The 15-minute city is the latest fashionable concept to be embraced by local officials, mayors and presidents of metropolises to demonstrate their social, societal and ecological commitment. Have we finally found the secret to living together, free and happy, or is it just another delusion, a smokescreen to mask and avoid responsibility for what needs to be hidden? A Garden of Eden or a sham?
When you are looking for an apartment in Paris for your daughter, a new student at the Sorbonne, and you come from outside of Paris, you start by looking at the rental prices of apartments. If you are an employee or even a middle manager, forget it! The capital is not for you. For you, finding a place to live means moving to the suburbs.
If you are a little more well-to-do but not necessarily rich, you will quickly give up on wanting something very big, bright or high up to enjoy great views of Paris, and you will quickly rule out certain neighborhoods for being too expensive. You look at the slightly less expensive areas. And with them come other problems: dirtiness, insecurity, tents and shanty towns on the sidewalk, all kinds of trafficking, poorly maintained subway terminals, the dilapidated state of certain insalubrious buildings, vandalized mailboxes, broken and dirty storefronts, complete with squatters and graffiti… You never once think about the relevance of the “15-minute city”. When you are looking for an apartment in Paris, you are not interested in the trivialities of a few politicians ready to jump on the bandwagon of the ecological zeitgeist touting “soft mobility “*, to make people believe that it is the best thing since sliced bread.
So what is the 15-minute city? It is an old idea* that has become a fashionable concept as the ecological crisis has become increasingly urgent and shared mobility – especially public transport – has been relegated to the status of something reserved for the poor. The 15-minute city is the “city of proximity, where you can find everything you need within 15 minutes of your home. It is the condition for the ecological transformation of the city, while improving the daily life of Parisians” explained the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in all seriousness during an electoral meeting prior to her municipal re-election. It is a question of being able to eat, grow, take care of oneself, think, pray or meditate, play, work, love, and be entertained within 15 minutes of one’s home, with no need to travel any further. A peaceful and “soft” city, made safe by the fact that you don’t need to leave it, nor fear that your neighbor will need something and come to steal it from your area, since he won’t lack anything either. The 15-minute city erases the notion of restricted space since everything is close by. It is about restoring the village of yesteryear, concentrated around the church, the factory or the Workers’ Circle, the bakery, the bar and tobacconist’s shop, the stadium, the theater and the town hall. The “15-minute city” reinvents local life, the neighborhood, the fantasy village of our childhood, the village that was the backdrop for the poster of “La Force Tranquille”*, the one where people know each other, talk to each other, socialize together, reassure each other, the kind, caring village where people are happy to live close to each other and, as dictated by current trends, the village of diversity. The picture is so idyllic that one wonders why politicians, mayors and urban planners did not think of it earlier. How could they have missed such an obvious solution? Paradise is no longer a utopia… It is the 15-minute city. Why have we abandoned this ideal? Why did Saint-Germain des Prés, Montmartre, Passy, Bercy, Belleville and Ménilmontant become, horror of horrors, Paris, where it is difficult to go from Père Lachaise cemetery to the Musée des Arts Premiers in ¼ hour?
The ecological imperative forces us to reinvent greener and less polluting forms of mobility. Cars, trains and public transport have enabled us to overcome distances and to find elsewhere what we lacked locally. The development of cities and access to them were focused on the automobile. The creation of dormitory towns, large housing estates or suburban houses, within a radius of 50 kilometers around the large metropolises promised to let us live in the country by making sure that we could easily get there by car. Today, this is madness for ecologists who put the planet before humanity. We must invent other forms of mobility, or even limit them drastically. It is difficult not to listen to them when they announce the end of the planet and therefore the end of humanity. The concentration of populations, the urgency of saving the planet and the emergence of a heightened awareness of this issue are forcing us to reconsider the all-car model.
We have become accustomed to taking our car to work and more generally for all our activities outside the home. The ability to move around, to free ourselves from limits has become a marker and symbol of our well-being, our emancipation and our freedom. Being able to free oneself from proximity, overcrowding, the dictatorship of time and space is a guarantee of comfort and a feeling of freedom. In the past, “getting your driver’s license” was a rite of passage to adulthood. In addition to social well-being, it is cars that allow workers and employees to go to work each morning in factories that have become “peripheralized” as they emit pollution, or in tertiary activities that have become concentrated in cities.
It is cars that have allowed mass retail to develop around cities. The success of a shopping center is measured by the size of its parking lot. Mass retail has emptied our city centers while disfiguring all the gateways to our cities. When it was a question of curbing inflation, it was a godsend, almost a duty, a social and economic virtue. This is what all the hypermarket owners who have made their fortune on their clients’ modest income explain, with their hand on their heart.
The energy cost of these transfers, made possible by the individualization of the car, has become unreasonable and we need to review the way we want to think about cities.
This is how the 15-minute city was born, from the spirit and good intentions of opportunistic architects and urban planners. The environment transgresses all issues, the emergency justifies all decisions, including the most unreasonable ones, nothing is more important than saving the planet instead of people, since their fates are closely intertwined. The concept is irrefutable. It is difficult to contradict those who only want the best for us. At least they have the merit of trying to find a solution and forcing us to think about the city we want to live in tomorrow.
But should we believe the peddlers of dreams? Endowed with all virtues, the dogmatist believes himself to be a savior, a guru, and without him, there is no salvation. The problem is to know if the 15-minute city is a reasonable solution or if it is a sham, if it is inclusive as it claims or if it is exclusive, leaving out those it does not want, even denying them access if necessary. Does designing the time and space of the city mean freeing metropolitan residents from the constraints of the city or limiting access to it for all those who do not live there? Le Corbusier and Niemeyer tried in other eras to carve out time, space and society. La Cité Radieuse (The Radiant City) is only radiant in name, and Brasilia is a far cry from the Promised Land.
The mathematical absurdity of time carvers
The 15-minute city is a case of geometric division. Being a quarter of an hour away from everything is like drawing a circle around your home, the radius of which corresponds to the distance you can walk in ¼ of an hour. The problem, of course, is that you have to live in the center. If you want to live a ¼ of an hour away from everything, you have to live in the middle of the circle.
As soon as you move away from the center, you can no longer be a ¼ of an hour away, unless you stray into the neighboring ¼ of an hour whose population is scattered over another circle and will also need to be close to everything. Short of imagining a city that spreads out infinitely in concentric circles to create all the services within a ¼ hour radius, the concept seems absurd. People use the term “polycentrisms” to explain the bigger picture. The problem is that you would need centers on every street corner, at every address, to make the concept work. How can anyone believe this nonsense? The most worrying thing is that it spells the end of the city.
Traditionally, cities are organized around a city center that concentrates commercial and service activities. Peripheral populations gather there in large numbers to fulfil their needs, to consume, socialize, mix, and thus form society. The further the peripheral populations travel, the more diversity is represented in an economic and cultural mix. It is the city center that makes the city.
Today, we are told that a virtuous life means living in the middle of a circle with activities scattered around it. This means dispersing activity and reducing the number of opportunities to socialize. A downtown shopkeeper counts the number of shoppers who pass by in the street and look at his shop window, the more they are, the more prosperous the store is. The more a product is seen, the more it is sold. If you disperse the shoppers into 15-minute clusters, you impair the ability of the economy to thrive and of the services – especially public services – to perform. Being an architect and not an expert in economic matters is no excuse for not using common sense. The 15-minute city consecrates the end of the city center and ultimately of the city that makes society. It means wanting to replace the physical store, whose catchment area is too narrow, with the virtual economy and thus leave the way open for digital commercial platforms. What about the idea of going shopping on foot when all we do is encourage motorized delivery?
The 15-minute city immediately raises the issue of the temporal and physical limits it draws, borders which, even if they are fictitious, are nonetheless boundaries to be crossed. The city becomes exclusive as soon as it is beyond 15 minutes. To want all the services nearby in a chic and expensive district of Paris is to reinforce the concentration of wealthy people in the same place. In a suburb inhabited by lower-income groups, it tends to concentrate poverty where social diversity should be mandatory. In short, the 15-minute city merely encourages what it wants to prohibit. Living together, yes, but on the basis of one’s class and tomorrow one’s caste, culture, identity, and morality. Where inclusion was intended, it only exacerbates the notion of belonging to a region, and making society becomes making a nation, with all the dangers of a claimed autonomy and the ensuing “ghettoization”. Socially, it is a crazy idea that uses ecological imperatives to mask the inability of city officials to manage social and cultural diversity. Imagine what a middle school class in the chic 16th arrondissement of Paris looks like and another one near the deprived Porte de La Chapelle quarter. It is this difference, this social injustice, that we must fight, not whether we should travel by bike or on foot. The 15-minute city only serves to exacerbate exclusion.
Social and cultural diversity, living together in safety, the cleanliness of cities, respect for others, for spaces, for common goods seem to me to be issues that are paramount to the ecological challenge. It is only if we resolve them that the ecological imperative will be imposed on everyone. To think that ecology is above all else is to overturn the founding principles of humanism, which holds that Man is distinguished by his ability to dominate nature and not the other way around. To pass off ecology as the number one priority is, among other things, to exonerate oneself from the social problems posed by metropolization. You can’t eliminate poverty by eliminating cars that pollute, you only encourage it and generate frustration and violence. What about a peaceful city? The suburban employee who cleans offices in the center of Paris doesn’t care about the scooters at the foot of the Louvre.
You can understand the desperate approach when it comes to hiding your own mistakes and failures. But substituting ridiculous concepts to make it look like you are working on it is unreasonable. It is a delusion. Hiding the dust under the carpet is a sham.
Finally, the ultimate and definitive absurdity, the 15-minute city is, in principle, the city where nothing is missing. And this is precisely where the concept is flawed: when nothing is missing, what is there left to desire? Desire, love in the sense of Eros, is lack. As soon as we lack nothing, boredom sets in… We must run away and look elsewhere!
* Soft mobility refers to all non-motorized travel such as walking, cycling, rollerblading and all environmentally friendly transport.
* According to Wikipedia: “The 15-minute city concept is based on the earlier work of American planner Clarence Perry – in the 1900s – “the neighbourhood unit”. A later, more famous advocate was Jane Jacobs and her historical book – La mort et la vie des grandes villes américaines »
* “La force tranquille” (quiet strength) was the campaign slogan of the candidate François Mitterrand during the 1981 elections. The poster showed a bell tower and a village in the background, a reassuring image of France with its villages and countryside. The slogan and the poster are the creations of Jacques Séguéla.