Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Trevor Owens.

What the 15 Minute City Gets Wrong

Creating walkable communities need not be a contest between conflicting interests. Here’s how everyone gets what they want.

This story originally appeared in Randy by Name, our new Substack.

Recipe for an American Renaissance: Eat in diners. Ride trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.

Those of us who keep abreast of the sustainable development movement, as I have since about 1991, have lately heard of a new buzz phrase: the 15 minute city. The concept embraces many of ingredients in our Recipe, namely the walkable community, the shopping on Main Street, and the ride trains part. I knew this without even reading about it, and this video I watched confirmed my assumptions. 

What is the 15 minute city? Depending on which video you watch, it’s either a common sense plan to improve the environment, our health, and our happiness, or it’s a dystopian scheme designed by elites to corral us all into designated districts to keep closer tabs on our every movement. In my experience, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and as proposed, it promises to make no one happy.

Some parts of this make perfect sense: Live and work closer to what we need. Design and build for people and not cars. Keep your car, but don’t rely upon it so much. Personally, I love to drive, and I never saw a conflict between car ownership and walkable neighborhoods, but I must stress that the Recipe urges people to make the choice to live in such a community. It was never a blueprint for policy.

Both sides tend to ignore the origins of urban decline and the sprawl encircling it. Urbanists will blame auto companies. They blame the railroads for mismanagement and greed. And they blame developers for swallowing up pastoral landscapes to build homes that drain our cities of productive residents.

Suburbanites point the finger at poor civic management for the decay, crime and poor school performance. Meanwhile they defend their desire for more space and highways without acknowledging the tax benefits of home ownership and the hidden costs of building and maintaining so much low-density infrastructure.

Neither side seems to acknowledge how both their political traditions played in creating a national transportation policy in response to the demand for more and better roads. 

From City Beautiful to Urban Renewal

The twentieth century began with the “City Beautiful” movement, a concerted effort to bring more grandeur to cities previously defined more by industrial expedience than artful planning. Philadelphia, for instance, built its Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a veritable Champs Elysées connecting its Beaux Arts City Hall with a brand new classically inspired Museum of Fine Arts. Railroads constructed palatial passenger stations by the scores that proudly asserted the 20th century as the American century. 

Then comes the Depression, another World War, and in between, a World’s Fair that sold the American public on a bright future of free highways. People could soar, if not in the sky, then smoothly along impediment-free roads in their new automobiles. 

Up until this period, private companies provided most of our mass transportation and charged for access which reflected the actual costs of the service, and that mechanism guided the design of our cities and towns. In most of the western world, the important stuff stood at the center, like city hall, the general store, the post office, and the depot. Business and housing radiated out from those things. Further development was incremental but adhered to the pattern.

The advent of the automobile disrupted this tradition — not because of market forces — but because tax-funded highways removed the profit motive from passenger transportation. While this helped to create the most mobile society in history, it decimated a passenger rail system that was the envy of the world. It also created a nasty pollution problem.

By the 1920s, our rail network stretched across nearly 280,000 miles of track, most carrying passengers and going everywhere of consequence. Fifty years later, the passenger rail business nearly disappeared, and today we have less than half the total rail network. This was a political decision.

Pride of Place

Thomas Sowell wrote that “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” If true, then how does each side accept the inevitable trade-offs without creating resentment? We want people to take pride in their homes, but when someone imposes rules that conflict with their values, it threatens their happiness and makes that pride elusive.

I still consider myself an urbanist, but not one that sees the need for top-down solutions. Under this video on this topic, a commenter succinctly summarized that the 15 minute city requires “…bureaucracy to deal with the foreseeable unintended consequences of past central planning. Free market urban development tends to produce very efficient land use patterns without government planners, however this has been severely constrained by ‘good intentions’ for at least a century.” 

The pro-15 video I watched acknowledges but glosses over claims of opponents who predict less freedom of movement for those living within these cities. Will the 15 minute city assign fine-enforced quotas for automobile usage, especially if one still drives a gasoline fueled car? Inquiring minds want to know.  

I live now in a sort of 15-minute borough, so I say with some experience that having neighbors who do not value the features of urban living diminishes the experience for all residents. I don’t want to live next to someone who hates where they live. As a woodworker, I can assure you that when I turn on my surface planer, you’ll wish I lived an hour away.

And once my family and I move out to a more rural area, I simply ask that proselytizing but well-meaning urbanists don’t follow us. I want us all to have the opportunity to live in a place that makes us happy at a cost we can afford. 

If you’d like to read about the origin story of our country’s transportation policy, I strongly recommend the book Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century by Stephen Goddard.

For more information about the 15 Minute City, watch these videos and decide for yourself. Then come back here and comment!



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