What is a '15-minute city' and how is it working in Paris?

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What is a '15-minute city' and how is it working in Paris?
Two women cycling along the banks of the river Seine. (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

Paris was one of the early-adopters of the concept of a '15-minute city' which has been strongly championed by city mayor Anne Hidalgo - but what exactly are they and how is the idea working out in the French capital?


What is it?

First things first, 15-minute cities are nothing new. Hidalgo and her campaign team didn’t come up with the idea, although they did talk about them a lot during her successful re-election campaign in 2022. 

The idea is simple - that anyone living in an undeniably urban environment, like Paris, should have all their daily needs - shopping, education, health, leisure, even work - within an easily reachable 15-minute walk or cycle ride.

That would mean that each neighbourhood would have amenities like a food shops, a health centre or GP surgery, sports facilities, schools and nurseries and an option to socialise like a bar, café or restaurant. 


"Unnecessary transport times have accelerated our lives, shortened our days to the detriment of family, leisure and the environment," said Carlos Moreno, the Colombian city planner who came up with the concept in 2015.

Effectively the idea is of a return to life before cars became ubiquitous, when people genuinely lived locally.

Why are they in the news again?

Remarkably, the idea that people could easily walk to the shops, school, doctors, fitness classes or a green outdoor space is being held up by some as ‘A Bad Thing’. Certain politicians in America, Canada and the UK have tagged the concept as 'socialist' - akin to a four-letter word in some places.

There’s even an argument that areas where people can walk and congregate and live their lives is, somehow, isolationist; and that 15-minute cities open up the possibility of more surveillance in our daily lives - to, in extreme suggestions on social media, the level of inescapable Minority Report-style personalised advertising as you walk down the street. 

Advocates, however, argue that cities should be developed for people rather than cars and that the whole idea is to make life easier and healthier for everyone.

Either way, Paris is going ahead with the concept. It has been doing so since 2020.

So what does it actually mean in practice?

A buzz phrase is one thing, concrete change is quite another and changes take time in a city the size of Paris.

The French capital had something of a head start in that most neighbourhoods do already have a decent range of shops - especially food shops - in addition to regular markets, cafés, schools. In fact a study from 2020 showed that 94 percent of Parisians live within a five-minute walk of that staple of French daily life - the boulangerie.

However the city does have a notable shortage of green space, healthcare is an issue in many areas and the 'work' part of the 15-minute city is another challenge, as many people have a longer commute to their job.

The options for change are twofold; either create more amenities at a local level or improve walking and cycle routes so that facilities further away become accessible in 15 minutes.

The most obvious and visible change relating to the 15-minute city is the increasing number of cycle lanes crossing the capital.

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The transformation of the Champs-Elysées into a greener and more human-friendly utopia in time for the 2024 Olympic Games is also part of the plan.

Another is the Caserne des Minimes, which have been transformed - at a cost of some €12.3 million - into 70 apartments, alongside offices, a daycare facility, workshops, a cafe and a clinic, while the old car park is now a public green space.

City planners also take careful notice of any change-of-use applications, so that if for example a butcher's shop closes down, applications to replace it would prioritise a butcher, or at least another food shop.  

Not all aspects of the 15-minute city plan are as ambitious - or as obvious. 

New community facilities have also been created, and schools - with newly planted trees and other amenities - have started reopening outside school hours as green ‘oasis yards’. This reuse of existing facilities in different ways is a key aspect of the scheme.

Les Parisculteurs, meanwhile champions local food production in Paris and has prompted advocates to get creative with urban farms appearing in once unlikely locations. The ‘Made in Paris’ label is a key part of the scheme.


Is it working?

It’s only been policy for two years, and it’s hardly a short-term project. People may not necessarily realise that the new park around the corner, or the alternative weekend uses for otherwise empty school buildings are part of a wider plan.

They may complain about grand-scale works jamming up the streets - especially the many projects scrambling in time to finish for the Paris 2024 Olympics - or the cycle paths that make car journeys even more difficult than they ever were in the capital. 

But they’re more likely to notice the difference later, when the dust has settled. Who, in the capital, really mourns the end of de facto motorways along the banks of the Seine these days?

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The expanded network of cycle lanes that are a key part of the project are certainly well used, with more and more people taking up cycling and an expanding area of car-free streets.

There are signs that businesses appreciate the changes too - Paris has reported a sharp rise in the number of boulangeries in recent years.

But transforming a city into a series of smaller communities takes time and resources. It will be a while before people really notice any benefits. And then, chances are, they won’t necessarily recognise that they’re part of a 15-minute city scheme.


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Anonymous 2023/02/16 12:21
Hi Graeme It was oxford that was / is planning the restrictions on cars in order to reduce traffic in the city centres. I come from Newcastle who like London have decided to tax people for driving into the city centre instead. decide for yourself which is a better way. Newcastle and Gateshead decided long enough ago that the best way to direct traffic out of Newcastle was to bring it to a central point - this is what caused the congestion problem in the first place. What is needed is another bridge across the Tyne not more taxes
Anonymous 2023/02/16 02:46
The 15 minute city is about control. What is not said in your article is the idea that you will need permission to leave your 15 minute zone going forward. Limited maybe to as little as 100 times a year disadvantages include supermarket monopolies - there may only be one in your zone - which also means limitations on what you can buy. restrictions on moving jobs if your new employer is outside the 15 minute zone restrictions on where you live - would you want to be more than 15 minutes from your parents - what happens if you cannot afford a place to live in that 15 minute zone? restrictions on who you socialise with and where you socialise - what if your football team is 20 minutes away it may sound like a good idea in theory - but leaves a lot to be desired in implementation
  • Anonymous 2023/02/16 11:49
    Utterly wrong. The "100 times a year" is absolute tosh. Those proposals (from Oxford, I believe) were that car drivers would be permitted to ignore "no through road" signs on up to 100 days a year. This would let a car driver "take a shortcut" instead of going the long way round. No area of the city would become isolated. All roads would remain accessible. The main change is that to move between neighbourhoods by car you may need to take a longer route. If you walk, cycle or take a bus it would likely be quicker.
  • Emma Pearson 2023/02/16 08:48
    Not one of the things you mention have ever been even discussed, never mind implemented, in Paris and never would be because they would be entirely unconstitutional

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