15 Minute City | Time to become an Active City?
Has the time come for the 15 Minute City and how might this be applied to a city like Stoke-on-Trent?
What is the 15 Minute City?
The 15 Minute City (or 20 Minute Neighbourhood) is an urban planning strategy which suggests that all local services and public facilities needed like shops, medical services, education, green space and sports/leisure facilities and other public services like libraries, should be available with a 15 minute walk (or cycle ride) from your home.
Image – Stoke-on-Trent as a 15 Minute City
Ultimately, this would see a shift towards more sustainable and active forms of travel, with less car dependency, especially for local journeys. The intention is that this would lead to happier, healthier neighbourhoods:
- less air pollution (improving health)
- less climate impact
- more people feeling locally connected (improving health)
- more people physically active (improving health)
- better use of local assets
- better quality of life.
It’s not an entirely new concept — it has been piloted in a number of cities around the world, but currently there is renewed interest, largely being driven by fundamental shifts in how (and where) we live and work from during the pandemic.
Is it now time for 15 minute cities?
The pandemic is undoubtedly changing the way we think about our lives and lifestyles – not least about where how and where we live, work and play. In many ways it’s accelerating change, moving us much faster towards what we knew was coming and perhaps inevitable.
In many respects this faster pace of change is really what’s needed if we are to avert global challenges like climate change and to be successful in stabilising global temperature rises. We know we need to ‘act now’ and ‘act fast’, and approaches like the 15 Minute City could form an important part of our climate action plans.
Way before the pandemic even arrived, we’d seen a fundamental shift in the way we shopped, moving away from physical shops and towards the convenience of on-line. Now due to the pandemic, and driven by our ever increasing digital connectivity, we’re seeing massive and rapid shifts in the way we work. For now, and in all likelihood permanently, we’re seeing more people working from home (at least for desk-based jobs). This is eliminating the need for daily commutes to major cities, freeing up our leisure time, and reducing our environmental impacts on travelling. There may be no going back — and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
During the pandemic period, we’ve also seen people really value daily exercise and access to their local parks and green spaces – walking, running and cycling to maintain their physical, social and mental wellbeing. We’re perhaps seeing a recognition that local healthy places, do help to create healthier and happier communities.
Students using ‘Active Travel’ – cycling on campus at Keele Uni
Physical inactivity is thought to be the fourth biggest killer world-wide. More active forms of local travel, by walking, cycling, or even scooting, could be a good antidote to our ever increasing on-line sedentary lifestyles. Through increasing activity levels, this would encourage communities to create their own health, and prevent pressures on our often over-burdened NHS.
Increased levels of physical fitness through walking and cycling as ‘active travel’ is a great non-medical way to promote healthy lifestyles, which would reduce the cost burden on public services, whilst also bringing improvements to other escalating and post-pandemic health issues — like poor mental wellbeing and social isolation. By walking and cycling more within and between our neighbourhoods, we’d meet and socialise more, and hopefully feel part of a cohesive and friendly community.
This fundamental shift towards the ‘local’ accelerated by the pandemic, might now encourage more localities to adopt 15 Minute City principles.
How far will you go?
I guess the 15 Minute City idea begs the question – how far will you go?
We all love the convenience of the car, but what if we reserved the car only for our longer journeys? With this ‘more local’ approach, with all services and needs met within our own neighbourhoods, could we leave the car parked up?
To effect change at a global level on critical issues like climate change, we all have to recognise that we need to do our bit at a local level – and have faith that our collective personal/local efforts will contribute to the ‘global whole’.
Image – How 15 Minute City would support The Global Goals – SDG3, SDG11 & SDG13?
There’s currently a push for us to switch to electric vehicles, but currently these are expensive, and for now present logistical problems for charging. It’s estimated globally that only 1 in 50 cars sold in 2020 were electric (but encouragingly 1 in 14 in the UK). Despite these numbers, the switch to electric and away from fossil fuelled vehicles will take decades – and time is not on our side. Cycling however is thought to be 10 times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities – so far more important, easier and cheaper (affordable and accessible) than the switch to electric cars.
The pandemic situation led me to reflect on my own family’s use of the car. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that every adult member of our household owns a car. This is probably typical of most UK households. However, during the pandemic, with increased home working and less travelling to meetings and events, one car has sat on the drive for a one year period (SORN) – effectively it’s no longer needed.
In a way, during the pandemic, many of us have proved that we can reduce our car dependence. This could reduce our household bills, as annual costs of running a petrol car are estimated at £3,000 per vehicle – so there’s clearly savings to be made. (Equally those who previously commuted by train to major cities, may have made significant savings by working from and staying local).
During lockdown, as part of my allowable daily exercise, I started to test out the 15 minute city theory. By walking in multiple directions from my home, I established what my travel radius was — what was reachable with a 15 minute brisk walk. Here’s a summary of what I found:
I also found a number of route planning tools/apps that can help you explore by mapping how far you can go within a 15 minute time frame. These allow you to input your home (start location) and your intended destination (finish location) to test out what is accessible with your neighbourhood by walking (hiking) or different modes of cycling (road biking or mountain biking etc). Here’s example route from Komoot — you can adjust your fitness level, to gain more a accuracy on your travel time, and also use switchable filters to include various points of interest on your map, like green parks, cafes, public toilets etc:
Image – Showing a ‘walk’ route from ‘A’ Staffordshire Uni Campus (College Road) to ‘B’ Hanley Park (Cafe) – time 14 mins
Image – Showing a ‘cycle’ route from ‘A’ Staffordshire Uni Campus (College Road) to ‘B’ Hanley Park (Cafe) – time 6 mins
Is it time for Stoke-on-Trent (North Staffs) to become a 15 Minute City?
Both City of Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council have made commitments, with formal declarations of ‘climate change emergency’. Turning plans (beyond declarations) into action is a challenge — so the 15 Minute City concept provides an opportunity to good intentions into firm actions on climate change. The provision of better and safer cycling and walking routes is a cost effective solution — probably much cheaper, quicker to implement, and much more health beneficial than electric vehicle infrastructure, or improvements to public transport such as light rail passengers systems. If now is ‘time to act’ on climate change, then now is the ‘time to act’ on a 15 Minute City.
In many respects a city like Stoke-on-Trent (plus wider North Staffs area) might be an ideal locality for a push towards the 15 Minute City approach. It’s ‘polycentric’ by nature – a collection of a number towns (and very many villages) forming one city, but with need for connectivity between it’s multiplicity of towns, villages and neighbourhoods.
As a city Stoke suffers from significant traffic congestion, which brings with it air pollution problems, which in certain parts of the city are beyond recommended safe limits and will be having a public health impact. It generally lacks good public transport infrastructure – with no light rail passenger transport system and is often criticised for poor local bus services. In this respect there is a problem address. Similarly public health outcomes, physical activity levels and obesity are well below national average – again a problem to solve.
Photo – New signage at Etruria Canal Junction encouraging walking and cycling connectivity
On the positive side, north to south, the canal corridor provides good active travel routes – level terrain and traffic free routes (safe) along the canal corridor towpaths of the Trent & Mersey Canal (directly into Stoke), with some additional connectivity afforded by the Caldon Canal from Etruria Junction (towards the City Centre of Hanley). Numerous greenways and designated cycle routes, plus cycle paths through city parks provide useful linkages to the canals, giving further connectivity. Recently installed signage gives helpful guidance and supports the 15 Minute City approach.
Could a 15 Minute City be part of our New Normal?
Since the pandemic, ‘the genie’ is now out of the bottle. It’s difficult to imagine going back to the way things were, nor should we want that. Office/computer-based workers have shown that they can work just as effectively from home and maybe this way of working will become the ‘new normal’.
Potentially this holds a number of wellbeing benefits for people and the planet – not least freeing more worker time for family and personal wellbeing, plus the ability to spend more time (and money) in local spaces and the neighbourhood economy. This looks set to decentralise away from major city working, bringing things back to more local ways of working and socialising — which might be a good thing. Perhaps a good way to realise ‘levelling-up’ — reducing the disparity and economic inequalities between the major cities and our smaller town centres.
Photo – Signage close-up – showing cycle routes and what’s accessible within 30 min walk/10 min cycle ride
Whilst the 15 Minute concept might not be new, it might be coming of age and be much closer than we think in a place like Stoke-on-Trent. With the climate change clock ticking ever louder, maybe its time has come?
Join the discussion
Human-Nature will be linking up with students from Staffordshire University to explore the 15 Minute City concept in more detail, especially aspects of connectivity (by foot and by bike) to local green spaces and local arts/heritage using the greenways and canal corridors, and how we might map this connectivity/accessibility.
Let us know what you think about whether Stoke-on-Trent (North Staffs) could become a 15 Minute City. Join the debate on Twitter @HNEscapesCIC. It’s important that the whole community walks (or cycles) this journey with us.