City Punches Time Clock

These last twelve months, as all the world has struggled with the pandemic, more people everywhere are – at last – starting to realize that our health, our environment, our climate, and our lives in cities are all in need of reevaluating, rethinking, and transformation. And it’s an urgent matter of time. Time is emerging as a critical measure of a healthy, sustainable city.

Paris: Image from Skynews.

In fact, a short time – the time it takes you to walk a half a mile. For most, this half mile takes about 15 minutes. Now we have a global flurry of conversation about a new (and of course very old) way of describing a better, or perhaps a best urban environment. It’s called the 15-minute city. Here I will interpret that phrase to mean a 15-minute neighborhood in a city of such neighborhoods that comprise a vibrant, viable, just and resilient metropolis.

Image by Paris en Commun.

The chief evangelist of the 15-minute city is a clear minded Sorbonne Professor named Carlos Moreno. Prof. Moreno has made TED talks and sketches and diagrams of all sorts and podcasts and magazine interviews and other communiques to describe his concept. Thankfully, his words and illustrations describing his vision of a 15-minute city of 15 minute neighborhoods make thinking about this kind of urban habitation accessible to a large and otherwise untrained audience. As a measure of his success in communicating his urban ideas, his approach was adopted by incumbent Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and is credited with being key to her reelection last March. Paris is in the process of becoming a best example of a 15-minute city of 15 minute neighborhoods.

But let us back up. What is 15-minute urbanism? Prof. Moreno says it is city-making that:

  • Is local in almost every way: food and provisions, parks, community gardens and recreation, healthcare, workplaces and employment opportunities, any and all daily necessities are available locally.
  • Has schools as community centers that can be reached in a short walk for day and evening activities.
  • Has access to municipal resources: a library, a village hall, a public safety facility.
  • Has plenty of third places (not home, not work, but places for gathering and social life).
  • Has housing available for all: affordable, for the ‘missing middle,’ and for others. Diversity is essential – of race, ethnicity, age, income. Segregation of any kind is not permitted.
  • Is dense (not tall, but close, busy, and scaled well to the street).
  • Is green and is walkable. Streets are safe and shared space, and cars are unnecessary. Citizens can gather in the streets, which are now truly and at last the public realm.
  • Is incremental – big projects in scale or size are discouraged. Though there are few restrictions on the uses of new development, there is concern for form and scale.
  • Has easy access to public transport and provides a full range of cycling networks.

Of course, this is precisely the way we made cities for many centuries. Our cities used to be a dense and compact urbanism, finely grained, with everything we needed close at hand. Everywhere – east and west, north and south. Cities were connected by roads trodden by carts and animals, and these could travel 20 or 30 miles in a day, depending on terrain.

Then came rail transport – trains and streetcars – and our cities began to spread geographically. In 1930, when streetcars were still going strong in our city, a trip downtown from our neighborhood took 17 minutes, and the cars came every 7 minutes or so. (Today, that trip takes over 20 minutes, and the buses come every 45 minutes at best. Ah – progress).

Detroit’s Woodward Avenue before the car. Yes, Detroit. 1907 – Image from Shorpy. Look at those sidewalks.

And then came the car, and the world of cities, and especially American cities, was changed. For better and mostly for worse, almost all of us live in that changed city today.

Hong Kong – Getty Images.

One of the important things this means, we now have come to understand, is that turning a European or Indian city, say, into a 15-minute city is much easier to accomplish than it is here in the US. In many parts of the world, existing cities were not destroyed or discarded in order to accommodate the car. From 4,000 feet in the air, one of them looks like this:

Barcelona, Spain.

And at the same moment, and from the same altitude, American cities look like this:

Rochester, NY.

Clearly, American cities will not easily become 15-minute cities. But some portions of Canadian and American cities could become collections of 15-minute neighborhoods. And some cities are actively pursuing the possibility. The list won’t surprise anyone. But it does emphasize that this idea of transforming the places where we live into better, more equitable, healthier and more sustainable versions is really beginning to take hold.

  • Portland, Oregon
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Kirkland, Washington
  • Detroit, Michigan (they have added 5 minutes and are thinking of 20 minute neighborhoods)
  • Austin, Texas (!)
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • NYC
  • Ottawa, Ontario
  • Vancouver, BC
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • And more

Which brings us back to Rochester. Our city is in no danger of joining a list of cities committed to a 15-minute future, with highly equitable, highly walkable, locally centered, green and car independent neighborhoods. Rochester’s urbanists spend a lot of time celebrating the latest new developments – and there are some happening here. But many fail to question whether any new building, or the redeveloping city, represents progress in preparing for a challenging future. In fact, our present is challenging: the existing city neighborhoods are in the majority marked by inequity, poverty, poor health profiles, and a long standing sense of isolation and separation. Rochester has the third highest poverty rate in the nation according to WXXI, our local PBS station.

Poverty in Rochester. Image from the Democrat and Chronicle.
New downtown Rochester development. Buckingham Properties.

But it is possible to imagine that some of this city’s neighborhoods could become 15-minute locales. These places, which can be found in some number in each of the city’s quadrants, would require a substantial degree of reinvention and reinvestment. But they have some historic foundations upon which to build a useable future. Very difficult to achieve, but possible.

One way to begin rethinking a neighborhood so that it might become a 15-minute locale is to look at a place before it was forsaken for automobility and segregation. Here is just one example, in what is now known as the JOSANA neighborhood on Rochester’s west side:

Rochester, New York, 1926.

Jay Street, once a streetcar route, runs east and west in this image. You can see pink buildings, which means they were made of brick, at most every corner. These were two or more story buildings with some kind of retail at street level, and then apartments or other uses upstairs. You got on or off the streetcar at these places, did a quick shop or walked a block or two, and then headed home. It was 8 minutes from here to downtown on the #9 streetcar that ran about every 8 minutes, and the distance from Whitney, on the left, to Walnut, on the east, was just a bit less than 1,600 feet (1/4 mile or so). Perhaps the neighborhood was not yet local enough and green space was at a premium in 1926, and there is very much to do today to make it all the way to a 15-minute neighborhood, but it seems imaginable. Exceedingly challenging, but imaginable.

Jay Street today. Click on the image for a larger view.

The real problem in Rochester, and in dozens of cities in America, is not just how to remake city neighborhoods., The real problem is the sure and certain fact that most middle class white residents think a 15 or 20 minute city means one where they can reach most destinations in their cars: shop, school, work, play. Our county, with all of the suburbs that surround the city, has a population of about 750,000, and the city about 205,000. This means that in our immediate region, three quarters of the population is suburban. And it looks like this:

This does not look like any image I have ever seen representing a 15-minute city. While the image is located here in our region, it is not unique to our city. Making these places into walkable, diverse, mixed use locales where most every need can be met in a short stroll will have to begin with a nearly total change of mind and heart by those who live in these settings. That change of mind will come perhaps, maybe forced by a changing climate, environment and economy, but not until those forces are even more powerful than they exist today.

No, let’s take small and achievable steps at the local city level. What we need to do is get the 15-minute city conversation going in city council, among our leaders. We need to talk to one another in our neighborhoods and imagine future possibilities. The city needs to buzz with what Rochester could become. We need to advocate in favor of a useable future. We need to change our regulations to assure walkability, access, equity, localness. We need to respect the good old city that Rochester once was, and take what lessons we can from it as we transform our community. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Time is wasting.

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