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Paris - The 15-Minute City

As I straddle my rental bike near Notre-Dame de Paris, I reset my wristwatch's stopwatch and start pedaling along the right bank of the Seine. It's a pleasant ride, sometimes right down by the water on the recently car-free road, sometimes a bit higher up past landmarks like the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, Place de la Concorde, and the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (MAM). By the time I reach Pont d’Iéna, about 15 minutes have passed, so I stop and look out over the bridge towards the Eiffel Tower. When the Parisian idea of the 15-minute city was launched, this route, around 5 kilometers, was what was intended. It's roughly how far you can go at a leisurely pace by bike. However, sometimes the proposal seemed to refer to a 15-minute walk, only to further confuse the concept by suggesting it could also mean 15 minutes by public transport.

So, the answer to the question of how big a 15-minute city is becomes akin to asking about the length of a piece of string: it depends. But let's set aside measurements and minutes for a moment and flip the concept. What proponents of the 15-minute city envision for the future is a lifestyle where everyone can reach nearly everything: work, school, healthcare, small shops, exercise, green spaces, allotments, culture, workshops, shopping centers without significant effort and, most importantly, without relying on a car.

A modern small town, thus. Or perhaps more often, several modern small towns interconnected to form a larger unit. Unlike today, where much, like healthcare, culture, and various public services, are often centralized in locations far from most residents.

Behind the Parisian idea of the 15-minute city stands a duo seemingly handpicked for the task – which they might be. One is Paris' mayor, the elegant and impactful Anne Hidalgo, and the other is the slightly eccentric Carlos Moreno, a Colombian-French author and professor at Sorbonne University who coined the term in 2016.

Carlos Moreno begins his Ted Talk like this (my translation):

"For too long, those of us living in both large and small cities have accepted the unacceptable. We accept that in cities, our sense of time is skewed because we have to waste so much of it just adapting to the absurd organization and long distances in most of today’s cities. Why is it that we have to adapt and degrade our potential quality of life? Why doesn’t the city respond to our needs? Why have we allowed cities to develop in the wrong direction for so long? I would like to offer a concept of cities that goes in the opposite direction to modern urbanism, an attempt to converge life into a human-sized space rather than fragmenting it into inhuman vastness and then forcing us to adapt. I call it the '15-minute city.'"

Many have perceived the idea of the 15-minute city as an attack on car culture, and in a way, it is. But that’s not the main goal. It's about reorganizing cities to make them more human. The idea underpinning everything Carlos Moreno says is that the city should be people-friendly, accessible, and organized according to the inhabitants' needs. Streets should not primarily be intended for car traffic and parking. Streets should be as welcoming as living rooms, places to meet, socialize, and feel comfortable. They should be calm and safe, free from exhaust fumes and noise. In this urban living room, you should feel confident letting your children play. Driving a car should not be an end in itself that trumps everything that makes a place human-friendly.

The 15-minute city, Carlos Moreno continues in his lecture, should rest on three key functions. First, the city’s rhythm should follow the people, not the cars. Second, every square meter should serve many different purposes. Third, neighborhoods should be designed so that we can live, work, and enjoy them without constantly needing to commute elsewhere.

The idea of a 15-minute city is not just about making it a little cozier for its inhabitants. In some cases, it's absolutely necessary to reorganize cities for them to continue functioning. It must be ten years ago that I first heard about London's problems, risking the city losing large parts of its vital functions. It was about low-wage workers, such as cashiers, bus and taxi drivers, hotel and restaurant staff, cleaners, who, due to very high housing costs, had to commute unreasonably long distances to and from the homes they could afford. No one can endure sitting two, three, maybe four hours on buses, commuter trains, or subway cars every morning and evening. If these workers had enough and stopped commuting into the city, the city would die.

Like other new and revolutionary ideas, they are rarely created from nothing, but rather build on previous thoughts – remember that there were twenty-two patents for light bulbs before Thomas Alva Edison filed his. The same applies to the 15-minute city. The most spectacular predecessor was the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier's spectacular Indian project Chandigarh. When Chandigarh, termed the "ideal city," was built from scratch in the early 1950s, a key idea was that everything should be within a 10-minute walk. Others who have recently invested in similar minute-cities include Dublin in Ireland, Valencia in Spain, Cagliari in Italy, Melbourne in Australia, Portland in North America, Ottawa in Canada, and the city-state Singapore.

Yet it is Paris that has taken command of the concept. The reasons for this are probably many. Paris genuinely wants to be seen as, and is working hard to be, the green city of the future, and it wants to carry this epithet when it hosts the 2024 Olympics. Additionally, Paris has an advantage over most other metropolises: in the eyes of many, around the world, Paris is already the symbol of the city we most want to live in. Another of the city's advantages in terms of being able to manage the idea of the 15-minute city is the fact that its center has been relatively spared from large brutal urban planning interventions. Central Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements numbered from the inside out – from #1 Louvre to #20 Ménilmontant – like a coiled cinnamon bun. These 20 districts largely consist of relatively low buildings with lively neighborhoods due to many shops, cafes, and restaurants on the ground floor. In whichever direction you choose to walk, the city encourages you to keep strolling. Moreover, these arrondissements already have a certain degree of autonomy, so it would not be unfamiliar for the authorities to ensure that "everything" the residents need is within their borders. This despite the fact that there would, of course, be problems, such as the population not being evenly distributed: the 1st arrondissement has around 17,000 residents, while the 15th has 225,000.

But within the cinnamon bun with its 20 arrondissements, it is surprisingly integrated. There is, of course, a big difference in incomes between the immigrant-rich Belleville (which spans the 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements) and the ultra-rich in the 7th who live in prestigious apartments with views of the Eiffel Tower. But when I visit a friend in her rental three-room apartment in Batignolles, which is in the 17th, she can point out one direction from her window and say, "in that building live many newly arrived immigrants" and then point the other way and say "there lives a woman who is a top executive at Louis Vuitton, two floors just for her and her husband." In many other world metropolises, high-rise office buildings, often housing workplaces for finance professionals, have pushed out residents and killed street life in the center. Not so in Paris. La Défense, the office district that resembles a piece of air-dropped Hong Kong, is 28 bike minutes away from the Eiffel Tower. In the slightly chaotic and still fairly bohemian area of Montparnasse, there are many museums, several small theaters, second-hand shops, organic food markets, and artist cafes where the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Marguerite Duras, and Jane Birkin once hung out – and where those who aspire to be like Hemingway, Birkin, Picasso, and the others hang out today.

So, central Paris is indeed, for now, neither overly segregated nor overtaken by offices. This should be the best condition for reorganizing this metropolis into a 15-minute city.

-Johan Tell


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