Tempus Fugit

At the end of February I wrote that we should live in city neighborhoods where we could walk to everything important in our lives in just a few minutes. I noted that this new and very old way of thinking about city living, most recently articulated by Prof. Carlos Moreno, who teaches at the Sorbonne and lives in Paris, has been given a name: the 15-minute city (a city of 15-minute neighborhoods). I note that in some cities now working on this, (Melbourne, for instance) they are calling for 20 minute neighborhoods. Five minutes more or less isn’t worth quibbling over…

The Australian version.

This way of thinking is being pursued in places around the globe. Why? Because as it has been most recently defined, the 15-minute city intends to be equitable, diverse, ultimately local, sustainable and resilient, and easily accessible without reverting to automobility. Many would see this as good. Some would not, for one reason or another.

It seems that Seattle has been working on a similar idea – they call it Urban Villages – since 1994. They are about to revisit their Urban Villages plan, and their Planning Commission has written a wise and thoughtful criticism of the plan’s shortcomings – and there are several – as they prepare for revisions. Their document acts as a kind of cautionary tale as we reflect on how to remake our cities for a better future: not a total failure, but there are some serious problems.


I note with more than a small bit of interest that our city – Rochester – once had an Urban Villages plan as well. Ours was surely the result of the same urban thinking that culminated in Seattle’s plan. During Mayor Bill Johnson’s Administration, the city comprehensive plan was revisited, resulting in The Rochester 2010 Renaissance Plan of 1999. Led by the late Larry Stid, the city’s Planning Department created an Urban Village Concept Plan, included in the original Renaissance Plan (Campaign Nine, page 76, in the original plan).

Urban Village Concept Plan – at the Rochester Public Market

Yup – a predecessor of the 15-minute city, in 1999. But when the plan went to City Council, the Urban Villages plan got the axe, and that was the end of that. Sigh. But it is right to say that here and elsewhere some have been thinking about a better city life, and a local life in cities, for quite a long time.

Enough of that. Let’s get down to practical matters. In order to actually achieve the 15 or 20 minute urban village, take a moment and reflect on what changes would be required in your neighborhood. If you live in a city, you would know that a nearly countless number of things would have to be altered. And if you live in the suburbs, the list of things needing revision grows even longer. What seems like a simple idea is actually seriously difficult to think about, and without a head start of years of thoughtful urbanism (the absolute rarest of commodities) it is even harder to achieve.

The difficulties begin with the simplest 15-minute city proposition: you must have access to all your needs (and wants) within a short WALK. Walking – no cars involved. Cars are put away. Feet. Okay, you can use your bike (especially important for those of us with mobility challenges). But that’s it. Walk, or when transit is at hand and accessible, you can hop on the bus/tram/autonomously-driven-pod, or whatever we think up next. But no cars. This means, among many other things, that transit is connected to other urban villages in a clear and efficient way. Village pods connected by threads of mobility. Good.

But then things get really difficult. Within the Village there must be an explosion of commerce based on providing local everything. The supermarket with its 60,000 items from across the globe may still exist in some villages, but not most, so that means that edibles will become a booming entrepreneurial opportunity. And all the other goods and services we all need every day will be provided by new shops run by locals. Jobs! And offices and studios are upstairs above the cafes and green grocers – a short walk to work. The school is also the local library and city service center. Great, yes?

But these are impossibly tall orders. Most neighborhoods can only satisfy a small number of these needs. As for local food, accessible transit, neighborhood schools and everything else, we can only lean back in our chairs and contemplate how many years it will take to prepare us to fill these needs. Decades, at best.

And anyway we don’t really live in our cities anymore, do we? Who needs cities? We live on the internet. We live on our phones. That car next to you is really not next to you – it’s in Palo Alto with pals. Well, until the light turns green….

And then there is the 15-minute city and the suburbs. Nope. Not going to happen. Impossible – the changes necessary are beyond staggering. Which would probably be a comfort to many of the inhabitants.

Greece Ridge Shopping Center. Photo by Mathew Wilson

Even if, by some (truly) unbelievable hand of fate, Rochester was a part of a region that wants to act as if everyone in the region is responsible for every one else in the region – even then this 15 minute-city stuff would remain simply voodoo urbanism.

The time for us, here in Rochester and Monroe County at least, the time for us to make places that work for everyone has come, and I think it has gone. It is no longer possible for us to make any kind of urban or regional sense out of the places where we live, work, shop, play, learn. We have ever-increasing sprawl, we have as many cars as there are people, we have a transit system desperately trying to get us somewhere in less than 90 minutes, we have a new Comprehensive Plan that won’t change a thing in our city, and we have a surrounding region happy to shrug its shoulders at some of the worst poverty and inequity in this nation.

And this may be true where you live, too. Perhaps the climate catastrophe that is starting to unfold before our very eyes will change some of this. Perhaps not. But the 15-minute city is dead on arrival in most US cities. Let us watch and see if Seattle proves me wrong.

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