Member of the City Diplomacy Lab’s Scientific Committee
The conception of an urban alternative: the 15-minute city
At the beginning of the 2000s, an all-new concept took over the reflection on cities and urban organization: the “smart city” concept. This technocentric concept promised a technological shift, a utopian intelligence where new technologies were supposed to optimize and rationalize hyper-connected cities. In 2010, it became a worldwide craze among elected representatives, town planners, and others discussing smart grids and autonomous vehicles.
During this time, I began to take my place in the debate, reminding people of the need to think about the people who live in cities. Questioning urban functioning through the lens of my expertise in complex systems, I knew that technology could not be the solution to urban malfunctioning. Broad and complex cities’ problems couldn’t be “just monitored.”
At the same time, environmental concerns and environmental crises skyrocketed while people’s mental health was declining – especially in big cities. It became clear that cities did not need more technology but more humanism, happiness, and oxygen.
How can cities and territories be transformed for an effective and sustainable environmental transition? How can we rethink the functioning of urban areas? How can we ease people’s lives?
To tackle those challenges, I searched for an urban model that is anchored in modernity by its sustainability and humanity, not its technology. It led, in 2016, to the concept of the 15-minute city, a city model that is today known all around the world.
It proposes a new form of urban organization based on proximity. The idea is to enable each inhabitant to satisfy his essential needs (housing, work, access to healthcare, supplies, learning, and self-fulfillment) within 15 minutes of his home by active modes of transport (walking, cycling). Proximity is making people’s lives easier, more pleasant, less stressful and, at the same time, reduces the carbon footprint of urban systems. It’s an alternative to a metropolitan lifestyle that many people suffer from: time-consuming commutes, CO2 emissions, the omnipresence of the car in the urban space, air pollution, isolation, unhappiness, etc.
Entering the world stage
Fortunately, this urban model intrigued and then interested the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. In 2019, we started working on the implementation of the model in the French Capital.
On the one hand, the 15-minute city went from theoretical to very practical: What could be the “Paris du Quart d’Heure”? How should we modify the current city organization? Can we close some roads to car traffic?
On the other hand, the 15-minute city concept went from very local to global. Indeed, the concept is a proposal designed to meet the three urges our planet is facing: the ecological/environmental challenge, the economic challenge, and the social one. A few years earlier, the COP21 in Paris came to a clear conclusion: cities have become the main emitters of CO2, particularly through transport. With the support of the mayor of Paris, the proposal of the 15-minute city began to be discussed within the C40, a global network of nearly 100 mayors of the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis. The C40 started having an interest in the concept, given that mayors were all very concerned about the future of their cities: we discussed the coming change in cities and lifestyles, what is acceptable and what is not, and the differences between countries.
And then… the pandemic of COVID-19 happened and so did the lockdowns all over the world. Lockdowns kind of accelerated the effective implementation of the 15-minute city but in a constrained way. The crisis also revealed how much cities were not resilient and unsuited to local living. The imposed proximity led to the development of exceptional measures: new bicycle lanes, temporary terraces in car parks, and new local services for healthy food and health.
In this context, the answers provided by the implementation of “15-minute city” solutions were unanimously approved and the C40 even endorsed the concept as part of a post-covid policy strategy. It has also been recognized by the IPCC as a guideline to tackle the environmental crisis in cities. It obtained the support of the World Health Organization for promoting a healthy lifestyle through active travel and low air pollution. United Cities and Local Governments, UCLG, has integrated it into its Pact for the Future. UN-HABITAT promotes it as a key element in the new urban agenda and the achievement of the SDGs and gave its 2022 “Scroll of Honour” to the 15-Minute city as a tribute for the improvement of the quality of life of citizens.
All over the world, the 15-minute City was recognized as a way to transform cities, step by step, into more resilient and happy cities. The movement has not stopped growing since and a lot of worldwide cities are reconsidering their city plan to integrate proximity: Roma, Portland, Nantes, Melbourne, Milano, Mulhouse, Nantes, Toulouse, Buenos Aires, Busan, Sousse, Scotland…
City diplomacy, pursuing a constructive debate
Due to the crisis, the interest in this new urban organization peaks, and I am pleased that this urgent and needed debate is now open. The appetite for more liveable, people-oriented cities is driving a surge of interest in the ‘15-Minute city’. It is clear that diplomacy between cities played a key role in its propagation and adoption.
After the emergency of the pandemic, we are entering a new phase of cooperation between cities around the idea of the 15-minute city. Indeed, with the support of the C40, the UCLG, and UN-Habitat, the Chaire ETI has just launched in June 2023 the “Global Observatory of Sustainable Proximities”. This global platform aims to support the implementation of proximity approaches in cities worldwide with the development of official measures and indicators. This observatory will be a global center for knowledge sharing, as much as a global network to support cities in implementation. It will convey good practices, good ideas, and federate cities.
This “Global Observatory of Sustainable Proximities” is the result of a long-term project which we all undertook together. While the idea and concept are my own, the cooperation between the cities has played a big part in making it popular today. I am convinced that we will continue in this direction with this new space for dialogue and that it will enable us to continue transforming our cities for the better.