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Why 15-minute neighbourhoods may be more popular now than ever

Author(s): Iris Tam

Jan 12, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on city living as many residing in urban areas find themselves working from home and avoiding congested public transit. This in turn has resulted in changing views on how urban revitalization may play out. Cities around the world are striving to transform and reinvent themselves as they emerge from the pandemic. Turns out, part of the answer may lie in so-called 15-minute neighbourhoods.

What is a 15-minute neighbourhood? In a nutshell, it is one that is easy to get around on foot or by bike, where residents look to local businesses to meet their basic daily needs. Essentially, a 15-minute neighbourhood is a vision for city life in which residents live in a sustainable and liveable neighbourhood with the ability to find or access all (or at least most) of what they need by walking or cycling a short distance (within 15 minutes of where they live). Because key services are in close proximity and readily accessible, urban residents live locally and can reduce their dependency on private vehicles. As long commutes and unnecessary car travel are eliminated or reduced, so are traffic congestion and carbon emissions, thereby improving residents’ quality of life.

While this idea is hardly new and is remarkably similar to transit-oriented development principles (with variations of this theme such as the 20-minute neighbourhoods in Detroit and Melbourne), it has certainly gained momentum in recent years. The shift has been most notable in Paris, where the concept featured prominently in Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful 2020 re-election campaign. Since 2014, pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes and green space have been added to make the city more people-friendly.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, the vision of a city of 15-minute neighbourhoods has gained even more prominence. The concept is beginning to catch on in more cities around the world as a guiding principle for urban development in the longer term. Convenient access in the neighbourhood to essential goods and services (such as groceries, healthcare and pharmacies), together with amenities (such as parks or community gathering space), within a short walking distance support a healthy way of life by promoting the well-being of residents and a greater sense of community. People spend time and shop locally, close to their homes, in support of neighbourhood businesses. The focus of this approach is on individual neighbourhoods where core services are decentralized. Additionally, the concept points to the importance of creating spaces which are flexible and which can be adapted over time for different uses.

As cities head into the recovery phase and adjust to new urban environments after the COVID-19 crisis, high rates of teleworking are expected to continue in many sectors as a result of workplace shifts. For the 15-minute neighbourhood concept to succeed, there will also be a need to add offices or local co-working spaces to communities, not only to give people the ability to work remotely closer to their homes, but also to facilitate the sharing of ideas and knowledge and foster collaboration, innovation and creativity.

In Canada, the City of Ottawa adopted an official plan in December 2019 that includes and underscores the 15-minute neighbourhood concept as an important aspect of the city’s strategy for implementing long-term growth and development. The goal is to ensure that basic necessities are available locally in these communities, shifting away from urban sprawl and auto-dependent suburban lifestyles which require the construction of costly new infrastructure. The city’s approved intensification plan is aimed at making the nation’s capital the most liveable medium-sized city in North America, in anticipation of the city’s population increasing from one million to over two million in the next 25 years.

It remains to be seen if other Canadian cities will follow suit and embrace the 15-minute neighbourhood philosophy to create more vibrant and healthy urban environments. Developing and building such thriving mixed-use communities, particularly in the wake of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, represent challenging but unique opportunities for the real estate sector.