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Reclaiming the city centre

Reclaiming the city centre

Paris has been looking different recently. The vast Place de la Bastille, not so long ago a fume-choked island of traffic, is lined with trees. Pedestrians wander freely and cyclists career through the square along the new coronapiste – just one of the bike lanes that were introduced to make cycling across the city easier during the COVID-19 pandemic and that have now been made permanent. Elsewhere, carparks have been transformed into gardens, and mixed-use complexes have been built, complete with public housing, work studios, childcare facilities and social enterprises.

It is all part of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s vision of creating a “15-minute city”, a project that has involved creating green spaces, building 50km of cycle lanes, banning polluting vehicles and revamping seven major squares. Hidalgo has pledged another €1bn euros ($1.2bn, £916m) per year for the maintenance and beautification of streets, squares and gardens. And city leaders around the world are watching with interest.

Time not space

Developed by Carlos Moreno, a professor at University of Paris, the idea of the15-minute city requires a whole different way of thinking about urban planning. Instead of thinking about space, it’s all about time, and designing cities, streets and neighbourhoods so that people don’t spend long travelling from A to B (and then to C and on to D etc.). Instead of dividing the city into zones – retail in the city centre, industry surrounding it, residential on the outskirts and so on, it focuses on creating a patchwork of neighbourhoods where everything is within a short journey by foot, on two wheels or by public transport.

Roads are repurposed as bike lanes and pedestrian zones, parks, public squares, and building all the requisite educational, health and leisure facilities.  It’s about re-imaging the city as a place to live, work and mingle, a place where people hang out and do stuff, rather than a place you commute to.

A return to local living

The concept is not, in fact, new. At the turn of the 20th century, the American urban planner Clarence Perry posited the idea of desirable, self-contained “neighbourhood units”, with schools at the centre, “local” streets separate from busy arterial streets, and at least 10% of the area dedicated to parks and green spaces.

It was a response to the rapid industrialisation and the burgeoning of car travel that was happening in the USA, and a way to buffer people from what was then dangerously unregulated, increasingly chaotic traffic.

And even at the time, the idea was nothing new. It was a return to “local living” – the way we used to live in medieval villages and towns long before the car became king. Since then, throughout 1960s and 70s, the idea gained traction and became something of a trend. Attempts to create community-centric cities and neighbourhoods in one form or other can be seen from Shanghai to Barcelona.

However, they are still the exception rather than the norm. Neighbourhoods that have this “local” feel and this walkability are rare, and therefore desirable – and expensive. Only the well-heeled can afford to walk to work.

A sign of the times

Now, though, more and more city planning departments, are looking at the concept with renewed interest. The very purpose of the city has come into question in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with big city centre HQs left empty and retailers shuttered up – many of them permanently. Meanwhile, people who were confined to within a short radius of their homes under lockdown began to see their neighbourhoods with new eyes, and in many cases begin to appreciate the slower pace that commute-free living offered.

Not only that, but governments around the world are having to re-think everything about the way we live in order to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions that they’ve promised. As a result, developments based on the 15-minute city principle that reduce travel and prevent urban sprawl, from Detroit to Melbourne, are in the pipeline, including this one in Berlin that we are involved in.

On the whole, though, the 15-minute city is still just something to aspire to.  And there are plenty of hurdles to overcome before they become commonplace. One of the reasons for its success in Paris is that it is a dense city, and density is needed for the model to work. More people need to live in the centre rather than spread out in the suburbs beyond. There needs to be infrastructure that facilitates walking and cycling, and other “front-door” mobility schemes such as car-sharing.

And not everyone is convinced – there is still resistance to reclaiming space that has been the domain of the automobile for so long.

But the momentum is building, and there has never been a better time to re-think and re-create the city, as an accessible, walkable, liveable place for everyone, and not just those who can afford it.