The 15 Minute City: Why Cork needs it and why you should care

Featured image courtesy of Yves Alarie via Unsplash. Image license found here.

I’m going to admit something here, I don’t enjoy walking around Cork City. Each morning, as I make my morning walk from the CUH to the Western Gateway Building, I hate looking at the dilapidated buildings and the vast cloak of junk that covers our streets and our pathways. It is as if our city is a once beautiful bed of flowers that has been left to wither, and it annoys me that nobody else appears to care about this. Consider the housing, health and climate crises that afflict us; why can’t things be different? I just don’t understand why we accept this ‘conventional wisdom’, to borrow a quote from John Kenneth Galbraith. I want to explore solutions, and I am going to look at one of them here; the 15-minute city. I want to bring our bed of flowers back to life and create a more equitable and just garden for everyone.

The 15-minute city that I am proposing is one where the living and recreational needs of citizens are within a 15 minute walk or bicycle ride of their homes. As Milan Lenters documents, it may be split into three zones: a five-minute walk zone, a fifteen minute walk zone/five minute cycle zone, and a fifteen minute cycle zone. In the first zone, we would be able to access basic necessities, such as our local supermarket. In the second zone, we would find schools, pharmacies, and recreational parks. The final zone would include amenities such as the offices where we work, theatres, community centres, train stations, and more besides.

The main proponent of the 15-minute city is a French-Colombian professor, Carlos Moreno. His idea, “la ville du quart d’heure”, is a novel means of looking at a new and cleaner future. In a 2020 Guardian profile, he says, “We need to reinvent the idea of urban proximity. We know it is better for people to work near where they live, and if they can go shopping nearby, and have the leisure and services they need around them too, it allows them to have a more tranquil existence.”

The living smart city is denser, but more people friendly, Moreno says, painting the picture of an urban utopia where people know each other and “say bonjour” rather than rushing from one place to another in “a permanent state of anxiety”. The approach is based on four major principles: proximity, diversity, density, and ubiquity, with individual areas within the city fulfilling key social functions.

Moreno himself was heavily inspired by the work of American author and urban activist, Jane Jacobs. Jacobs championed a people oriented approach to urban building, and a “most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses” in every neighbourhood. She was critical of the mass replacement of urban communities with high rise buildings and motorways in cities across America. She spoke eloquently about city life, describing the movement of pedestrians as being like “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts, which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole”.

His ideas have been embraced enthusiastically by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Paris will have a cycle lane in every street by 2024, and up to 72% of their on-street parking spaces will be removed. Existing streets have been converted to “green corridors”, resulting in less traffic and better bus and cycle networks. Furthermore, Parisians can vote on and suggest ideas for how 5% of the city’s annual budget will be spent. This figure comes to about 100 million euros, or about 45 euros per head, making it the largest per capita participatory budget in the world. This democratization of public money gives people a stake in their society. There is evidence that Parisians want to live closer to their work, for instance; a 2018 survey suggests that 76% of them would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a shorter commute.

Now, let us consider the situation as it exists today in Ireland. According to Camilla Siggaard Anderson’s report for the Irish Institutional Property (IIP), about 33% of Irish people would like to live within a 15-minute walk or cycle of their necessities, namely education, work, transport, nutrition, healthcare, and recreational activities. Contrast this with the 10% who actually live within 15 minutes of these essential services. This is not an insignificant difference.

In any discussion concerning urban renewal, the climate crisis has to be taken into account. Just like all high-income countries, Ireland’s per capita CO2 emissions must decrease sharply. In 2021, Ireland ranked 46th out of 60 countries, as stated by the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI). This study evaluated both our current, and our projected, greenhouse gas emissions. The authors write “In the GHG (Greenhouse Gases) Emissions category, Ireland remains among the very low performers. It also receives a low rating in the Climate Policy category.” Though we have made steps in the right direction, there is plenty that needs to be done. An analysis by the SEAI tells us that, in 2018, transport was responsible for 40% of all energy-related CO2 emissions produced in Ireland. This amounts to about 25% of our total GHG emissions, a sizable figure. Over half of these emissions come from private cars.

The concept of the 15-minute city has generated a lot of debate across the country, and Cork is no exception. Stuart Neilson has written about how it could be put in place in the city. Underneath the headline, “The Walkable City”, he writes, “Cork city centre is within less than 15 minutes walk for 21,530 people, less than 30 minutes for 53,481 people and less than 45 minutes 106,200 people - that includes 84% of the city population within a 45 minute walk or 20 minute cycle ride”. He also points out that about 39.4% of residents in the city centre commute to either work or school. Tellingly however, he bemoans the fact that “despite this large base of consumers, service users and audiences, Cork City seems to be overwhelmingly designed for motorised vehicles, for through traffic and to prioritise cars over people at junctions, crossings and the allocation of public space. Even recent ‘pedestrianisation’ schemes have been accompanied by parking, for people to drive to a place where they can walk or cycle”

There has been a notable influx of new residents to the city centre. A synopsis of this phenomenon by the Cork City Council teaches that the population of the city centre increased by 19.2% between 2011 and 2016, compared with a 5.4% increase in the city as a whole. Furthermore, the authors identified over 1200 hectares of zoned land in the city that are defined as underutilised and underdeveloped. As I walk along Western Road, Patrick’s Street or the Marina, I cannot help but notice high rise buildings in disrepair,  abandoned and ignored. Let’s do something about that. The demand is there, as is the infrastructure. We need to house those that want to live in the city; we should be encouraging them to come.

The time saving benefits of the 15-minute city cannot be ignored. As of 2019, the average one way commuting time to work per day in Ireland was 28 minutes, higher than the EU average of 25 minutes. About 11.2% of commuters spent an hour or more commuting one way, compared with the EU average of 8.1%. This figure is the second highest amongst EU countries, only behind Latvia. In 2016, about 20% of workers in Wicklow and Meath had a commuting time of at least one hour, with 6.7% of Laois workers commuting for 90 minutes or more every day. It is interesting that the “border counties” outside Dublin stand out in particular. 20% of commuters left for work before 7 am, an increase of 34% from the equivalent 2011 figure. Only 1 in 4 Irish commuters had a travel time of 15 minutes or less, while almost 20% had a travel time of over 45 minutes, up from 16.3% in 2011. However, things are not all bad; in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, about 7.9% of Irish workers are estimated to have a commuting time of zero minutes, compared with the EU average of 4.3%.

A 15 minute city would be advantageous to our health. An Australian study found that an extra 15 minutes of walking a day, for 5 days a week, reduces the risk of disease due to physical inactivity by about 13%. Research from the EPA discovered that about 725 deaths occur every year in Dublin alone as a result of pollution from airborne particles, with pollution from diesel engines accounting for up to 144 of these.

We should be open to new ideas and willing to implement them. As the English science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, puts it: “New ideas go through three periods: 1) It can’t be done, 2) It probably could be done, but it’s not worth doing, and 3) I knew that it was a good idea all along!”. At this point, it would be instructive to consider Copenhagen, and the steps that the city council took to pedestrianise its streets. In October 1962, the council decided to pedestrianise the city’s main street, Stroget, as an experiment. This generated a lot of pushback from business owners in the city, who were worried that they would lose revenue as a result of reduced traffic flow.

However, the experiment proved to be a success. After a 2 year test period, the council decided to establish a permanent pedestrian street in February 1964. In the first year after the original 1962 conversion, the total number of pedestrians using the street increased by 35%. Between 1968 and 1996, “stopping and staying activities,” that is, people browsing and shopping, and staying in hotels and so on, increased by 400%. Furthermore, the amount of space that was available to pedestrians increased by 600% between 1962 and 2005. The liberalization of ordinary people from the car proved to be a major boon to the city’s economy, and to city life. The streets are lined with a diverse range of businesses and restaurants, attracting a broad coalition of families, couples, artists and tourists. This change did not occur overnight; it takes time for people to adjust to their new surroundings. They did it, though, and we ought to take note. Stroget is now a major tourist attraction; it is the longest pedestrian only street in the world.

We can learn a lot from the experiences and experiments conducted by other countries, and this is no exception. If it worked for the citizens of Copenhagen, why couldn’t it work for city councils in Cork, Dublin, Limerick or Galway? Denmark has schooled Ireland on the soccer field in the past; perhaps they can teach us a thing or two about city planning and development also. At this point, I am reminded of another quote by Jane Jacobs. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she writes “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves”.

In the first paragraph, I used a metaphor to compare urban decay to an abandoned flower bed.  I am sure that I have provided an alternative to what we have today. Margaret Thatcher coined the phrase “There is no Alternative,” or TINA, in response to those who criticized her neoliberal economic policies. I suggest that we should reject TINA, and say that, of course, there is an alternative. Why shouldn’t we rejuvenate our municipal garden?