15-Minute-City-Book

Book Review: The 15-Minute City by Carlos Moreno

Professor Carlos Moreno first presented his “15-Minute City” idea in 2016 at a climate conference. His big idea was that reducing fossil-fuel emissions required a radical redesign of urban life, reducing automobile traffic by making everything much more accessible to smaller neighborhood units.

Part of the power of Moreno’s concept comes from the fact that current Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has adopted the 15-Minute City concept as her guiding leadership principle, and she will be mayor until 2026.

Moreno’s new book The 15-Minute City: The Solution To Saving Our Time & Our Planet published May 7th explains this concept in depth and chronicles attempts by leaders of contemporary cities – first 20 cities, then 40 cities, and now many more cities – to imagine and then implement design and zoning changes to improve urban life.

15-Minute-City

Moreno’s argument is that we can and should measure the distance in time it takes city-dwellers to reach essential services like education, work, health, food, and entertainment amenities. Healthier cities try to avoid long commutes and traffic jams, some of which are caused by car-centric planning. We can accomplish this partly by creating the conditions for more walking, biking and public transportation modes. Mixing residential and commercial buildings makes it more likely that people can live in complete neighborhoods where much of life can be reached without getting stuck in traffic.

Moreno’s 15-Minute City is a great example of how a cleverly conceived big idea can drive change when adopted by the right people.The mayors of cities as diverse as Paris, Milan, Cleveland, Portland, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, and even Busan in Korea and Souse in Tunisia have explicitly modeled their urban redevelopment plans on Moreno’s concepts, as explained in his book. 

The convincing appeal of The 15-Minute City, for me personally, has very little to do with environmental impact or as a way to address climate change. I’m not in fact convinced by his arguments on that aspect of it. 

I am convinced instead by the aesthetic and lifestyle improvements that a 15-minute city seem to offer. In the car-centric world of 21st-Century Texas cities, I lament and resent the reliance on cars that our built environment requires. In San Antonio, where I live, we tend to build new residential communities with single access points that connect only to interstate highways. This requires everyone to get in their automobiles, use the interstate like a city street, and then drive three exits down to get to their local grocery store. Congestion is a guaranteed outcome. With this model, time wasted in traffic is inevitable. 

We enjoy a number of walkable amenities and a pedestrian-friendly life in my neighborhood. But I still of course get in my car and drive 15+ minutes to go to the doctor, or to bring my daughter to her soccer team practices thrice weekly. It’s fine, but it could be a lot better. 

Objections to the Book

This is by no means a perfect book.

First, the book does not provide a proof of his concept in any way. It does not provide rigorous data or analysis on the plan versus other solutions. The book is much more of a manifesto for a better way to approach urban design, as well as a history of what went before his big ideas and what has happened since, to coalesce urban planners around his big idea. 

Moreno’s also neither a great writer (English may be his third language) nor a convincing scholar. He repeats himself and relies on fuzzy descriptions of hopeful ideas from around the world that might hopefully accomplish his big idea, ideas which are still very much in the planning phase. 

I find the 15-Minute City convincing not because of the quality of his evidence or argument, but because I’m predisposed aesthetically to this kind of urban life. It’s a big idea, I like the big idea, and I think we should aim for it. The 15-Minute City is totally different from the way Texas cities are being built right now, and that’s a damn shame.

The Wacko Objections To The Book

One version of good-faith criticism of the 15-Minute City is that urban design emphasizing small, slow, and localized neighborhoods inside a large city could involve convenience, lifestyle, and economic trade-offs. Developers of new neighborhoods and new office parks clearly find it to their advantage to continue to do more of what they’ve already been doing. Traffic engineers clearly find it to their advantage to build faster and bigger roadways for automobile-oriented transportation. I think I could see why they wouldn’t naturally be big fans of Moreno’s ideas.

Carlos Moreno is a very big Jane Jacobs fan

Then there are the bad-faith critics and wackadoodles. Moreno in news reports has mentioned receiving death threats because of his idea. For a nerdy academic concept like this, the threats are probably a sign that he is on to something big and important. 

The 15-Minute City concept is potentially threatening to the status quo of cities as developed since the 1950s. As an idea it’s been twisted by bad-faith critics into some monstrous intrusion into contemporary urban development. Socialism! Europeanism! The death of the automobile!  

Earlier iterations of international climate-friendly zoning ideas have acted like a red cape before a bull. A UN-sponsored agreement from 1992 signed by 178 countries, called Agenda 21, became a conspiracy-theory code word for far right commentators who imagined this as a forerunner of a secret “New World Order.” Attempts to limit the potential profits of developers can be, and has been, spun into some threat to an American way of life. What seems like sensible planning for better life in cities to some can be seen as an attack on private property rights to others. 

While Moreno is certainly European in outlook and interested in small scale, walkable, and bike-friendly neighborhoods, he does not personally represent a vast conspiracy. He is just a guy, a Colombian-born Parisian professor who happens to have come up with a cleverly-marketed way to help city-planners imagine better cities. And as described in his book, he hit the zeitgeist for many cities on different continents led by leaders looking to revitalize small-scale neighborhood life among modern metropolises.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Link to purchase book: The 15-Minute City by Carlos Moreno

Please see related posts

Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Book Review: Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye

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A big idea that appeals to me aesthetically. Not a perfect book, but not crazy either.

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