The subject of this article is a variation on the theme of “The 15-minute City”. A concept pioneered in 2016 by Professor Carlos Moreno of the Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne University. The idea is straightforward, “a decentralised urban planning model, in which each local neighbourhood contains all the basic social functions for living and working” (Antunes, Barroca & de Oliveira, 2022). Everything you might need for daily life, within a 15-minute walk or cycling distance. As previously discussed on this site, Paris has served as an active prototype for this model. The incumbent Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has made it the subject of her successful re-election campaign in 2020.
A World Without Cars
The genesis of Moreno’s original idea stems from a desire for reduced traffic flow in urban centres. His lengthy list of objections to the ubiquitous presence of automobiles in urban districts includes the psycho-social and economic downsides of traffic congestion. Alongside the immensely detrimental impact on air quality from the accompanying carbon emissions (Moreno et al., 2021). Traffic is stressful, costly, inefficient, and damaging to the environment. Why would we not want to reduce it? Increased usability and reliance upon sustainable travel mechanisms such as walking and cycling would mean lower emissions by default. The Covid-19 Pandemic and the accompanying fall in global travel and industrial production levels allowed for a real-life application of this concept on a scale that would have been impossible to replicate under almost any other circumstance.
This assertion is backed up by data collected by NASA, which showed a global fall in CO2 emissions of 5.4 percent for 2020. (Emission Reductions From Pandemic Had Unexpected Effects on Atmosphere, 2021). However, of note from Nasa’s study is that these emission levels rebounded rather rapidly, returning to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the same year. The authors conclude that a permanent reduction in emissions output from residential and industrial sectors will require a transition to low-carbon emitting technology. This is precisely the kind of transition that could prove sustainable under a more localised living model.
The growing appetite for a local living model comes when the world has never been more metropolitan. While global urbanization levels have been rising noticeably since the turn of the 20th century, this movement has gained significant and rapidly accelerating momentum from around 1950 onward. The United States had already begun to demonstrate evidence of this pattern some 100 years prior. While more recently, in the 1990s and 2000s, China’s share of Urban residents more than doubled, now accounting for 58 percent of its overall population. This translates to more than half of the current world population now living in urban areas. A trend that is expected to continue. Current projections estimate that some 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. (Ritchie and Roser, 2021). While some researchers have even speculated that this will result in the world’s first 100 million cities by population by 2100 (Hoornweg and Pope, 2016).
Potential for Re-Ruralisation
Having in mind the discussion held on hyper-urbanisation and growing megacities. It is essential to clarify that the purpose of this article isn’t to put forward an argument for the re-design of modern metropoles such as San Francisco or Paris, but rather to advocate for the potential wider re-ruralization of society. This notion is best suited to nations’ that have already achieved a developed status on a practical level. Heating, running water, insulation, electricity supply, and so on are already established commodities in rural areas of developed countries. We can attempt to analyse some of the practical considerations for a possible mass rural migration from that starting point.
According to Professor Moreno (originator of the 15 minute city concept), there are six essential metrics for the quality of urban life:
Living, Working, Commerce, Healthcare, Education and Entertainment (Moreno et al., 2021).
Even in the world’s most advanced cities, some concessions must still be made on the level of facilities available within every 15-minute block. A university, state-of-the-art oncology center, and Opera House within 15 minutes cycle of everyone’s place of residence sounds more utopian than practically achievable. However, in a more ordinary sense, each of these stated requirements seems increasingly attainable on a reduced scale.
The Practicalities of a 15-minute Village
One of the most significant barriers to rural living in developed regions over the past several hundred years has been proximity to one’s place of work. Covid-19 and the dawn of remote working have proven to be true game-changers. While certain services still mandate a physical presence to achieve functionality, many do not. The possibility of working remotely in a full-time or hybrid capacity is now a genuine one and one Pandemic legacy item, which is very much expected to continue.
Living – here taken to mean a place of dwelling, is an obvious and essential requirement for anyone seeking to find even a basic footing on Maslow’s Hierarchy. A mass exodus to the countryside would spur an intense increase in demand for housing that, at this moment, does not exist. A problem, yes, but one with a relatively straightforward solution. A concerted national re-ruralization plan would increase incentivisation for property developers looking to increase the scale of their current operations. Direct government intervention in public housing developments is another possible solution to a future housing shortage, with the potential for a far more fabulous eco-sustainable housing presence rising in tandem.
A rural population increase brings with it the increased propensity for Commercial enterprise. An increased presence of Supermarkets, pharmacies, and other such essential services would no doubt be required. Detailed governmental re-ruralisation planning would clarify the need for more excellent market service provision in towns and villages. While also raising the possibility for significantly increased localised entrepreneurial activity.
Concerning Healthcare service provision, if the Covid-19 Pandemic has taught us anything, it is surely that the current level of healthcare infrastructure around the world, developed and developing, is vastly underserved. Large-scale public – and private – investment in Healthcare services can be expected globally over the next decade-plus. At the same time, it is fanciful to think of state-of-the-art hospitals catering to the entire spectrum of the human condition popping up in every town and village. More ordinary, everyday healthcare services such as those provided by a General Practitioner don’t seem beyond possibility.
There is an apparent limit to which top-level education can be provided within a 15-minute walk or cycling radius of every citizen’s doorstep. One notable aid to this directive is the massive growth recorded in the online education sector over the past few years. This growth, however, has not come without its downsides. These include concerns of widening inequality levels due to the disparity in household and institutional remote learning infrastructure (Donoso and Retzmann, 2021). Alongside the loss of the more practical day-care functioning of pre-school and primary level institutions in particular. If a wider re-integration of current city populations into smaller-scale towns and villages occurs, a wider prevalence of primary and secondary level institutions would undoubtedly serve as a critical requirement.
Entertainment then serves as the last of Professor Moreno’s six critical metrics for the quality of urban living. Compared to healthcare or education, it is a highly nebulous and more subjective concept. Across different cultures, geographies and climates, it can have wildly different connotations and possibilities. There would, of course, be limits to the level of entertainment that a village or town locale can provide. Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift are unlikely to consider a village of 500 people in rural Brittany as a potential tourist destination. A broader trend towards online home entertainment has the potential to salve this wound somewhat, however. At the same time, it is also essential to bear in mind that there are limits to the scale and breadth of entertainment available in even the most developed cities on any given day.
Rural Renewal and a Hybrid Living Model
The concept of a 15-minute village is likely to prove enormously seductive to vast swathes of the world’s current urban-dwelling population. The realities of life under Covid-19 stripped away – albeit it would seem temporary – many of the benefits and practicalities associated with urban living. Paying £900 a month for a shared room in London is undoubtedly a less appealing prospect when all the entertainment options have been shut down, and your bedroom has become your office.
The potential for a re-ruralisation of society brings with it the possibility of a wave of rural renewal. Previously abandoned town and village centres reimagined as flourishing ones of an enterprise. Country pubs were formerly derelict, operating as co-working spaces. Shops and community centres once shuttered are now revitalised, repurposed for a new generation grown tired of the hustle and bustle of city life and craving a more localised sense of community. Simple pleasures such as clean air and access to nature suddenly transformed from irregular weekend excursions to everyday realities.
The concept of a 15-minute village, by its nature, carries with it certain shortcomings. A trip to the City will surely be required periodically to satiate higher order needs such as specialist medical treatment, air travel, and certain essential entertainment functions. However, on a practical day-to-day level and with the right degree of coherent, centralised planning. It suddenly feels like a genuine possibility.
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