All six elements of a successful place are within reach of where I’m sitting, bleeding into and infecting one another, writes Rachel Fisher
The road out of rolling lockdowns is littered with bright ideas about the new normal: they glint in front of you like agates in asphalt. We need to believe that good can come from this time; that we will change and for the better.
Most beloved of all right-thinking placemakers is the 15-minute city.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made the 15-minute city one of the central planks of her re-election campaign last spring. Her envoy on smart cities, Pantheon-Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno (speaking at next week’s Festival of Place: Social Impact) is credited with popularising, if not inventing, the 15-minute city notion – and there is much to recommend it.
On Moreno’s terms each neighbourhood has six essential elements: working, caring, supplying, learning, enjoying and living. The idea that all of the things you need are within easy reach by foot or bike has obvious social and environmental benefits, but there are economic benefits as well: research has shown that money spent with local businesses remains local, which means the 15-minute city has nailed the sustainability trifecta.
And yet I’m not feeling it, maybe because I’m nearly a year into life in the 15-second city. All six elements of a successful place can be found within 15 seconds of where I am sitting, bleeding into and infecting one another.
Working. As a primarily office-based worker in the before-times, my office has moved from central London to my spare room. From there, I can hear my husband on his video calls and field requests from children for snacks to keep them quiet through my next call. This kind of work can be done from anywhere; from my phone, checking emails and responding to ‘urgent’ requests while cooking pasta con pesto (yes – again).
Caring. Pasta con pesto (see above) is known to be the greatest form of love a North London mother can give her children, except maybe hummus and carrot sticks. Just as I can work from anywhere in my home, I can also care from anywhere in my home, even from the loo.
Supplying. Thanks to online shopping the near-daily doorbell buzz incites such excitement that my son came running into my ‘office’, scissors in hand, to alert me to the presence of what turned out to be a new light switch. It’s the little things that you should risk your life for.
“When homeschooling for lockdown or quarantine, every day is a school day and every room is a schoolroom. Whether we have learned any lessons remains to be seen”
Learning. When homeschooling for lockdown or quarantine, every day is a school day and every room is a schoolroom. Whether we have learned any lessons remains to be seen. I have learned a huge amount about my colleagues at least, by peering into their home lives, and I suspect they have learned more than they wanted to about me….
Enjoying. We are fortunate to have a garden. This brings great pleasure to the children, though even they’ve grow tired of the confines of our herbaceous borders. For the adults, there is Bridgerton, the Normal People of Lockdown 3.0.
Living. Would you call this living?
I understand why the 15-minute city concept has taken hold. The hollowing out of many high streets has meant that in some neighbourhoods people can’t meet their daily needs without access to a car or other form of transit, with all of the negative implications that has for health, wellbeing, and economic security. ‘The haves’ have all they need while the ‘have-nots’ have even less.
There is also something comforting about the idea that everything you need can be found right where you are; like Dorothy’s inexplicable delight at finding herself back in black-and-white dust-bowl Kansas, where she wanted to be all along.
But this claustrophobia is not why we live in cities. It’s why we left the villages and towns of our youth. It’s why Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow to blow off Aunty Em (to paraphrase Rent).
Most older cities have the bone structure of a 15-minute city, certainly compared with the suburbs where you’re often at least a 15-minute drive from a pint of milk. Those of us locked into urban neighbourhoods have found that many of our needs are met. We shop on the high street, explore our local park, and pause when considering whether to return to our sweaty commute.
But the things that I love about the city – nightlife, escapism, anonymity – don’t feature in Moreno’s six essential elements of city life. And perhaps this is the fundamental difference between a neighbourhood and a city. You want things from your city that your neighbourhood doesn’t provide.
“This claustrophobia is not why we live in cities. It’s why we left villages and towns. It’s why Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow to blow off Aunty Em”
I remember sitting on the Southbank with wine from the National Theatre bar, listening to music and laughing with friends. The sun glitters on the Thames as it sets, and the twilight is full of promise for the night ahead, the sky purple with possibility.
So please, take me back to the Technicolor, opium-poppy hallucinations and flying monkeys of metropolitan life. The point of a city is that you can venture beyond your 15-minute circle and discover new things. You can flirt with new neighbourhoods, other realities and ways of being. You can see yourself reflected in the eyes of strangers.
Moreno’s 15-minute city model provides a framework to make all neighbourhoods sustainable. It promises a return to truly mixed-use places where even in our biggest cities we can still have deep-rooted social connections. But once all of my needs have been met within my neighbourhood, my wants, my desires… those are harder to reach. I don’t miss my commute, but I do miss the city.
I recently ventured beyond my 15-second hood to Hampstead Heath and saw the skyline of London, all the way down to Crystal Palace, laid out before me; tantalising. It has never felt further away.
The road out of lockdown had better be yellow-bricked and lead straight into the sweatiest nightclub in the Emerald City. I’ll wear my ruby slippers.
I’ve had enough of Kansas.
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