How a 15-minute city works

Is a 15-minute city the future of Burnaby?



July 27, 2021 | 6:19 pm

As Burnaby prepares to finalize its transportation plan, with a housing plan and various community plans also in the works, one of the city’s major guiding principles in long-term planning has been the 15-minute community concept.

The 15-minute community seeks to ensure that all residents have everything they need on a daily basis accessible within 15 minutes through either active transportation (walking or riding a bike, for example) or by public transit.

And according to UBC associate professor Alex Bigazzi, from the schools of civil engineering, and community and regional planning, by doing so the city is following a trend that has been gaining steam for the past few decades.

“It’s really framed around this idea of building neighbourhoods where you have regular high streets or main streets, with a grocery store and a bank and essential commercial activities dispersed enough [so that], … with the residential population, everyone’s got their neighbourhood shops and essential services that they can go to,” Bigazzi said.

“Everyone can walk down the street and access some of these businesses, [while] recognizing that some people might prefer to drive to a different business elsewhere, and there are some activities that will have to be longer trips, but trying to serve those main daily needs locally.”

The main exception to that rule would likely be employment, Bigazzi noted, because not everyone gets much choice in where they live and work.

“Residential workplace locations are much more fixed, and there’s less flexibility there. The matching of the labour supply and the residential housing supply is not always great,” he said.

But he added that particular issue is “essential” to the way of looking at things that the 15-minute city concept seeks to address—in particular, it’s the frame of mind that transportation and land use policies must be looked at together, rather than in silos.

“Land use and transportation and affordable housing policy has to be planned together,” he said. “We can’t have a well-functioning 15-minute city without having an effective affordable housing policy, allowing people some option to live to find housing relatively close to our workplaces and not have to move way out into the deep suburbs.”

This marks a shift from the city planning that has shaped cities across North America as we know it—planning that juxtaposed the downtown core against low-density residential neighbourhoods.

These policies, which were popular in the mid-20th century, isolate residential areas from industrial and commercial areas, Bigazzi said

Today, cities still reflect that outlook, with massively densified downtown cores and the vast majority of land legally bound to single-detached housing. And transportation reinforces that, with major roads leading to and from the city centre.

But over time, the script has flipped—more wealthy families no longer see suburbia as the ideal, instead opting for areas closer to the urban core. This process of gentrification has priced many working-class families out of the neighbourhoods they once called home, pushing them into the suburbs.

Bigazzi said the emphasis, now, is on integrating land uses instead of separating them.

“These ideas go back at least 40, 50 years, but I would say it got popular in the urban planning world more in the ’90s in North America,” Bigazzi said. “Portland, Oregan was a city that was a champion of this idea, and it was held up as an example of good use of this concept.”

The new model means less of a major downtown core area and more of what’s often referred to as “gentle density” or “missing middle” housing, where duplexes, row housing and even small apartments are integrated into traditionally single-family neighbourhoods.

By doing that, you can get more people into any given neighbourhood, which brings a larger customer base to any small business in those commercial areas—but without necessarily attracting the large box stories small businesses may struggle to compete with, Bigazzi said.

“When you have lower residential density, it supports businesses of a certain size, so smaller grocery stores, smaller-type businesses, and not as much of a kind of Old Spaghetti Factory, massive restaurants and a Costco or something like that. Those are more regional attractors,” he said. “It’s a different scale of businesses.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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