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Designing Urban Life


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Diario de Navarra

David Thunder |

researcher principal of the project RESPUBLICA of the Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra.

The idea of the "15-minute city" seems to be gaining ground, with several prototypes of self-sufficient, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods being proposed in places such as Melbourne, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and Oxford. In theory, it means that a city or town is made up of neighborhoods structured in such a way that the most important services and stores are within a 15- to 20-minute walk or bike ride of the house. But, as the saying goes, "the devil is in the details".

Here is a description of the "15-minute city" implemented or planned for Barcelona:

"The Spanish city of Barcelona has been experimenting with so-called Superilles or super districts. The concept takes several housing blocks and places them in a superblock. Only residents or services from submission have access with cars and the maximum speed limit is 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour. Many streets are blocked to cars and are instead used in a variety of ways. The former parking lots have been given over to trees, orchards and flowers, and are now places where children can play and people can spend time on benches in the shade."

The merits of this subject experiment depend on exactly how it is implemented. For example, what level of public enquiry is contemplated? How much disruption is involved for local businesses, and how are these disruptions compensated for in a sustainable way? Perhaps residents are delighted by the "15-minute city" plan, and city officials carefully weigh the needs of residents. But in light of the history of urban planning, which includes quite anti-democratic approaches to governance (just think of the tiny U.S. city planning movement of the 1950s and 1960s), and recently, drastic local and national quarantines throughout much of the West, we have good reason to fear that these plans would be imposed with minimal participation on the part of the very citizens whose neighborhoods are being reorganized.

The social engineer sees his role as guiding citizens toward a more enlightened way of life. According to him, it is the "experts," those intelligent people who understand the needs of communities better than they themselves do, who should think about the best way to organize city life.

Now, one might think that the people who really make the city what it is, the citizens themselves, might have something valuable to contribute to the governance of their own common life. You might even think that citizens have the right to consent to any major transformation of their way of life. But social engineers are too enamored of their own intelligence and "innovation" to consider the essential role citizens should play in shaping and approving the city planning process.

He who undertakes city planning from an armchair position without a serious research of the existing needs and preferences of citizens, or with a survey disposable at best, can generate many ideas that he and his cronies consider wonderful, such as roadblocks and very complicated traffic rules to reduce traffic, strict and ruthless carbon emissions targets, 24-hour video surveillance cameras, ubiquitous speed controls, and "15-minute cities" (however you understand that concept), only to find that it has succeeded in eliminating valuable traffic that businesses depended on, made travel and socializing difficult or impossible for some citizens, and provoked deep distrust and resentment among a large portion of the citizenry.

So what is the alternative to a top-down technocratic approach for urban planning? For example, what would a democratically minded urban planner think about the notion of a "15-minute city"? It's not always clear exactly what a "15-minute city" means, but let's assume it means the aspiration to have amenities, whether cultural, recreational, commercial or educational, all in the same neighborhood, encouraging citizens to hang out in that neighborhood and spend more time walking and less time in the car. Is there a democratic, participatory way to promote such an ideal?

Of course there is. For example, authorities could encourage or attract investment in new services in the neighborhood, helping to create a sports center, a cultural café or a more vibrant city center. If they want to reduce traffic or reclaim green space, they should conduct a comprehensive enquiry with citizens and representatives of key stakeholders, so that all relevant issues and tangible harms are adequately addressed before any project is given the green light.

With this subject of consensual measures, it becomes more attractive for citizens to spend time in their neighborhood and more attractive for non-locals to visit. In this way, there would be no need to resort to threats and intimidation to persuade citizens to accept the promotion, within acceptable limits, of the "15-minute city."