Paris and the Promise of the 15-Minute City
April 27, 2022
Paris is often referred to as the "City of Light" or the "City of Love." But soon it might earn a new nickname – the "City of Bikes." At least the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo hopes so. It’s all part of her plan to turn the French capital into a “15-minute city” or “ville du quart d’heure.”
The urban planning concept is revolutionary – to redesign cities so that people can walk or cycle to work, the supermarket, cafes, restaurants, school, the doctor’s office, or anything else they might need within fifteen minutes.
“I rediscovered my own neighbourhood during the pandemic, and in many ways feel like I’m lucky to be living in a version of the 15-minute city already” says Clara Martin. The 28-year-old political analyst has lived in the 7th arrondissement of Paris since she was a child but says lockdown made her appreciate the city in new ways.
“I’ve always thought Paris was very walkable but since Covid, I’ve been biking a lot more. It’s nice we have everything from markets to museums close by because I live so central, but I know not everyone is so fortunate. Maybe that can change with the mayor’s new plans.”
EUROPE’S GREENEST CITY AND NEW CYCLING CAPITAL
Hidalgo made the “15-minute city” a centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign and has since appointed a dedicated commissioner, Carine Rolland. Their goal is to create a “city of proximities” and transform Paris into Europe’s greenest city and new cycling capital.
One way of doing this is by reclaiming large parts of the city from cars and turning roads into bike lanes. Since Hidalgo came into office, over 1,000km of bike lanes have been created across Pairs. Cars have been banned on the quais of the River Seine, allowing Parisians to walk, run, and ride bikes along the water.
Rue de Rivoli – equivalent to London’s Oxford Street or New York’s Fifth Avenue – is now mostly car free from the Louvre to the Place de la Bastille. Bike lanes take up a majority of the 3km-long road in the heart of the city with only two lanes left for buses, taxis, delivery drivers, and emergency vehicles.
Hidalgo similarly plans to limit vehicles in the city’s central zones, specifically arrondissements 1-4 which make up much of Paris’s historic and tourist centre. Originally scheduled for this year, the plan was pushed back in February to allow for more preparation. It’s expected to now launch in 2024 just before Paris will host the Summer Olympics.
The area will be renamed the “zone apaisée” or “calm zone” and while the mayor’s office believes this is an important step to limit traffic and reduce pollution, the Paris Police have expressed concerns about access for emergency services.
Parisians like Clara Martin also say safety is a big concern and that many bike lanes are being built dangerously close to where cars will still be allowed to drive: “A cyclist’s life is just as valuable as a car driver’s life. It is arguably even more valuable, so it would be nice if road accommodation reflected this.”
BUILDING A “15-MINUTE CITY”
Critics have also raised economic concerns about the “15-minute city” but Professor Carlos Moreno believes the benefits are clear – most importantly improving quality of life and responding to the climate crisis. The French-Columbian academic developed the urban planning concept at the Sorbonne University in Paris and is now a special advisor to Hidalgo.
Moreno has been working on the idea since before Covid-19 but says the pandemic has proven the need to re-think cities and urban development. In an interview with the BBC he concedes that “the 15-minute city is not a silver bullet. Today our neighbourhoods are segregated by money – rich, poor, middle class, workers, bars, offices. There's great segregation. But what we must do is use 15-minute cities to focus on the common good.”
Others argue that the “15-minute city” will increase urban inequality and stifle innovation because it would limit workers to jobs near their homes. While some might be able to work remotely, this isn’t possible in all jobs. “It’s not just white-collar professionals who benefit from commuting into city centres… There are also people working in shops and as waiters or bar staff,” explains Anthony Breach, lead housing analyst for the London-based think-tank Centre for Cities.
“I think the actual concept of a 15-minute city is problematic and has limitations,” says Breach. “It’s used as an argument for having more bike lanes, which is good, but from an economic perspective, it can really hurt a city’s labour market.”
Moreno and Hidalgo disagree and continue to transform Paris into a “15-minute city,” believing in the promise of its environmental, community, and even economic improvements, which they argue will prove beneficial in the long run.