I first wrote about the 15-minute City last year for Senior Line, the Jewish Seniors' Alliance's quarterly magazine. http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.com/2023/01/the-15-minute-city.html At the time, it never occurred to me that one day citizens would be organizing protests to oppose this widely accepted planning concept. But that's what has been happening in cities around the world. When someone sent me this poster from Edmonton, I just had to write about it again. And while I was at it, I thought I would offer the true meaning of 'missing middle' and 'gentle density' before these terms generated citizens' revolts. Here's my column from today's Vancouver Sun, with thanks to you Mary Beth Roberts for helping to find space for it. I just hope it will encourage a more thoughtful discussion about planning concepts, and encourage colleagues in the development community to consider advertising in West Coast Homes now that the housing market is improving!
When my daughter and her cousin get together to discuss their work at the dinner table, I often have no idea what they are talking about. Both are doctors, and their conversations are invariably peppered with technical terms, acronyms and abbreviations that are meaningless to me.
The same is no doubt true when community planners discuss whether to ‘relax the site coverage’ or request ‘improved CPTED measures.’ CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) refers to building and landscape design features intended to reduce the fear of crime and opportunities to commit crimes.
Several new terms have been added to the planner’s lexicon in recent years. Each is attracting considerable public attention, and one even sparked a widely publicized community protest in Edmonton. Before they cause more confusion and unrest, it might be useful to examine what they mean.
‘Missing middle housing’ is one glossary addition that is often misunderstood, even by planners and politicians. For some, it is housing targeted to a socio-economic group that is too wealthy to qualify for government-subsidized ‘social housing’ but too poor to afford conventional market developments.
However, for most planners, this term refers to housing forms between conventional single-family detached housing and apartments. Examples can include duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and ‘stacked townhouses.’
These housing forms are also referred to as ‘gentle density,’ especially when proposed within established single-family neighbourhoods. The recent proposals in Vancouver and other cities in British Columbia to allow up to six homes on a single-family lot are examples of gentle density.
Allowing laneway or coach houses or the subdivision of larger houses into multiple suites are other ways to achieve this gentle density.
Another expression attracting considerable attention is ‘the 15-minute city.’
First proposed in 2016 by Carlos Moreno, an associate professor at Sorbonne University Business School in Paris, France, it refers to an urban planning concept in which most daily activities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from one’s home within 15 minutes. For some, it may include accessing these services and activities by public transit within a similar timeframe.
The 15-minute city concept gained prominence
when it was used during Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful re-election in Paris in
2020. Since then, politicians and planners worldwide have been using it to
describe the types of neighbourhoods they want to promote in their cities or
The key consideration is that the 15-minute city or neighbourhood is quite different than the auto-oriented car-dependent neighbourhoods that planners have been creating since the 1950s, where there are no corner stores, and you often must drive children to school. It may even be necessary to drive to a neighbourhood park or playground.
If you live in downtown Vancouver, Kitsilano or Kerrisdale; along Number 3 Road in Richmond or Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver; or in West Vancouver’s Dundarave Village, you already enjoy the attributes of a 15-minute neighbourhood. Indeed, most urban areas built before the overwhelming proliferation of cars have the qualities of a 15-minute city.
For most of us, this is a very desirable type of neighbourhood. This is why planners were astonished to learn of a protest in Edmonton organized by a group opposed to 15-minute cities.
Posters headlined “PROTEST AGAINST 15 MINUTE CITIES IN EDMONTON” warned residents that “Edmonton wants to start something called 15 minute cities where you can’t go to any area that is more than 15 minutes from you, limiting your movement between DISTRICTS as they called it. You will spend 90% of your life in this 15 minute area as they are monitoring your ‘carbon footprint’ aka your actual footprint. When are we protesting: Friday February 10th at 3 pm. Bring your signs and flags.”
While conspiracy theorists asserting clandestine government plans are becoming increasingly common, this had to be the most remarkable or foolish claim to arrive on my Twitter feed.
To be clear, Edmonton and other cities are not proposing that residents be confined to a certain geographic area like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, the 1967 British television series about an unnamed British intelligence agent imprisoned in a mysterious coastal village.
While many of us enjoy living in 15-minute cities or neighbourhoods, the challenge for planners and politicians is how best to transform sprawling car-oriented suburbs into more walkable and accessible ’15-minute cities’ or neighbourhoods.
Redesigned neighbourhoods will allow residents to access amenities without having to always get in their cars with the attendant negative impacts on their health and environment, not to mention pocketbooks.
One way is to revise zoning bylaws to allow more widespread mixing of shops and housing. This might include building corner stores within established single-family neighbourhoods as part of new townhouses or apartment developments.
It could also include transforming arterial streets by replacing single-family houses with mixed-use buildings offering grocery stores, pharmacies and offices with housing above.
Another approach is to add housing, libraries and even schools on the expansive parking lots surrounding older suburban shopping centres since, for many of us, the shopping centre is also our community centre.
Finally, we need to rethink our public transit system. Instead of having to walk 20 minutes to a bus stop, why not bring the bus stop to outside our homes? This is already happening with HandiDart and community shuttle routes operated by minibuses. This will no doubt become more feasible when autonomous vehicles become more commonplace.
As the expression goes, “everything old is new again.” This is particularly true when you compare how cities were designed in the past and how we want them to be designed in the future. With missing middle housing, gentle density and 15-minute cities, we may all be able to enjoy healthier lives and healthier cities. Now, this is something worthy of a community protest.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant and retired architect. He serves on the Adjunct Faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and School of Resource and Environmental Management. He writes a regular blog at gellersworldtravel.blogspot.ca and can be found on Twitter@michaelgeller