15 minute cities: a clear path to zero-emissions 🌆

Climate Action Mobility 5 min read , September 23, 2020
Bike-friendly cities are the future of a low emission future.
COVID-19 provided us a sneak preview of what a low emission future will look like.

A low emissions transportation future

In recent months, we’ve had a sneak preview of what a low emissions transportation future looks like. Cycling has exploded, people massively started to telework, and more of us have rediscovered the beautiful destinations for recreation and relaxation that are just around the corner.

Still far from home

Yet, we’re still far from home — while CO2 emissions from other sectors have slowed or decreased, in the EU, transport CO2 emissions continued to rise rapidly, up by 28% in 2017 (vs. 1990).

Zero emissions in the EU is both necessary and possible. A recent study highlights the concerted and ambitious policy actions required in all areas to get there by 2040. The message is clear: in order to get there on time, we’ll need to go much further than just a technological ‘fix’.

Whole system engineering: doing the right steps in the right order

If done well, saving a large amount of energy or resources can cost less than saving a small amount. Engineers put this into practice every day as part of an approach called whole-system engineering.

Whether you’re building a super-efficient passive house, a datacenter, or an industrial pumping plant, the sequence remains the same — first reduce the demand (for m2, computational cycles, distance to pump over, km travelled, …), then increase the efficiency (for heating and cooling each m2, per computational cycle, friction of the piping, kWh for each km travelled) and finally power it all with renewables.

For instance, thick enough insulation and good enough windows can eliminate the need for a powerful furnace and radiators in a passive house. Virtualization can reduce the need for servers in a data center, and increasing the pipe diameter in an industrial plant can reduce the power and number of pumps needed.

15 min cities

The same whole system design thinking is being brought to cities. One concept mayors are starting to embrace is to rethink urban planning to create 15 min cities. 15 minute cities is a idea to organize neighborhoods where everything that a resident needs is accessible within 15 minutes: grocery stores, workplaces, sport-centers, parks, day-care, …

15 minute cities provides residents with everything within 15-minutes.
In 15 minute cities, everything would be accessible to residents within 15 minutes parameter.

This means taking away a lot of street space from cars and giving it back to pedestrians and cyclists. For mayors and city teams the question used to be, “Where can we build bike lanes?”. This often resulted in scattered, poor quality bike lanes. The question now becomes, "Can cyclists get to everything they need to in a safe, pleasant, and convenient way?”

This is easier said than done and goes against decades of car-centric urban development thinking — separating residential places from commercial and industrial places. Visionary mayors argue that mixing functions (again) can strengthen the fabric of the city and make neighborhoods more appealing. All over the world, such mayors are embracing these opportunities for change, by fast-tracking the transformation of road lanes and parking and into hundreds of km of bike lanes.

And the public is ready for 15 minute cities.

Zooming out: demand reduction leads to more feasible supply side solutions

Doing the right steps in the right sequence makes sense on so many levels. If you’re going to retrofit your lights and your air conditioner, do the lights first so you can make the air conditioner smaller.

On a broader level, this 15 min city concept not only improves our cities and municipalities but makes the transition needed for the whole transportation even more feasible. By focusing on this demand reduction first, we can reduce the need for new technologies on the supply side and bring it to more plausible levels. It’ll be more doable to phase out fossil cars, electrify personal and cargo transportation, provide the infrastructure needed, and simultaneously build the renewable power capacity to drive it.

This kind of concerted and ambitious policy action will be required in all areas. Yet if we apply this whole systems’ thinking to the transportation system in Europe, by first reducing the demand for mobility and switching to cleaner and renewable means of transport - such as cycling, walking, public transport, trains, and shared vehicles we can reduce transport CO2 by half.

Then technological efficiency and mobility powered by renewables can further the other half, effectively delivering us zero emissions in the EU by 2040. This is both necessary and possible.

Transforming our cities for the better

Due to its scale and impact, the pandemic offers society a key moment to reflect on its priorities and an unprecedented opportunity to build back better. European member states have until April 2021 to submit their national 'Covid-19 resilience and recovery plans' to the European Commission. They have important levers in their hands to drastically accelerate this transformation of our mobility while transforming our cities for the better.

"The Paris of the quarter of an hour"

Paris, which has the ambition to become the "city of the quarter" is a fine example of the 15-minute city. Their project: a new organization of the city, with new local services and new citizen powers for more mutual aid.

To achieve this, several changes are planned, we have listed them below for you. This is an opportunity to draw inspiration for your own city!

1️⃣ + proximity, + cleanliness, + security

  • Neighbourhood officers will be available to citizens and will be responsible for coordinating cleanliness and finding solutions to everyday problems.
  • Sidewalks will be widened and some streets will become 100% cycling.
  • Vegetated and peaceful streets will be laid out 200 meters from all dwellings to access green spaces and water points.
  • Green frames adapted to everyone will allow people to move around the city.

2️⃣ New local services

  • Places with multiple uses will be created (that reminds us of multisolving...).

For example: schoolyards will be transformed into gardens and open to the neighborhood on weekends and vacations, parking lots will be transformed into bicycle garages or storage space for citizens, new spaces of conviviality will be created ...

  • Artistic platforms will be open to all in the ring road, at the gates of the city and in public reception areas.
  • Support for local activities and merchants will be strengthened (food shops, bookshops, urban production in short circuit ...). Paris is proposing the creation of a Foncière Paris Commerce et Proximité to support them.
  • Homes and health centers will welcome sector 1 doctors. Prescription sports will be developed and "social sports clubs" will open their doors.

3️⃣ New citizen powers

  • Citizen booths will allow them to help each other, meet and receive help from associations or city officials.
  • 25% of the investment budget will become participatory in order to involve citizens in the transformation of their city.
  • Citizens will be able to volunteer and carry out concrete actions in their neighborhood.
  • A free support service will be offered to people over 65 years of age to combat loneliness.
  • Access to digital tools will be introduced to simplify administrative procedures.

And you, how do you imagine your 15-minute city?

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