can sit in someone’s front yard facing the street. Some homes already have a small unit in the front from a century ago before cars became more widespread. If they don’t, these modest structures aren’t hard to build.
Mixing commercial and residential uses may require tweaks to zoning, especially in exclusively residential areas, Heller told Fast Company. But he says ACUs are a viable solution for many businesses, including shops and cafes that relied on commuters and office-workers before the pandemic sprung up. These businesses can relocate to the communities where people are working remotely.
Smaller units away from city centers and commercial hubs may also require lower rent.
Not everyone will want to open shop on a quiet residential street, but businesses like tailors, hair dressers, and insurance offices would fit well and find a new clientele, Heller wrote in a recent blog.
We’ve already watched cities adapt quickly to these times by opening streets to pedestrians, bikes and restaurant seating, but much of this change has happened in the urban core where landmarks, commerce and recreation are already centralized. In a time of social distancing, it makes sense to turn our attention to the outlying neighborhoods where people are congregating.
This is the time to make our cities livable and equitable. Where there are food deserts, markets can enter. Where a home is miles from any amenity, small businesses can swoop in. These first steps can be simple. The result will benefit all.
Image credit: Nicolas Weldingh/Unsplash