Can Paris become a ’15-minute' city’?

As part of her re-election platform, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to turn Paris into a ’15 minute city’, where essential services are within a quarter hour’s walk or bike ride from where people live. The idea has taken hold in some cities and communities around the world. One of its main champions in France is Carlos Moreno.

Paris is one of the densest cities in the world. Making it a '15 minute' city would involve developing services within a close radius to peoples' homes. Getty Images

Moreno, a researcher at the Sorbonne, has joined the Hidalgo campaign to push for urban planning with a focus on proximity and time. Previous generations of planning focused on transportation: getting people from home, to work for example.

Moreno argues that time is becoming increasingly important for people, and environmental imperatives require that things be closer to home. He has defined six aspects of city life that should be within a small radius: housing, working, consuming, healthcare, education and leisure.

“If people have access to as many of these six urban social functions as possible in a short perimeter - 15 or 20 minutes, on foot or bike - they maximize the possibility of being happy,” he told RFI.

(Below is an edited version of an interview that you can hear in the Spotlight on France podcast. Subscribe here on iTunes, or Google Podcasts.)


This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Click to listen

RFI: One of the essential functions you define is work, which should be close to home. In a city like Paris, with more demand for housing than supply, how can people live near they work, if their jobs don’t pay enough to live nearby?

Carlos Moreno: This is a very important point for reimagining the city in the next two decades. Modern urbanism, in particular, in big cities, was characterised by extreme spatial segregation.

In Paris, there was a decision since the 1960s and ‘70s to concentrate big corporate headquarters to the west of the city, in the La Defense business district. At the same time, real estate developers started building housing on the other side of the city.

The result is that the metro and commuter train lines that cross the city are some one of the busiest in the world.

Why did urban planners accept to develop a chaotic city? This is the situation today.

Today we have a new situation, with the emergence of hyper-connectivity, via mobile phones and computers. We have the possibility to decentralise work conditions.

RFI: So the 15-minute city depends a lot on technology, and the ability to do work remotely. What about the jobs that cannot be done remotely, but are not well paid enough to live within the city?

CM: Of course, there is work and income, and then the possibility of finding find a job with good conditions, nearby. This is key.

But the 15-minute concept is also about changing how cities are being developed in the next decade. The problem today is the legacy of this spatial segregation.

As a researcher, I explore cities, and in France I’m surprised by the quantity and quality of public facilities, like libraries, swimming pools, gyms. But the problem is a gym is only for sport; a school only for studying; city hall is only for administrative services.

A gym could house other activities. I recently visited a place that was originally meant for sport only. Today it’s called a ‘social sport club’, and there are sporting activities, but also space for after-school support for kids, youth groups, a bike repair shop, a fablab – all in the same place.

The responsibility for the space is no longer just in the hands of city employees, but it’s a shared management. That’s very important, because people become proud of these spaces, so they take care of them.

Carlos Moreno thinks a lot about urban mobility, which has lead him to the idea of the 15-minute city

RFI: The idea of proximity also is part of the conversation about globalisation, and the focus on being more local, which makes environmental sense. But what about ghettoisation? Everything is close by, do people end up interacting with others outside their neighbourhoods?

CM: For this it’s important to use the right words. I don't want to recreate “new villages”. The concept is the grid city, to have access to essential urban functions, but to also have the possibility to move in different places in cities.

RFI: Beyond Paris, France has a lot of smaller cities, with a lot of urban sprawl. The Yellow Vest protest movement highlighted this, with people feeling disconnected and forgotten in favour of city dwellers. They don't live in 15 minutes cities…

CM: We have a very particular territorial development model in France, with the focus on big cities like Paris, Lyon and Marseille, but also several kinds of small towns. The problem for people in these small towns is mobility: how to get to work, because their jobs are in the cities.

The Yellow Vest movement is the expression of this difficulty for people to continue to live in these small towns, while being required to go into the city for work.

RFI: How do you deal with that?

CM: I consider we need to develop the concept of the “half hour territory”: 30 minutes, not on foot or bike, but by car.

Studies show that when people spend less than 30 minutes to access essential functions, they are happy.

The emergence of internet has changed people’s mind-sets. Speed today is the golden rule. A half hour is more important today than 20 years ago, before the Internet, in particular for the young people.

We have the possibility, with a 15-minute city, to develop an intensive exploration of all kinds of resources.

Carlos Moreno

RFI: These are real shifts and culture, the way people live in cities. Are we going to see in the next 5, 10, 20 years a major shift and how French cities are being built?

CM: I hope so! Because in the next few decades, climate change is a reality, economic models need to change, modes of production need to change. We need to radically change.

My role today is to propose new measures, not for immediate change, but to propose a new path. This is a long journey.

The most important challenge today is to open people’s eyes, to develop a new lifestyle based on proximity and solidarity – to rediscover humanity, rediscover otherness, rediscover invisible, but existing, resources.

Listen to this interview in the Spotlight on France podcast.