The Fifteen-Minute City: Rethinking urban life

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Excerpted from Urban life and proximity at the time of COVID-19 by Carlos Moreno (Published by Editions de l’Observatoire, July 2020).

Here we are, since the appearance of the coronavirus, brutally plunged into the greatest health crisis in modern history.

Paradoxically, this global threat also acts as the revealer of a major fact of this century: the strength of cities, the expression of their centrality – which is at the heart of the violent disruption of the system in all regards. Yes, the 21st century, that of cities, metropolises and megalopolises – expressions of the urban reality – also carries its vulnerabilities and dysfunctions. In a world where life is based on interdependencies, we have never witnessed such a demonstration of the key principles of complexity. Indeed, at the level of urban life across the whole planet, this axiom, which we have been repeating constantly for so many years, proves to be perfectly illustrated: we live in “living cities”, which are at the same time imperfect, incomplete and fragile.

Read the OECD's Cities Policy Responses to COVID-19

Image: Shutterstock /ShustrikS.

For the first time, we must reflect and act on the health of citizens not only by providing them with medical care, but also by offering them a different rhythm of life and another approach to social interactions.

From climate change and its visible effects (e.g. heat waves) to air pollution (which has serious consequences for urban health), the place of nature in our cities, water, biodiversity and now the viral spread of Covid-19, we are facing major urban challenges for the years to come. The challenge that the current crisis brings is that of a radical change in lifestyle, here and now. Living differently today implies, above all, modifying our relationships with time and urban spaces; it means questioning our mobility, the reason behind our journeys. Travel times have already contributed to a serious deterioration in the quality of life, and are also becoming a new urban health threat.

This key question keeps coming up: what city do we want to live in? I argue that it is time to move not towards city planning, but towards urban life planning.

Everywhere on the planet, our world cities are the greatest concentrations of human activity, but they are still guided by the paradigm of the petroleum era and its impacts on roads and urban planning in general. The era of the omnipresent car, associated with a lifestyle based on the ownership of a vehicle as an element of social status, is still present – but it is wavering. There is a growing awareness that our cities have become unbreathable through the triple effect of the emissions produced by buildings, heating and cooling networks and full-on petrol transportation.

At the time of COVID-19, when locking down urban life with physical distancing is the only way to stop its spread, we wonder: how to offer urban residents a peaceful, liveable city, while allowing it to satisfy its essential urban social functions?

How then can we reconcile the irreversible development of the urban world with the imperative needs linked to a real quality of life, now that, for an unknown time, we are going to live with a global viral threat?

More on the Forum Network: Keep Calm and Plan! Notes on cities after COVID-19 by Pier Paolo Tamburelli, Architect & Partner, baukuh

This key question keeps coming up: what city do we want to live in? I argue that it is time to move not towards city planning, but towards urban life planning.

My proposition: the "fifteen-minute city" in a compact zone (or the "half-hour territory" in a semi-dense or sparse zone), hyper-proximity, "accessible" to all and at any time... the city where, in less than 15 minutes, inhabitants can access their essential needs: live, work, get supplies, take care of themselves, educate themselves, enjoy themselves.

Life with COVID-19 requires us to have an ambitious urban policy to implement this radical transformation of our lifestyles. Preserving our quality of life requires profound change in the relationships between these two essential components: time and space.

The 15-minute city idea answers the question of saving time by turning it on its head, by suggesting a different pace of life. A 15-minute pace.

Find out more about Urban life and proximity at the time of COVID-19 by Carlos Moreno

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Carlos Moreno

Scientific Director of the Chair eTi (Entrepreneurship – Territory – Innovation), Panthéon Sorbonne University – IAE Paris

Researcher of international renown, Carlos Moreno is Scientific director of the Chair "Entrepreneurship – Territory – Innovation", Panthéon Sorbonne University – IAE Paris (France). Carlos Moreno earned recognition as a scientist with an innovative mind, pioneer works and is unique approach on urban issues. He is also a scientific advisor of national and international figures of the highest level, including the Mayor of Paris Smart City special Envoy. He works at the heart of issues of international significance as a result of his research, ringing an innovative perspective on urban issues and offering solutions to the issues faced by the cities, metropolises and territories during the 21st century. Some of his concepts traveled the world: the Human Smart City, the 15mn City, the Territory of 30mn. Carlos Moreno received the Foresight Medal by the French Academy of Architecture (2019). He is the author of “Urban life and proximity at the time of Covid-19”, published by Editions de l’Observatoire, July 2020