What is a 15-minute neighborhood?
A 15-minute neighborhood is a neighborhood in which you can access all of your most basic, day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk of your home. It is also sometimes called a complete neighborhood.
How many of you live in one? When we posed that simple question on Facebook—"Can you get to a cafe, a grocery store, a park and a library in just a 15 minute walk from your home?"—we got an astonishing response from readers eager to tell us whether they could, or why they could or couldn't.
The question was prompted by a CBC News story titled "Welcome to the 15-minute neighbourhood" about Ottawa's plan to manage growth by thickening up its existing neighborhoods instead of expanding outward into farther-flung suburbs. But a quick Google search turns up other examples of the concept: visions for 15-minute neighborhoods in Boulder and 20-minute neighborhoods from Portland to Detroit and beyond.
In Ottawa, they're calling it "intensification," and the intent is to bring the necessities of life within easier reach of residents, both existing and new, without having to build a lot of costly new infrastructure. Ottawa is trying to do what Minneapolis planner Paul Mogush memorably describes as: “Put the stuff closer together so it's easier to get to the stuff.”
And the time for this approach is long overdue. All across North America, we have bankrupted our cities and states by putting the “stuff” ever farther apart, and then building huge networks of roads and pipes to connect it. Our cities have ballooned in physical size far faster than they've grown in population, and face ever-mounting maintenance costs for all that pavement, at the same time as residents clamor for yet more roads to deal with congestion caused by all the driving we’ve forced ourselves to do.
The intent of the 15-minute neighborhood movement is to break out of this mobility trap—the vicious cycle of driving ever longer distances to get to the same things—and get back to building places around the most ancient, versatile, guaranteed-to-always-be-relevant transportation method there is: two legs. (And for those with disabilities, let's be clear that building for two legs and building for two wheels can and should go hand in hand.)
The massive response to our Facebook post makes it obvious to us that the 15-minute neighborhood principle has tons of appeal. But how do you get there? Especially if your city is already laid out in such a way that many existing places fall far short of that 15-minute ideal?
We compiled this list of 7 rules for what a city of 15-minute neighborhoods needs, with links to some of our best articles over the years. And these aren't just for planners or developers—you'll see in here that there are things an average citizen can also do to bring their neighborhood a bit closer to being a 15-minute neighborhood.
1. Bring back the neighborhood school.
One of the most unfortunate trends in North American cities has been the consolidation of neighborhood K-12 schools into massive, isolated campuses, often located on the suburban fringe of the community where there’s no choice but to drive or take a bus there. The share of kids walking to school has plummeted to unprecedented lows. A true neighborhood school is good for students’ health and independence (and that of their parents, who don’t have to act as chauffeurs!), helps anchor and nurture community bonds, and allows us to redirect scarce public resources from transportation into the classroom.
2. Make sure food and basic necessities are available locally.
How many of us can obtain staple groceries or household supplies—the most common errand—within a short walk of home? The rise of big-box shopping has made the corner store or bodega an endangered species, yet there are examples of resurgent neighborhood retail meeting essential needs in both innovative and familiar ways. (And community gardens and other local food initiatives that aren’t retail stores have an important role to play too!)
One essential but easily overlooked step in bringing food back to the neighborhood? Stop subsidizing expensive automobile infrastructure—the stroads and giant parking lots that give the big-box model an unfair advantage.
3. Third Places come in all shapes and sizes.
A Third Place is a community gathering space where you can meet a friend, kill some time, or have a serendipitous encounter with a neighbor. It can be a private business, public park or plaza, or a civic space like a public library. Every 15-minute neighborhood needs a good Third Place or ten.
The best news? Such places can be as simple as a pocket park carved out of a neglected bit of land, which anyone can create with a few tools and some elbow grease!
4. House enough people, and all kinds of people.
Time for some real talk. While many people might say they want a neighborhood where they can have a big house with a big yard, few neighbors, and great local businesses within walking distance, those goals are often at odds with each other. The reason is simple: businesses need customers. If the customers aren’t in walking distance, you won’t have a walkable neighborhood.
Traditional American neighborhoods used to provide a diverse mix of housing options for homeowners, renters, people of different ages and walks of life. Over the 20th century, we made many of those options illegal, and that, more than anything else, has killed the walkability of many of our would-be 15-minute neighborhoods. Want to reverse it? Allow every neighborhood to incrementally fill in with housing options that meet people’s real needs.
5. Density isn't enough.
It’s tempting to reduce walkability to a simple arithmetic problem—a matter of having sufficient density to support amenities like a grocery store. But density alone does not a 15-minute neighborhood make. If you take the Sim City approach and separate uses from each other—commercial cluster over here, residential high-rises over there—you may still fail to produce a place where people can functionally meet their needs without driving.
A 15-minute neighborhood may be dense, but the more important thing is that it’s fine-grained and truly mixes homes, businesses, and public spaces seamlessly instead of segregating them into zones. This is why we need to let all our neighborhoods thicken up incrementally, instead of building clusters of high-rises to meet the demand for new housing.
6. Sweat the small stuff for true walkability.
None of this proximity to stores, cafes, parks, or libraries is any good if you can't comfortably and safely "get to the stuff." Walkability is absolutely essential for a 15-minute neighborhood. And often, it’s the little things that matter most—and that show us the way to some of the highest-returning investments we can and should be making in our places. Our favorite example? Street trees, which provide shade and comfort and instinctively slow down traffic—no speed enforcement required.
7. Know when to get out of the way.
This one's especially for you, local governments. The way we used to get 15-minute neighborhoods, for most of human history, was simple: we just let them happen. We didn’t plan and zone for them in elaborate ways. What’s more relevant is what we didn’t do: rigidly dictate what kind of activity can take place on what block or lot. Today, nearly all of our places can stand to lower the bar to entry to being a local entrepreneur, by getting out of the way of things like in-home businesses, food trucks, farmers’ markets, and pop-up shops, which in too many cities are heavily regulated or banned.
For all that is different about the modern world from that of our ancestors, we still believe this: If you allow people to take steps to meet their own and their neighbors’ needs right in their neighborhoods, they will. And often in ingenious ways.