The UK lockdown emptied roads of cars and the sky of planes. People immediately welcomed quieter streets, cleaner air and safer cycling. The change was stark with Oxford Street in London recording a 47% drop in NOx emissions. But as the lockdown eases, and with people reluctant to risk public transport, will these positive changes be reversed?  Indications from cities around the world suggest that the likelihood is high, so what can be done to retain these benefits? 

One idea gaining increased interest is the concept of the ‘15 Minute City’ based on the idea that people can have access to most of their daily requirements by not having to travel for more than 15 minutes by walk or cycle. Has the time come?  The latest Hubbub Explores workshop suggests that it has a fighting chance for six reasons.

1. There is growing global interest in the idea

The concept is starting to take hold globally with Melbourne, Ottawa, Detroit and Paris just a few of the cities looking to reduce their carbon footprint and increase the quality of life by using the concept to transform urban centres.

These cities are looking at the idea of ‘hyper-proximity’, working on the belief that if our needs are met closer to home, we will be happier, more willing to protect our communities and able to form better relationships.

The ambition of these cities is to ensure that jobs and services are available to people within a short distance, therefore reducing pollution from car use, decreasing the time it takes to commute and freeing up time for more leisure and community-based activities.

 2. Working practices will improve

Key to the transformation will be for office-based companies to move away from large central offices, and instead have a more distributed workforce. A survey undertaken jointly by Hubbub and the Behavioural Insights Team suggests that this will happen as a result of COVID-19. Many companies have realised that they can operate with employees working from home, that the majority of their employees welcome the change and that it has helped enhance productivity.

The interim survey results reveal that over 80% of companies intend to retain working from home as an option to enhance work-life balance and because they believe it will become increasingly important for employee retention and recruitment.

68% of businesses surveyed so far indicated that they plan to reduce office space. This suggests that, in the short-term at least, there will be fewer people commuting into city centres and business parks. Instead, more people will be dispersed across different locations and will be seeking each of these areas to provide them with everyday services.

3. Cities are already starting to enhance cycling and walking infrastructure

With 50% less traffic on the roads and the desire to avoid public transport, cycling has been booming. Bike sales have doubled, and Manchester reported a 22% increase in the number of people cycling compared to pre-lockdown.

City administrations are seeking to ensure that this change sticks by making it safer to walk and cycle. For example, the Mayor of London and Transport for London have announced plans to transform areas of central London into ‘one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world’.

4. Supporting local shops

Whilst the impact of COVID-19 has seen a surge in online shopping, a third of people have also said that they are using local stores for the first time. The vast majority say they will continue to support smaller independent retailers, as they want to make fewer journeys and stay closer to home. Polling from Hubbub suggests that this has changed the way that people feel about their local area, with over 63% saying they have changed how they engage with their neighbours and local community. 

This indicates that there is a public desire for the ‘15 Minute City’ concept and a strong opportunity for planners to rebuild local High Streets.

5. Promoting an e-scooter revolution

COVID-19 has forced governments to consider what options exist for helping people travel without reverting to cars. Sales of electric bikes were already steadily increasing and soon we could see a growth in e-scooters. The Department of Transport is allowing local authorities to run e-scooter sharing schemes in their areas for a 12 month trial period.  These new forms of transport could further encourage a move towards more localisation of services.

6. There is a strong desire for clean air

The impact of lockdown was immediately apparent on air quality, demonstrating what happens if you remove fossil fuel vehicles from towns and cities. This had significant health benefits for those with breathing difficulties. Retaining these benefits will be essential to better help people survive COVID-19 and for the general well-being of the population.  Local authorities are actively exploring how to avoid a return to ‘business as normal’ and this is further driving interest in the ‘15 Minute City’ concept. 

Transforming the way our urban centres operate and are designed will take time, but there is a growing realisation that the impact of COVID-19, coupled with developments in technology, gives an opportunity to create centres that are less polluted and better designed for people. Could the ‘15 Minute City’ be the city of the future?

Join the conversation

Hubbub is running a series of virtual workshops with organisations, discussing a sustainable society post-Covid. Based on the discussions so far, we’ve created a ‘Greenprint’ setting out recommendations for a rebuild that is just and sustainable.  This Greenprint will be shared with interested organisations and taken to central government with policy recommendations.

Read Hubbub's Greenprint

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