What is a 15-Minute City and why is it important?

There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about the concept of the “15-Minute City” and how it will change the future of urban design around the world. Chapman Taylor has been applying 15-Minute City principles on large-scale urban design projects for a number of years now, particularly in China. In this paper, Shanghai studio Associate Director Yichun Xu explains the increasing importance to urban design of 15-Minute Living and how Chapman Taylor has been applying 15-Minute City principles on masterplans in many of China’s rapidly expanding towns and cities.

What are 15-Minute Cities and what benefits do they bring?

The 15-Minute City is an urban design concept which is gaining traction around the world, having become especially prominent in China in recent years. We are seeing the idea being implemented in urban planning for cities in Japan, the USA, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands and others, and we can expect it to spread further in the coming years.

The essence of the 15-Minute City is to design an urban district so that all of the uses and amenities a person needs can be found within a 15-minute walk of where they live, with those functions placed intelligently so that the shorter journeys are for more regular trips.

District and community facilities: Sports Zone, Xiong'an; Wetland Park, Wuxi

The design of an urban district using 15-Minute City principles involves drawing a series of concentric circles radiating outwards from the city’s core, each marking 5, 10 and 15 minutes’ walking distance from that core. Within these circles, the functions are arranged appropriately, always taking account of the specific context. Within 5 minutes’ walk, the functions and amenities provide for the daily needs of residents, such as groceries, while at 15 minutes’ walking distance, there will tend to be those needs which are weekly or monthly, such as DIY stores. At 10 minutes’ distance, there is usually a park, schools, health clinics and other community assets, with the residential provision placed between here and the core.

The concept has been popularised recently by French-Colombian Professor Carlos Moreno, whose work has led to the idea being adopted by the Mayor of Paris. His vision requires mixing as many different uses as possible in the same areas, contrary to the post-war urban planning orthodoxy, with a strong focus on multi-use spaces and buildings. However, the idea is not new – it has been around in one form or another since the New Urbanism movement of the early 1900s. Indeed, the walkable 15-Minute City was an unconscious element of the pre-car, pre-railway era, before the relentless spread of suburbia began.

A key driver for the growth of the 15-Minute Living agenda is social equity – allowing more and more people to experience a higher quality of lifestyle and more convenience. The popularity of the concept is due to its benefits for wellbeing – by arranging urban districts in this way, people will no longer need to commute long distances to work or make car journeys to do the shopping or bring their children to school. This frees up time for leisure and promotes physical activity, especially walking, while reducing pollution from vehicle journeys.

Baiyun Lake project (in collaboration with Turen) - Historical village before versus 15-Minute Living Circle improvements

To be fully realised, the 15-Minute City would ideally have a core of residential, around which the other amenities would radiate outwards according to walking distance from people’s homes. Given the large populations of cities, particularly in China (where the ratio of residential space to workplace space is 2:1), this is not feasible, so the core instead tends to be commercial, including a key piece of urban infrastructure, usually a transport-orientated development, and the residential provision is mixed with other uses in the first kilometre around that.

How has Chapman Taylor been applying the 15-Minute City concept in its urban design projects?

All large-scale urban masterplans we now create in China are influenced by the 15-Minute Living idea. We have been incorporating its principles in projects for nearly four years and we feel that it dovetails very well with Chapman Taylor’s Responsible Design mission, particularly in terms of social, environmental and economic sustainability as well as wellbeing. Fundamentally, we believe that the 15-Minute City makes good sense.

One recent masterplan involved a more complex application of the 15-Minute City concept because of the need to provide two cores. We used a two kilometre radius circle for the main city centre and then placed the sub-centre core at the outer circle of that, helping to ensure that the overlap worked efficiently and did not involve function gaps or unnecessary replication. The design intelligently maximises the city’s value and provides the best possible urban living experience for residents.

It is not a problem if an urban design cannot neatly apply the principles due to overlap or other reasons. It will not always be possible to cover the entire 15 minutes’ radius or it may not be appropriate to place amenities and functions in a way we would on other projects. Everything is determined by context, whether geographic, demographic, historical or otherwise, and that’s what makes each project a distinct and interesting challenge – there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to the 15-Minute City.

We use GIS analysis on most of our masterplan projects, including research and output in relation to the ecology, topography, landscape, climate, population, infrastructure and other aspects of the spaces we work in. This kind of scientific approach to creating urban districts chimes perfectly with the requirements of a 15-Minute City project, given the very precise nature in which functions and amenities have to be placed for the district to work efficiently and provide a good quality of life.

Among several other projects, we used this GIS-based 15-Minute approach as a guide for our competition-winning urban masterplan designs for Xiong’an New Area in China’s Hebei province, creating technologically advanced and environmentally sustainable designs for Zangang Cluster and Xiongdong District while enhancing the surrounding environment and protecting historic cultural sites.

Our design used quantitative analysis of the site’s ecological characteristics and proposes the diversion of water to serve the needs of the city as it develops while improving the waterways system and preserving and upgrading the existing water resources. Landscaping will be optimised to create a Sponge City water management solution which combines an urban stormwater management system and a natural water filtration system.

The project is people-orientated, fully considering the physical and mental wellbeing of people of all ages and levels of ability. The spatial layout ensures that educational, commercial, medical, public transportation, cultural and sports facilities are all provided within a walkable distance.

We are also currently implementing the principles on an ongoing urban masterplan, for which very detailed research and careful analysis has been required in relation to what functions and amenities to include in the core area.

Commercial areas and pocket parks in Xiong'an

Are there any practical problems with 15-Minute Cities? For example, is it possible that there will not be an appropriate pool of labour in some cities?

Less so in China than in other countries because, in China, the economy is much more planned than it is in other countries and there is usually a diverse mix of social backgrounds in any given place. There is a different idea of society in China.

However, there has been debate in China about whether there should be urban clusters based on income and wealth, which is a contentious topic. On a very local level, we do sometimes see this type of clustering, possibly just as a very human impulse to be with people like ourselves. However, on the macro scale, cities and their infrastructure are designed to serve everyone and there is a diverse mix of demographic brackets everywhere.

It is possible that the principle could run up against practical problems when faced with the realities of specific contexts worldwide. This is why no masterplan should be designed with presumptions. Every Chapman Taylor urban design is guided by the unique characteristics of the place and its people.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic bolstered the case for the 15-Minute City?

A benefit of the 15-Minute City is that, in a time of pandemic, the ability of a pathogen to travel is reduced. If people have everything they need in their own areas, there is less travel to other areas and there is less opportunity for a pathogen to spread, effectively helping to contain outbreaks locally (or at least slowing down the progress of the pathogen).

The COVID-19 pandemic will pass, but epidemics tend to appear in every generation, some more serious than others. It is fair to say that the recent pandemic has accelerated the trend towards the 15-Minute City, as it has towards the Smart City and mixed-use urban design, but the agenda was already broadly accepted long before COVID-19.

Working and living areas with only one separation road are connected underground in Chapman Taylor's Chengdu Qilong project

What is the future for the 15-Minute City concept?

There will certainly be a convergence with the Smart City agenda, with technological advances leading to adjustments in how we place functions and amenities as well as changes in what is included. Both the 15-Minute City and Smart City concepts are being vigorously promoted by the Chinese government and so it makes sense that the future of urban design must take account of both – certainly in China, but probably throughout the rest of the world as well. There is a strong emerging philosophy in China that the digital city must sit perfectly inside the physical city and we will see that become an automatic aspect of urban design in the country.

We are beginning to see the development of artificial intelligence-based urban planning software which can analyse large volumes of data about the area and its wider context and quickly calculate a lot of what is needed (or not needed) for the new city, although human common sense will always have the final say.

It will be an evolutionary process, not a sudden occurrence, but the Smart 15-Minute City will become the norm. What is crucial is for designers, developers, planners and others to ensure that buildings have the flexibility to easily adapt to the future city and its demands. We have put that principle at the front of our masterplan for Xiong’an. The designs are flexible and capable of easy adaptation to the rapidly evolving needs of people, society and the economy, including changes in transportation patterns, industry, the area’s landscape and ecology, technology, architectural functions and uses.

Smart City proposal, Xiong'an; Multi-level city spaces, Chengdu

How do you design to ensure integration with the wider urban area, taking account of other 15-Minute Cities in the region?

We are primarily responsible for the design of things within our 15-Minute City boundaries, but we have a duty to take account of the wider context if we are to provide the best possible experience for residents and users of our districts. For example, it is important to ensure that we aren’t providing a major piece of infrastructure, such as a sports stadium, which already exists nearby.

A large urban masterplan will not be based solely on the 15-Minute City idea, although 15-Minute City principles will be applied within it. The masterplan will usually have its own logic and aims and will ensure that the component parts work well together. The 15-Minute City will need to fit that masterplan structure, not the other way around. Admittedly, this is not always easy because conflicts can arise, but the wider masterplan always takes precedence. So, for example, you cannot provide a major events space such as a concert hall in every 15-Minute City; they will instead be placed according to the logic of the masterplan or the needs of the wider city.

Therefore, the 15-Minute City design will always be guided by the wider context, including environmental aspects such as green corridors and waterways. This is a good thing because it demands variety – each 15-Minute City will have its own character and sense of identity.

We often design cluster cities, where urban spaces are placed around, for example, a green corridor. For these, there will be several urban clusters following 15-Minute City principles, but the core at the intersection of the clusters will be used to site facilities and infrastructure which are used by all, but which can’t be provided separately in each, such as concert halls, stadiums, arts centres, exhibition spaces, knowledge centres and museums.

What is Chapman Taylor’s role in this future?

Chapman Taylor is well placed to be at the forefront of, and shape, the development of the 15-Minute City concept and we are already deeply involved in research into, and implementation of, the approach and its principles.

We firmly embrace the tenets behind the 15-Minute City because it encapsulates some of the main principles of our broader Responsible Design initiative, particularly in terms of making people’s lives better.

Cultural Core and Park, Xiangyang Eco City

We have been applying 15-Minute City principles on many urban designs over the last few years and we are committed to developing our strong expertise in the area. We strongly care about our social responsibilities and the positive change that we as designers can bring to the cities in which people live. Developers, governments and local authorities are often keen to work with us because they know that our values, our creativity and our technical abilities are perfectly in sync with the 15-Minute City vision.

About the Author

Yichun Xu (M.U.P.)

Associate Director, Shanghai

Graduating from the University of Michigan (Postgraduate) and Nanjing University (Undergraduate), Yichun has 4 years of experience working in New York, and 3 years of experience working in China, before joining Chapman Taylor in 2018.

As an expert in the Chinese market, she has worked on a wide range of design projects including largescale masterplans, urban design projects, tourism planning, station design, landscape design and architecture projects.

Areas of expertise:

Masterplanning / Urban Design / Project Management

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