Central planning

The International Idiocy of the 15-Minute City

Planners and politicians from Saudi Arabia to Scotland want to transform interconnected cities into isolated "urban villages" no one ever needs to leave.


The promise of cities is that they have a lot more stuff to do, things to buy and sell, places to work, and people to meet than towns and villages. It's why large metros manage to be richer, more attractive places than smaller, isolated communities, despite all the traffic, noise, crime, pollution, and general urban dysfunction that inevitably comes with them.

It's strange then that all across the world, city planners and the politicians under their sway keep trying to replace the interconnected, agglomerated city with sealed-off, self-contained urban villages no one will have to leave.

Last week, the Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly approved a new national planning framework that prioritizes the creation of "20-minute neighborhoods" where residents can access jobs, housing, shopping, health and education facilities, and even food-producing gardens in a 20-minute walk or bike ride.

This national framework serves as a guideline for local councils that produce more precise plans of where new development is allowed and approve individual development applications.

Scottish national authorities are hoping that by encouraging local authorities to reject out-of-town retail outlets and other projects people would be willing to drive to, they can cut emissions and create more "sustainable and fair" cities.

Scotland's 20-minute neighborhood plan is a slightly more modest version of its intellectual inspiration—the 15-minute city.

The term was first coined by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno in 2016, and riffs off preexisting ideas of an "urban village" or "smart city" where travel and emissions can be reduced or eliminated through the creation of planned neighborhoods that contain everything one might need within a few blocks.

"The idea is to design or redesign cities so that in a maximum of 15 minutes, on foot or by bicycle, city dwellers can enjoy most of what constitutes urban life: access to their jobs, their homes, food, health, education, culture, and recreation," said Moreno during a 2020 TED Talk.

A March 2022 article published by the World Economic Forum traces the "surprising stickiness" of the 15-minute city all the way back to 19th-century Scotsman Patrick Geddes' vision for "Eutopia." Through proper planning, Geddes hoped that Eutopian towns and cities could transition society away from "money wages" and the messy individual plans they encouraged and toward a more communal, energy-conserving built environment of "folk, work, and place."

Geddes' contemporary countrymen aren't the only ones taking to the idea.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made the creation of a 15-minute city the centerpiece of her 2020 reelection campaign. Former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary and failed 2021 New York City mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan ran on the idea as well. Seattle has long pursued a similar urban village strategy to guide its planning and zoning decisions, all the in name of reducing car travel and emissions.

Saudi Arabia's much-publicized The Line takes the 15-minute city idea to its extremely silly logical end-point. The $500 billion pet project of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would create a brand new, linear city in the middle of the desert in which every destination is reachable by a 20-minute train ride, and all the necessities of daily life (schools, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.) can be reached within five minutes.

Part of the "stickiness" of the 15-minute city is pretty easy to understand. Access to everyday amenities within a short trip is something most people prize. Fortunately, it's easy to find these neighborhoods where zoning regulations don't make them illegal.

In a 2022 response to Moreno, New York University's Marron Institute of Urban Management researcher Alain Bertaud notes that most Parisians have already achieved access to a wide number of grocery stores, bakeries, and the like within walking distance without the help of invasive planners.

"The abundance and variety of bakeries are not due to meticulous municipal planning but to market mechanisms," he writes. "If Parisians were to prefer herring to croissants for breakfast in the future, the market would adjust, and herring merchants will gradually replace the bakeries without any 'redesign' of Paris."

Paris lacks zoning rules that exclude commercial uses like bakeries and food stores from residential areas. It's also a very dense place. That means bakers and grocers can legally establish themselves within walking distance of many, many customers.

But even in sprawling, tightly zoned America, the median distance to the nearest food store is just under one mile. That's on the outer edge of walking distance for most people and a very convenient bike or car trip for everyone else.

If the U.S. had fewer zoning restrictions that cap densities and separate residential and commercial uses, odds are there'd be a lot more neighborhoods like central Paris where most amenities could be reached just by walking.

So, the main benefit of the 15-minute city could be achieved without planners' grand designs, whether in Scotland or the United States. Most other elements of the 15-minute city would fail because the concept misunderstands the purpose of cities.

Cities are labor markets, as Bertaud likes to say.

Their primary function is to connect people with highly particular skills to employers with highly particular demands for labor. You need a wide universe of workers and firms for this division of labor to be successful. (If that matchmaking of capital and labor could happen on the scale of a neighborhood, there'd be no need for cities at all.)

Given this, 15-minute city proponents' plan of clustering jobs and residents together is doomed to fail at the stated goal of reducing travel. Living next to an office complex doesn't guarantee that there's a job for you there. You also might not want to rent an apartment next to your work or move every time you change jobs.

In his book Order Without Design, Bertaud gives an example of a mixed-use urban village built on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea, that was supposed to eliminate residents' need to commute. In reality, the people who moved into the village's housing continued to commute to their jobs in the city center, while the village's office space was rented by companies whose workers traveled in from downtown.

A similar dynamic is at play for other urban amenities.

While variety is nice, grocery stores are relatively interchangeable. Unless someone has very particular tastes or needs, they'll be willing to settle for shopping at the closest one. But more specialized retail outlets and service providers that serve a smaller percentage of the population need a wider universe of customers to draw on to be profitable. Absent extreme levels of density, they'll need customers coming from outside that 15-minute walkshed to stay viable.

So, while there's certainly nothing objectionable about mixed-use neighborhoods of offices, shops, and homes, the idea that the existence of these neighborhoods will eliminate, or even substantially reduce, commuting is wrong. That means plans to substantially cut emissions just by creating these neighborhoods are also destined to fail.

These doomed schemes to create 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighborhoods aren't costless either if they're paired with restrictive regulations.

If Scotland's new planning framework forces cities and towns to reject new suburban office parks and outlet malls, they won't necessarily be reducing driving. But they will be increasing the scarcity, and therefore cost, of the existing offices and outlet malls people are already driving to.

Scotland's national framework also endorses restrictions on housing production that make the realistic elements of 20-minute neighborhoods less feasible.

Its "quality homes" plank says that new market-rate development will only generally be supported where 25 percent of new units are provided at affordable rates. Similar inclusionary zoning policies in the U.S. act as a major tax on new development.

Scotland's planning framework also says that developments of 50 or more units have to produce a Statement of Community Benefit detailing the improvements they'll make to local infrastructure, amenities, and affordable housing. Individual development in existing neighborhoods will be allowed if they "do not have a detrimental impact on the character or environmental quality of the home and the surrounding area in terms of size, design and materials."

Making new housing development a more expensive, cumbersome process means fewer homes get built and fewer people end up living within the "20-minute neighborhoods" Scottish planners and politicians are trying to encourage.

There's an incredible paternalism to the idea of the 15-minute city and the idea that planners can organize people's lives on such a minute level.

Bertaud, in his response to Moreno, notes that the distance one travels to work each day is the product of the tradeoffs an individual makes between employment options, residential environment, housing prices, school quality, and more.

From Scotland to Saudi Arabia and Paris, planners have become convinced that the right tradeoff for everyone ends up with all these things being 15 minutes (or 20 minutes or 5 minutes) away. Cities, and the people who live in them, are a little more complicated than that.