The Questionable Economics of the 15-Minute City

The idea of the “15-minute city” has recently gained significant attention in urban planning circles. This concept envisions a city where essential services and amenities are within a 15-minute walk from any residence. While the goals of this model are commendable, cities must be realistic about their ability to implement such a vision effectively.

The Allure and Reality of the 15-Minute City

Urban planning rarely captures widespread media interest, so it was surprising to see the “15-minute city” making headlines. As someone with two decades of experience studying and promoting the significance of urban neighborhoods, I find the model’s aspirational goals worthy. By ensuring residents have access to retail, open spaces, schools, and jobs within a half-mile radius, cities can reduce traffic congestion and minimize long commutes. This approach, which has been successfully tested in many European cities, offers a pragmatic way for planners to realize an enhanced urban vision.

However, the economic feasibility of the 15-minute city raises concerns. While the concept aims to provide convenient access to essential services for all residents, it risks exacerbating existing economic and resource inequalities. Access and convenience may become privileges rather than universal benefits.

Economic Realities and Urban Markets

The fundamental economics of the 15-minute city clash with how urban markets typically operate. Establishments like supermarkets and medical clinics have substantial fixed costs. These costs must be offset by a significant number of customers, which is easier to achieve in densely populated areas. In contrast, cities with moderate to lower densities, which constitute most American cities, struggle to sustain such businesses within a small catchment area.

Employment markets present another challenge. Cities thrive as hubs for labor pooling and sharing, a dynamic that cannot be efficiently replicated at the neighborhood level. Expecting people to live within 15 minutes of their workplaces could lead to poor job matches or no matches at all, undermining the very essence of urban labor markets. Enforcing strict regulations to ensure all residents are surrounded by a small radius of services, jobs, and conveniences may set neighborhoods up for failure.

Evidence from Recent Research

Recent research conducted with Leah Brooks from the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University supports these concerns. Our study, which analyzed leases and zoning for retail spaces over two decades, found that demand for retail space has plateaued or declined even as zoning for retail land increased.

In New York City and Los Angeles, this disconnect is evident. Despite New York’s high population density, retail spaces continue to expand into every neighborhood, resulting in numerous vacant storefronts. Los Angeles faces similar issues, with retail over-concentration in specific neighborhoods. This trend reflects a broader shift away from brick-and-mortar services, yet urban planning has not adapted to this reality.

Rethinking Retail and Planning

Commercial zoning has long been a cornerstone of urban planning, generating tax revenues and promoting mixed-use development. However, as the retail sector consolidates and transitions online, cities must adjust their expectations for commercial land use. Smaller retail spaces and flexible tenancy arrangements should be encouraged. For instance, allowing a coffee bar within a home goods store or permitting a bike shop to conduct repairs can attract customers and sustain businesses.

Additionally, cities should concentrate retail in accessible areas via public transit or within large-scale mixed-use developments that can support the necessary consumer demand. A high density of retail within a 15-minute walk is pointless if the spaces remain vacant. Shuttered storefronts diminish the safety and resilience of communities.

The Role of “Superstar” Cities

Few cities can influence national or global markets independently. Therefore, it is crucial for “superstar” cities to experiment with innovative policies and planning interventions. Most cities lack the fiscal or economic flexibility to test unproven strategies. Planners must adopt a broader perspective to enhance local resilience against global economic shifts.

In conclusion, while the 15-minute city model offers an appealing vision for urban living, its economic feasibility remains questionable. Cities must balance aspirational goals with realistic planning to ensure sustainable and equitable urban development.

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