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From Paris to Wales – time for 15 minute towns?

June 11th 2020

What can we learn from the 15-minute city concept that appears to be so popular in France? Helen Cunningham explores the opportunities

Image courtesy of Jeff Frenette on Unsplash

When Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, stood for re-election earlier this year, she made making Paris a “15 minute city” one of the central tenets of her platform. She stands decent chance of re-election in the second round of voting later this month.

The 15-minute city is made up of neighbourhoods where essential goods and services, and even work, are within easy reach for residents, meaning walking and cycling become the preferred mode of transport and the car is no longer king. It is about more than access to services. Its also about accessible green spaces, cleaner-air, self-sufficiency, reduced commuting times and increased well-being, cultural life and civic participation. What’s not to like?

Many elements of the idea are familiar; Copenhagen is so bike friendly it has one of the lowest car ownership rates in Europe, congestion charges are the norm for many major cities and car-free housing estate designs goes back decades.

So could it work in Wales?

Wales isn’t comparable to the French capital, and lets not pretend it is.  The population density that makes the 15-minute city a real possibility for Paris may well apply to parts of some of our cities, but it seems further out of reach for mountainous, coastal, rural and semi-rural Wales, where access to essential services is something of a normalised challenge.

Earlier this year we advocated the development of Anchor Towns, inspired partly by trying to imagine a new future for the south Wales valleys, and partly to re-balance development and grow a fairer economy. We envisage towns with growth potential that have a sizeable population within 15 minutes travel by public transport, and are home to key institutions, diverse consumer and business services and core public services, with strong local transport networks. Intrinsic to anchor towns are their ability to benefit the communities around them and to unleash their full potential. We see them as having real scope for development across Wales.

Many of the ideas behind the 15-minute city and Anchor towns, are distinctly in keeping with things that already have widespread support in Wales. A Well-being of Future Generations Act could easily have been the driving force behind the 15-minute city, as could the Active Travel Act. The foundational economy, both supported and promoted by the Welsh Government, puts the essentials of life including foundational livability, firmly on the public policy agenda.

Now or never

Lockdown has generated reflections about what kind of lives we want to live “post-lockdown”. Commuters in Wales have some of the highest commute times, but with a boom in home working for those that can, many employers concede that when the virus retreats, home working is likely to remain a feature of the workplace. It has given rise to predictions that what is considered a “sought after” location in the property market could also changing as people realise home – wherever it is – can be their main workplace.

The 15-minute idea is about more than creating a better way of living. With dangerously high air pollution levels in some parts of Wales and the serious health implications that go with them, having a carbon footprint that requires less than three earths to service it is imperative for a serious response to climate change.

The Welsh Government has also spotted the opportunity,  challenging councils to give more of the public realm over to sustainable and active travel. Why not build on that with 15-minute foundational livability? With our localities being newly appreciated, nature, green and public spaces taking on new relevance in our daily dose of exercise, there is scope. The opportunity is there, and very likely the support too.

Helen Cunningham is Project Officer working on a project exploring how to build economic resilience in the south Wales valleys. Find her on twitter on @cunninghamhel

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