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At the beginning of February 2020, Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris put urban planning at the heart of her successful reelection campaign. Specifically, she said that she wanted to create self-sufficient communities, where all people could access services, retail, and recreational facilities locally. Known as the “ville du quart d’heure”—translated as 15-minute city—the concept was not new, but it was the first time that a leading politician in France’s largest city had backed the idea, particularly as a re-election strategy.

The purpose of the policy is to create more integrated neighborhoods and to promote equality of access—not just to essential services, but also to all those things that make urban life so attractive. It is also about reducing vehicle movements and therefore carbon emissions in a city that has become notorious for its traffic pollution—if you can access everything you need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride, there is less need to get in or even own a car.

An advocate for the 15-minute city concept is Sorbonne University professor Carlos Moreno, who advises the mayor’s office. At the time of the Paris launch, he said: “We need to reinvent the idea of urban proximity. We know it is better for people to work near to where they live, and if they can go shopping nearby and have the leisure and services they need around them, too, it allows them to have a more tranquil existence.”

He added: “Work is more problematic because people’s jobs are often some way from their homes, but we must rethink this, too. Today, our approach to work is the same as it has been for the last 50 years. Is it always necessary to show up somewhere, to be physically present in front of the boss? It is possible to do things differently.”

Marion Waller, adviser to the mayor of Paris, spoke at the 2021 ULI Virtual Conference. Waller said that for the policy to work, Paris would need to become even more dense than it already is. “In Paris, we already have a high level of density and services, but we believe that we can go really further with this concept of the 15-minute city,” she said.

“What we’re trying to do is to change our city at the level of every street and every public service. For example, in the street we look at every existing space. If you take just one parking lot, what could you do there? And, in fact, the possibilities that we have are huge,” Waller said. “If we transform half of outside parking spaces in Paris, on those spaces we can install spaces for children to play, plants and flowers, spaces for citizens to share, to develop projects as a neighborhood.”

Waller emphasized that the idea is primarily about making better use of existing spaces, rather than building new ones. “It’s really about using space and using existing buildings differently,” she said. “We try to use our public [amenities] and, in particular, schools differently, so that schools and schoolyards are also used also weekends and during the evening. It’s about making better time-use of all those [amenities], and our ambition is really to make every school what we call the capital of the neighborhood because we really think that schools can be central spaces for citizenship.”

However, the strategy also acknowledges the importance of access to green spaces, and Waller said that the mayor is dedicated to increasing the provision of green infrastructure. “It’s also about density in green spaces that we need so that everyone can have access to a bakery in three minutes, but also to a green space in three minutes,” she said.

“And that’s what we try to do by developing a very fine network of green spaces in the cities. We have some big parks, but we also need the proximity, green spaces in every square, green streets . . . we need to take this opportunity.”

Hala El Akl, director at PLP Architecture and moderator of the session, asked Waller whether the 15-minute city concept might not end up making communities more isolated. Waller acknowledged the point, but she said the idea was not about erecting barriers between neighborhoods.

“When you decide to live in a big city, it is because you will be able to access a lot of different neighborhoods and lots of different jobs,” she said. “The 15-minute city is more a promise that at all social levels you will have access to services. It’s really a concept that is about social equalities, meaning that if you’re in the center of Paris or in a suburb of Paris, you need to have the same level of access to services.”

What’s more, Waller said, the 15-minute city policy needed to be understood in the context of other ongoing initiatives, not least the Grand Paris Express, a group of new rapid transit lines being built in the Île-de-France region that aim to provide better transport connections to outlying districts. The project comprises four new lines, plus extensions of two existing lines. A total of 200 kilometers (124 miles) of new track and 68 new stations are to be added, serving a projected 2 million passengers a day.

“You need to have quick access to the center, even if you live in a remote place,” Waller said. “And of course, in Greater Paris, we have this huge project and that will help people living in the region to have quicker access to the different job spaces and to have an easier life. So yes, we always need to have that in mind so that it’s not everyone just staying in his or her arrondissement.”

The work in Paris also builds on concepts such as Barcelona’s super blocks, where residential areas gave up on street parking and other space for cars to increase pedestrian and green space, and other innovative cities around the globe.

The full session is available to view for registrants to the 2021 ULI Virtual Europe Conference. Alternatively, you can still register for the conference in order to view all sessions.