The Strange Villainization of the Walkable City

Still, many cities are making changes under the banner of the 15-minute city, mostly for the good. Mayors of the C40 Cities, a climate leadership organization, have been marketing the approach as an environmental remedy since at least 2015, when more than 1,000 gathered for the Paris climate summit. Since 2017, Paris itself has been working with Moreno’s research team to implement some version of the 15-minute city. In the time since then, the city has created 746 miles of protected bike paths, transformed highways along the Seine into pedestrian spaces, and established new community meeting places on school grounds. It has also redeveloped former industrial sites into multipurpose areas that include educational facilities, public housing, and vegetable gardens.

In 2020, the C40 cities officially adopted the 15-minute city as a strategy for managing the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, and many have tried some of its tenets. Cleveland, a onetime automotive town hit hard by deindustrialization and the subprime mortgage crisis, committed in 2022 to investing $3.5 million into safety improvements for cyclists and pedestrians, greening streets, and changing the zoning code to require public transit options with new development instead of off-street parking. Buenos Aires, Argentina, home to suffocating car traffic and rising heat waves, recently replaced swathes of pavement with vegetation and changed the building code of its central business district, where many office buildings now sit empty, to encourage mixed-use development. Busan, a tech-sector stronghold in South Korea, promised a 15-minute city initiative that will launch new living facilities focused on walking, competitions to design pedestrian-friendly environments, and pilot sites where public-private partnerships will help develop parks and infrastructure.

These changes are positive, if relatively modest. Moreno offers them, alongside other happy examples—from Portland, Oregon, to Tunisia to Melbourne—as evidence that the 15-minute city has become a “global movement.” “With proximity at its heart,” he writes, “it mobilizes a vast amount of creative energy to achieve a balance previously thought impossible: reconciling the fight against climate change with economic development, while promoting the social inclusion of the inhabitants of our towns and cities.” At the same time, it’s unclear whether these initiatives are measurably improving people’s experiences of walkability, services, or local ecology—let alone how, in the absence of tenant protections, they might accelerate gentrification. As yet, the record is short on evidence and long on breathless public statements from mayors bedazzled by a new urbanist buzzword.

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Kim browne

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