What’s a 15-Minute City?

Updated: Dec. 20, 2023

Urban planners are envisioning a future free of traffic jams and smog, and rich with health, camaraderie and resilience. Enter 15-minute cities.

When I was 13, my family moved from the mountains of Colorado to Paris. Our lives went from being centered around a car to not even owning one. It was absolutely freeing. Though Paris is a big city, everything was within arm’s reach, even for an eighth grader.

In the mornings, my mom and I would walk to the boulangerie (bakery) for a chocolate croissant. At dinnertime, I’d pick up fresh bread and vegetables from the corner market. In between, I’d ride the Metro (subway) with my friends to school, parks, coffee shops, museums and movie theaters.

A few decades later, Paris led the way in popularizing the idea of a 15-minute city. After the coronavirus pandemic, its mayor declared a goal: Ensure all residents had access to everything they might need within a 15-minute radius, via walking or public transportation. That notion is also gaining steam throughout the world and in the U.S.

Here’s what to know about 15-minute cities.

What Is a 15-Minute City?

It’s a planning concept for urban and suburban areas, aimed at making most or all amenities — including education, healthcare, grocery stores, pharmacies, parks and offices — reachable by foot, bicycle or public transit.

It gained popularity in recent years as a way to make life convenient for residents, encourage healthy lifestyles and reduce traffic pollution, all of which help municipalities reach their carbon-neutral goals.

“It’s cool and valuable, but ultimately this is not a new idea,” says Tom Logan, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in civil systems engineering at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “This is how cities were naturally designed before cars and how most communities and people around the world live, except for those in car-dominated cities.”

The 15-minute city concept varies from town to town. Copenhagen aims to become a five-minute city, while Portland, Oregon, prefers 20 minutes. Barcelona’s plan calls the concept a “superblock.” In Shanghai, it’s a “community-life circle.” And Bogotá has “Barrios Vitales.”

“One of Fort Collins City Council’s priorities is implementing a 15-minute city vision,” says Cortney Geary, active modes manager for the City of Fort Collins in Colorado. Their goal: Improving infrastructure to ease the way for walking, bicycling or micro-mobility devices like wheelchairs, scooters and skateboards.

“A shift is also needed in our land use planning and development practices to bring people and their destinations closer together,” Geary says.

Pros and Cons of a 15-Minute City

Tourist in Italian town, Varallo, Piedmontilbusca/Getty Images

COVID-19 actually jumpstarted the 15-minute city movement. Widened sidewalks, expanded bike lanes and restaurant tables taking over parking spaces and roads gave people a taste for a more intuitive, people-oriented vision of urban living.

Pros of 15-Minute Cities

  • Less air pollution from fewer cars on the road;
  • Better health from breathing less pollution;
  • Better health from walking, bicycling and being outside more;
  • Economic boost for small businesses;
  • Expanded community green spaces and other gathering places;
  • Better amenities, like streetlights, benches and bike paths;
  • Less traffic congestion and roads dominated by parked cars;
  • Greater community interaction, social cohesion and sustainability;
  • Increased safety from enhanced community connections;
  • Fewer greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Upgraded walking and cycling infrastructure;
  • Shorter commutes;
  • Reduced threat from contagious diseases, because stores are smaller and dotted about;
  • Greater community equity, as most 15-minute cities aim to make services available to people in all neighborhoods and income levels.

“Finally, it means that we’ve all got more time,” says Logan. “Instead of spending a significant amount of time stuck in congestion, we can pursue other hobbies and activities. This also leads to improved health and economic outcomes.”

Cons of 15-Minute Cities

  • Requires well-thought-out planning in cities where people from different neighborhoods don’t naturally interact;
  • Difficult for some residents and zoning boards to embrace in areas where previous urban planning separated residential areas from businesses;
  • Cost of retrofitting cities can be daunting for city officials. “But I think these costs are still less than the actual costs and societal costs of maintaining auto-dependent cities,” says Geary.

A few conspiracy theories also popped up around 15-minute cities, with opponents claiming they’re anti-car, or designed to lock people into neighborhoods. But Logan says that’s definitely not the intention.

“The point of this design is to give people more freedom, and designing our towns and cities in a way that embraces community values,” he says. “We should design urban areas so we have the option to walk/bike to the things we need. This doesn’t mean that we have to; it’s about providing choice in how we move around. This type of design means that we’re not locked into our cars or dependent on oil.”