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The promise of the 15-minute city – POLITICO

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Politicians and urban planners rely on hyperlocal living – an ideal for the future that borrows many from the past. But is it a route to urban utopia or just a fad?

Illustration by Simon Marchner for POLITICO

This article is part of POLITICO Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalistic project exploring the future of cities. Sign up here.

By Aitor Hernández-Morales

ROME

THE CITY OF THE FUTURE could look a lot like the city where your grandparents – or even your great-grandparents – lived.

As policymakers grapple with how to adapt urban centers to the post-pandemic economy and reduce emissions in the face of climate change, one solution captures people’s imaginations: the 15-minute city.

As a concept, it’s both quaint and quietly revolutionary: reshaping cities so people can live, work, and access all the services they need – whether it’s shops, schools, theaters, or medical care – within a 15-minute walk or ride Bicycle.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was among the first to take up the idea in 2020, putting it at the heart of a successful re-election campaign that also involved pushing cars out of the city in favor of green spaces and bike lanes.

Her proposal to turn the French capital into a “close city” where children walk to school and residents know their baker is local hit a nerve when the COVID-19 lockdown meant that people were suddenly spending a lot more time in their own neighborhoods. The enthusiasm for the idea sparked similar campaigns Dublin, Barcelona, Milan and Lisbon.

According to Carlos Moreno, the Franco-Colombian academic behind the 15-minute city concept, the goal is to “rebalance” cities that were originally designed to increase productivity, not well-being.

About 1.3 million Parisians commute across the city from east – where many working-class neighborhoods are located – to west and back every day. Moreno describes this as a “crazy lifestyle” that results in commuters hardly spending any time in their neighborhoods. Many don’t know their neighbors, visit their local shops or neighborhood parks.

The pandemic has been “an awakening” in that regard, Moreno said. “People have regained a desire to live more quietly, more socially, and with more control over their time.”

While many in the 15-minute city have a timetable to a “new utopia‘, others question its novelty — and its feasibility.

Moreno admits the idea is to undo “70 years of urban planning,” a massive undertaking that brings with it a host of new challenges, not the least of which is making sure cities don’t become a collection of “island” neighborhoods that are isolated from each other.

An old ideal

The urban way of life Moreno wants cities to recover in Testaccio, a district of Rome hidden between a bend in the Tiber and a bend in the river Tiber Mountain of broken terracotta amphorae Remains from a time when the area was home to an old port.

On a last day of the week in the district’s main street piazzasociologist Irene Ranaldi pointed out that everything locals might need is within walking distance.

From the bustling central square with its butcher shops, bars and banks, it is a short walk to the local medical centre, elementary and junior high schools, a fresh food market and several local libraries.

“People who live here don’t need a car,” says Ranaldi. “People walk and interact in places like this square, where all Testaccio social classes mingle throughout the day, walking their dogs, watching their children play and chatting with a neighbor.”

Although Testaccio seems to embody the ideals of the 15-minute city concept, it is also “a perfect example of a late 19th-century city,” points out Francesca Romana Stabile, urban historian at the University of Roma Tre.

“Back then, cities were planned with residential areas as close as possible to jobs and services concentrated everywhere,” she said.

Organized around the slaughterhouse complex built in 1888, the quality of life in Testaccio was not always worthy of emulation. The first testaccini – as the locals are called – lived in miserable conditions, but Public outrage soon forced local authorities to invest in development of the area, including by diverting through traffic along its borders and building social housing.

“It was all very progressive,” Stabile said, describing “large” social housing with green courtyards and lots of light. The buildings also housed health services and day-care centers, and artists used ground-floor corners as studios.

Testaccio remained unchanged for decades. Its robust housing and services, as well as its proximity to the slaughterhouse and other industrial sites, meant that locals – mostly artisans and laborers – continued to spend more time in their own neighborhoods rather than being stuck in their Fiat commuting seicentos.

The luxury of proximity

More recently, Testaccio’s reputation for a comfortable life has paradoxically crowded out the true locals, who are now being driven from the neighborhood by an influx of wealthier Romans.

Gentrification came for Testaccio in the early 2000s, when its public housing blocks were privatized and its prime location and general “charm” exposed it to rampant speculation, said Danila Marcaccini, a member of the local community group Comitato Testaccio.

“People who bought their 60 square meter social housing from the city for €40,000 can now easily resell it for €400,000,” she said. “These are humble, working-class people, so I’m not judging them for giving in and making some money, but it’s still sad to see the truth testaccini Exit.”

This shift embodies one of the main criticisms of the 15 Minute City – that today it can only work for people who have the luxury of working from home.

“The apartment below me used to belong to an elderly woman who worked in the market; When she died, an architect moved in,” Ranaldi said, adding that a journalist bought the apartment next door. “People with these jobs are the ones who aren’t under any pressure to show up at their jobs and who can make time to go to the coffee shop, shop here, really live the neighborhood as it used to be.”

The distances most working-class people have to travel for work pose a major challenge for the 15-minute city, Moreno acknowledged.

His vision of the ideal city includes the enshrinement of the “right to work near home,” something he admitted cannot be achieved “with a magic wand.”

“There are issues that we don’t have a solution for because it’s up to the private sector to change them,” he said, adding that it’s not for him to lead a social revolution or “hang the blacks — or red, or whatever is colored – flag from the roof.”

But while people may still have to commute, city planners can still ensure workers “can go home to places where they can live locally and well,” he argued.

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Pedestrians outside Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice in Testaccio | Stephanie Gengotti for POLITICO

“Easier and closer”

It’s something dear to Andrea Catarci, the city councilor responsible for finding ways to implement the ideals of the 15-minute city across Rome.

His focus, he said, is on the Italian capital’s massive commuter class rather than the lucky few who live in neighborhoods like Testaccio.

The push comes after Roberto Gualtieri took up the matter in his successful bid for Rome’s mayor last year and championed the concept to make the notoriously chaotic capital.easier and closer“ for its 4.3 million inhabitants.

Catarci warned that figuring out how to bring the best of hyperlocal life to the sprawling city would take time.

“I have no money – there is no budget allocated to this portfolio,” Catarci said. “But I have an enormous desire to find ways to reinterpret and reprogram the city and encourage the rest of the city councils to take specific action in their areas.”

The solutions that worked in Testaccio and other parts of Rome won’t necessarily work elsewhere, Catarci said. That’s especially true in the areas he targets most — the poorer, haphazardly built neighborhoods that have sprung up near the 68-kilometer highway that encircles the city.

“These are places built for cars where there are no basic services – sometimes there isn’t even a local bar or tobacconist – and residents have no choice but to drive to the nearest mall to pick up basic goods. ” he said.

Making the 15-minute city a reality for these residents, Catarci says, means investing in community services and attracting new businesses, but it must also involve building transit options that connect these areas to the rest of the city.

The idea, he said, is not to isolate residents in their own communities.

Moreno stressed the importance of keeping neighborhoods mobile – a key point that differentiates the modern 15-minute city from what existed a century ago.

“People used to stick to their neighborhood and see people in neighboring towns as strangers, maybe even as a threat,” he said. “We want to recapture the good things from the past without going back to it. People come to cities for freedom and choice, not to be locked up in urban villages.”

This article is produced with full editorial independence from POLITICS reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by external advertisers.

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