To Make Cities Climate-Proof, We Need to “Transform the Culture of Proximity”

You’ve heard of the 100-mile diet. But have you caught wind of the 15-minute city?

“We need to transform the culture of proximity,” says Carlos Moreno, a professor at Sorbonne University. “People live with loneliness, anonymity and stress. This situation exists because [they] don’t have the time to develop local social links because of a hectic urban life.”

The idea is to redistribute the downtown concentration of shops, workplaces and recreational spaces, so that no urbanite has to travel — by foot or bike — more than 15 minutes to get anywhere they might like (or need) to go. In this scheme the cafe, the grocery store, the pharmacy, the hospital, the park and the jobsite are all to be found within a quarter-hour radius. Precious moments saved on commuting can instead be put toward family time, outings with friends, gardening, art, ritual bonfires — name whatever you love to do but don’t currently have time for.

When he first introduced it at COP21 in Paris, people scoffed at Moreno’s proposal for being too utopian. Then came Covid-19. The pandemic forced hundreds of millions of city-dwellers worldwide to shelter within their neighbourhood bubbles. In a sense, it imposed the fifteen-minute city as a mandatory social experiment. The results, for many, were revelatory. Moreno won the 2021 Obel Award for “outstanding architectural contributions to human development,” and since then not only Paris but Barcelona, Rome, Shenzen and Chengdu have all drawn up plans to implement some version of his plan.

“The 15-minute city is not a magic wand, or a market model,” Moreno insists. “It’s a new urban narrative. It’s a way of shifting the paradigm by basing development on temporal convergence and according to economic, social and environmental priorities, to create liveable and equitable cities.” Admittedly, it doesn’t do much to address the larger, systemic drivers of the climate crisis (namely, the suicidal logic of fossil capital). Facing that hydra-headed beast will require much more than greener, friendlier conurbations.

But Moreno certainly got one thing right. Undoubtedly, a sane sustainable future is local.

This kind of thinking can spread like wildfire. So go be the spark. Get a bunch of folks together and inspire your city council to push the concept. Talk the mayor into making the 15-minute city central to their long-term urban-planning vision.

If a thousand cities take the plunge, we’ll be well on our way to winning the planetary endgame.

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