What if you lived in a neighborhood that was designed so every one of your daily needs — jobs, stores, cafes, libraries, parks, public transit — was within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from your home? You’d be healthier because of all that exercise. You’d be safer, with fewer cars rushing through the roads on their way to someplace else. You’d be happier because you’d know your neighbors and be more engaged in community gatherings. You’d even be richer without so much driving, since the cost of owning a car is about $9,000 a year.
This is the promise of the so-called 15-minute neighborhood or 15-minute city, a vision of urban planners that began in Paris and is now on drafting tables from Barcelona to Bogota. It’s a beautiful, even utopian idea, easy to dismiss as a boutique fancy unattainable in a car-centric society such as ours.
But now The Boston Foundation has issued a practical guide outlining the policy changes this region would need in order to realize the dream of 15-minute neighborhoods. Prepared with the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data, and others, the report moves the needle from blue-sky thinking to a blueprint for action.
Most of the suggested steps are unsexy zoning changes: making it easier to mix residential and commercial uses; building denser housing around transit stops; lifting minimum parking requirements (which drive up the cost of housing as well as gobbling up public space). Many shift the focus from parochial control to broader regional standards. “We think the state needs to take more of a role,” said Luc Schuster, the report’s coauthor. “We can’t keep going into these one-off, town-by-town fights” over every zoning change.
In January, Governor Charlie Baker signed an economic development bill that takes some important first steps. The new law requires every community within a half-mile of a commuter rail station to create at least one district “of reasonable size” for multifamily housing. It lowers the threshold to approve zoning changes from a two-thirds vote of town governments to a simple majority. And it dedicates funds to encourage small-business development and neighborhood entrepreneurs, especially women and people of color.
For Lee Pelton, the new president and CEO of The Boston Foundation, the 15-minute neighborhood is a way to redress the damage from years of exclusionary zoning policies, especially in the suburbs, which enforce racial segregation and widen the wealth gap by making homeownership unaffordable. “The importance of these neighborhoods is not [just] in their convenience,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s in their opportunity to create more equitable communities.”
In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo was inspired to redesign housing and mobility patterns by the imperatives of climate change. She created hundreds of miles of bike lanes through the city, turned a highway along the Seine into a pedestrian pathway full of quayside cafes, and converted 185 public school buildings into seven-day community centers to encourage local gatherings. The plan has had its glitches, but it’s popular enough that Hidalgo is using it to launch a campaign for president of France.
Perhaps because of its association with Paris, the 15-minute city concept carries a whiff of elitism — or at least of croissants. But it’s actually older, industrial “gateway” cities that are best positioned to develop such neighborhoods. These are places that once practiced 15-minute principles as a matter of course: dense, multifamily housing, mixed commercial and residential uses, apartments above stores.
The 15-minute lifestyle is so attractive that these districts can run the risk of gentrification. The report points to Jackson Square in Roxbury as one area where high demand is making the neighborhood more expensive — and whiter. Schuster says the way to avoid creating “15-minute islands of privilege” is to make sure more towns do their fair share to build desirable communities for a range of families and incomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated new ways of thinking about the role of neighborhoods and public space; repurposing streets for outdoor dining is just one example. The pandemic has also caused many people to rethink the pace of their lives, to pause for the small pleasures, to value spending more time closer to home (say, within 15 minutes). These are not just personal choices but matters of public policy, made easier or harder through intentional design. The Boston Foundation report can help make sure these expansive new ideas outlast the pandemic.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.