The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed urban economies all over the world. Governments, both at the local as well as state level, are toiling for economic recovery as countless small businesses have abandoned hope, local taxes have fallen short and the unemployment rate has surged like never before. Every individual has been introduced to unaccustomed norms of social distancing, working-from-home and supporting local businesses.
In addition to this, concerns of air pollution, resource depletion, global warming and climate change are not new to the urban population. Now, as we stand at the threshold of recovery, it is pertinent to rebuild our cities sustainably, thus making them resilient to deal with future economic and social fall-outs.
Against this backdrop, an international coalition of urban leaders, called the C40 cities Climate Leadership Group, proposed for the implementation of a ‘15-minute city’ idea. The idea recently gained momentum when the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo propagated it as the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. The concept was developed by Prof. Carlos Monero, with a vision to transform Paris. It then received widespread consideration by mayors of various cities across the globe and opportunely became a part of the ‘C40 Mayors’ Agenda for Green and Just Recovery in the wake of Covid-19.’
What does the idea of a 15-minute city stand for?
A ‘15-minute city’ is a creative idea in the urban planning domain, which aims at creation of hyper-proximity infrastructure, i.e, developing or re-building the city in a way, such that residents can gain access to all their needs - retail, work and leisure, within a 15-minute walking or cycling radius of their homes.
This concept of a 15-minute city directly opposes some existing urban planning paradigms, which focus on centrally separating the residential areas from businesses, industries and entertainment zones. Such urban planning principles focus on centralisation and specialisation of interests. In this case, a resident needs to travel to a different part of the city for both work and entertainment, making lives hectic and (sometimes) cities chaotic.
On the other hand, a 15-minute city is a more flexible concept wherein the local municipality can customise amenities according to the demand and culture in a specific area, thereby responding to local needs and promoting local businesses. The obligation to use private and public vehicles to commute daily, for work or entertainment, ceases to exist, thereby reducing long travel hours, considerably saving resources and decreasing air and noise pollution.
The concept, at its core, advocates the establishment of non-polluting infrastructure, like broad sidewalks for pedestrians, sustainable buildings, extensive cycling and public transport networks, generous green spaces, well-equipped healthcare facilities and present-day educational institutes; which highlight the principles of walking, integrated infrastructure and better public transport.
Overall, it aims to make lives more convenient by creating sustainable neighbourhoods and bringing social equity and better accessibility.
Melbourne’s modified urban planning model to be achieved by 2050
Have Indian cities already achieved this urban planning’s newly discovered utopia?
One cannot deny that in several ways, many Indian villages, towns and cities are 15-minute establishments, by default. Since ages, every small residential set-up has automatically attracted fruits and vegetable vendors, ‘kirana’ stores (grocery stores), small businesses, traders, manufacturers and educational, healthcare and recreational facilities; thus forming complete 15-minute neighbourhoods; almost everywhere.
However, these neighbourhoods defy the principles of sustainability, equity and resilience. The cities and towns are plagued with large inequalities in areas of technology, wealth, opportunities and accessibility. These inequalities hamper the balance of ecosystems, therefore leading to social and political hiccups. Some unpleasant consequences of these inequalities are- overcrowded metropolitan cities, unbearable pressure on land and other natural resources, unsettling traffic, dizzying networks of highways and ever-widening technology gaps between villages and cities. Clearly, these neighbourhoods have fallen into the traps of ‘Induced Demand’.
An extremely relatable example here, would be of our capital city, Delhi. Overtime, the city has fallen prey to haphazard planning and development of houses and buildings, along with inadequate public transport facilities (as compared to the population). The consequences of the same are high levels of pollution, excessive pressure on land and deterioration in the quality of life of the residents.
On similar grounds, 21 out of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are Indian (as per the IQAir AirVisual's 2019 World Air Quality Report), with vehicles contributing to about 25% of the cities’ air pollution. Therefore, revamping the Indian urban planning schemes is of cardinal importance for decarbonisation and creation of a sustainable environment.
Revamping Indian Cities: How?
The recent lockdown has provided us with an opportunity to reimagine our villages, towns and cities. With ‘work-from-home’ becoming the new normal, the cities seemed to have rejuvenated and decarbonated themselves. Small steps in the right direction could go a long way in making our cities sustainable. Such a revamp however, requires close coordination and cooperation between the government and the residents.
Steps like, developing greener and more open spaces, developing local areas to become more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly, congestion taxes, introducing wide-spread use of solar panels, etc. can be taken by the government to promote the idea of complete neighbourhoods. Residents too, have to take conscious efforts, make informed decisions and mainly, ‘become locals’- buy locally, work locally, socialise locally, educate and entertain themselves locally and if not, choose digital alternatives.
A positive step in direction has been taken by the DDA (Delhi Development Authority), wherein they have created an online portal called the “Public Engagement Portal for MPD-2041”, to allow greater public participation in the planning of the fourth master plan for the city, to be announced in December, 2020. The upcoming plan is a good opportunity for the DDA, to follow the guidelines of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and propose effective solutions, thus making Delhi a sustainable 15-minute city in the future.
Similarly, this urban-planning experiment can be implemented and worked-upon in multiple creative ideas and schemes, in various cities, bit by bit. The underlying purpose would however be unchanged- creating numerous, equal and inclusive communities that judiciously utilise the available resources and infrastructure by restricting wasteful movements and actions and consciously localising their lives. Cities like Melbourne and Barcelona have already set elegant examples by their innovative, long-term city planning schemes and it’s time we take inspiration from the same.
The ‘Superblocks Model’ is Barcelona’s version of a 15-minute city.
Undoubtedly, creating such hyper-local spaces will be an arduous task. But in order to avoid a troublesome future, creating a sustainable 15-minute neighbourhood becomes an overriding solution. Therefore, it’s time we modify our perceptions, stop growing in an inorganic fashion and rewrite our understanding of cities- cities are not just built by several buildings, they also constitute a complex network of social relationships. Here’s to including the word ‘sustainable’ in urban planning!