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The concept of “15 minute cities” should be prominent in the upcoming Toronto mayoral election.
It probably won’t be, alas. The upcoming campaign will be dominated by issues of crime, budget overruns, affordable housing and traffic congestion — concerns that are longstanding enough that many voters will listen.
A 15-minute drive, where most of what you need and enjoy is close at hand, offers a comprehensive solution to those same problems.
Although the 15-minute community difference has been used for centuries, from aboriginal towns to 20th century communities, the concept has a refreshing newness and vigor.
Last year, the UN co-sponsored five 15-minute urban pilot projects. Global consulting firm Deloitte has identified these agglomerated cities as one of the defining trends in urban life around the world.
A lot of jargon is thrown around by city planners in their 15 minute city proposals. That would make this concept look down or appear to be a threat to personal freedom, which it is not.
Instead, it frees people from fearing for their own and their children’s safety, from air and noise pollution, and from painful commutes to work, shopping and recreation.
In a nutshell, here’s what the 15-minute model could mean for Toronto.
Our city will be a collection of private neighborhoods with quick and easy access to schools, medical facilities, childcare centers, a wide variety of shops, and many parks, trails and playgrounds.
There will be a mix of local workplaces, including office buildings and private industries. There can be a variety of housing types to address issues of accessibility, social cohesion and inclusion.
In many ways, this concept represents a return to a traditional way of life, where city dwellers can walk to work, school, shops and the cinema. No more long commutes to Yorkdale or the suburban octoplex.
Local roads within a 15-minute radius will be impassable, creating airless residential areas and noise from vehicles.
Adequate parking space will also be provided in the immediate vicinity, steps from home and work.
The 15 minute concept puts cars in their place but doesn’t match the car. It is not intended to stop people from driving but to make it unnecessary to do so.
Carlos Moreno is a Franco-Colombian urban planner at the Sorbonne University Business School who was praised for coining the term “city of 15 minutes” in 2016. He has a gift for explaining ideas in simple language.
He says: “Neighborhoods should be built in such a way that we can live, work and succeed in them. without always being on the road somewhere else.”
The urgent need for this type of comprehensive progress includes many diverse cities that embrace the diversity of the 15-minute concept.
They include Ottawa, Edmonton, Paris, Melbourne, Barcelona, Oxford, England, Ghent, Belgium and Portland, Ore.
Ottawa wants to reduce “dependence on cars and enable people to live without traffic lights or cars.”
Oxford aims to halve road deaths by 2030 by diverting traffic from congested inner city roads to outer roads.
And Barcelona is planning car-free “superblocks”, turning major intersections into open plazas.
Everyone knows that deaths on Toronto’s streets have increased in recent years. Those tragedies can’t just happen on roads without cars.
The growing interest in 15-minute cities stems in part from this epidemic. Foreclosures and WFH (work from home) trends have spurred renewed interest in neighborhoods.
The 15-minute location is also emerging as a competitive advantage for host cities. Quality of life is a major determinant of where people choose to live.
Paris is probably the best of the cities 15 minutes. In recent years it has closed parking roads along the Seine border to cars, added hundreds of kilometers of new cycle paths and built small local parks.
And it’s still coming. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo won re-election in 2020 on a promise to build cities that last 15 minutes.
Some voices on the right demonize 15-minute cities as Big Brother’s latest attempt to control people’s lives.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Developing this model is a collaborative effort between citizens and community leaders. What the model prioritizes varies from city to city.
In all cases, neighborhood residents design their communities as they choose.
They may request that it be returned to the local police (a police officer). They may want their parks redesigned to reflect the area’s lost history.
They may seek out local water jet parks for relief from the sweltering heat, rather than retreating downtown to the one in Dundas Square.
Given what’s at stake, the ideal location for safer, more private and more enjoyable neighborhoods should be discussed in this mayoral campaign.
And one day it will be. After all, Toronto has long prided itself on being both a “working city” and a “neighborhood city.”
Those qualities reinforce each other, of course. But you have to ask, are they still accurate in describing our city?
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