The allure and challenges of the 15-minute neighborhood

This essay was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Ottawa Magazine as part of a series on neighborhood planning entitled “15 Minutes to the Future”. Find more items in this pack here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made our personal world shrink. Most of us stopped commuting; houses became offices. Restaurants and gyms closed and we went to our neighborhoods for distraction and exercise. Along the way we discovered what was within reach. Unknowingly, many of us entered the 15-minute neighborhood, a concept the city recently adopted to help guide development through 2046.

Essentially, the concept suggests that individuals’ basic needs should be within a 15-minute walk (or 1,200 meters) of their home. Think shops, schools and nurseries, amenities (think libraries and greenery) plus public transport so you can easily get to things outside your 1,200-meter walk, such as medical specialists or friends.

It’s an ideal long promoted by city planners such as Jane Jacobs and proponents of new urbanism, but with the urgent need to reduce our carbon footprint – including relying less on personal vehicles – this new incarnation is spreading worldwide. The 15-minute Paris city map has resulted in many new cycle paths, 70 percent of street parking has been diverted, more co-working hubs, parkettes in schoolyards and more. About 100 of the world’s largest cities, from Barcelona to Shanghai to Portland, are taking similar steps.

Lim adds that more space leads to a sedentary lifestyle. “We want to promote a pedestrian way of life, which often means less living space as there is no need to store large amounts of belongings and residents want to spend time outdoors rather than staying at home.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

In Ottawa, the 15-minute concept will help the city meet two challenges: a growing population and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent by 2040 to meet the city’s goals. Ottawa’s population is expected to increase by 40 percent – an additional 402,000 people – by 2046. The new official plan accommodates this growth primarily through more urban housing, rather than continued sprawl in the suburbs. This means fewer new roads, but if it’s going to work, the city will have to invest in parks, sidewalks, bike paths, rapid transit and all the other parts of 15-minute neighborhoods that make it easier for residents to be less dependent on their cars. This is vital, as 40 percent of urban greenhouse gas emissions are transport-related.

The 15-minute plan does look positive from an environmental perspective, said Angela Keller-Herzog, the executive director of the Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES), a network of 49 organizations. “At first glance, we are told that we are going to develop into a walkable, livable, healthy city where not everyone needs to have a double garage, but who do have to unpack.”

That process brings challenges to light. Ottawa developed in quintessential 20th-century North American fashion: homes miles from businesses and amenities, with personal vehicles essential. Over the past two years, city planners have mapped and scored neighborhoods based on service and amenity availability and walkability. Not surprisingly, most older neighborhoods rank highest, such as the Glebe, ByWard Market, Centertown, and Hintonburg; these areas developed in grid patterns, next to a main street, before the car was king. However, only about 20 percent of Ottawans live in neighborhoods with many amenities. Sixty percent of new homes will be built in existing communities, as well as incremental infill in urban areas, such as Alta Vista and Britannia, around some new LRT stations and along main street corridors. The remaining 40 percent will mainly be new construction in lots adjacent to suburbia.

Overall, the new official plan aims to improve or develop 15-minute neighborhoods everywhere (excluding the greenbelt and rural areas outside villages), says city planner David Maloney. In sprawling suburbs like Kanata and Orleans, the ideal of 15 minutes is still a long way off. The original aim is to make them more walkable by building walkways from residential streets to existing facilities, improving pedestrian and bicycle routes, and through repurposing.

But how do you attract services and amenities to create a high street?

According to Maloney, the city has a limited role. “We can’t force a retailer to open a business to respond to a gap we identified… Over time, there will be the services and amenities.”

Simmonds continues: “In traditional cities, that was part of life. You feel you are part of the community – you feel connected and grounded. The idea that you could be completely car-free – it’s neat. But in the suburbs it is a huge challenge.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

However, that possibility depends on the housing density. It’s a Catch 22. Implementing the 15-minute concept in the suburbs is “not impossible, but not practical,” says local architect and urban planner Toon Dreessen. “With a 15 minute walk you don’t get out of a number of large parking lots.” For this reason, he says, the 15-minute walk concept doesn’t work perfectly across the city. Making a city livable can mean different things in different parts of the city – outside the core, for example, it might make more sense to expand the park-and-ride options.

While the 15-minute concept may not be immediately applicable, citywide transportation, with its environmental benefits, could be. With our LRT system having issues, including a public inquiry, and residents of Ottawa paying the fourth-highest adult rate in Canada, the city has some transit work to do.

“If we take the 15-minute concept seriously, we need more frequent, reliable, accessible and affordable public transportation,” says Keller-Herzog. The official plan outlines improvements in transit frequency and capacity, all with a view to meeting the goal of making the majority of journeys via sustainable transport – walking, cycling, public transport or carpooling – by 2046.

A third overarching problem concerns the availability of affordable housing. Fifteen minute neighborhoods are desirable neighborhoods – as more amenities come into an area, house prices rise and there is a very real danger of gentrification. Orlando, Florida, saw the value of adjacent properties rise 80 percent after the construction of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and bike paths. Closer to home, Hintonburg is an example of this: In 2000, the average home sold for about $119,000; last year it was $807,000.

Hobin says we need to create a vision for the future and suggests that government agency properties offer Canada Lands unique opportunities. “The biggest challenge would be to introduce small-scale retail and diversity of uses other than housing.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

Proponents of spatial planning and the city agree that access to a mix of housing is essential. One way is to ensure affordable units are preserved as density increases, says Keller-Herzog, whose organization is one of many in the People’s Official Plan, a group that advocates for climate and social justice issues. She suggests developers should also make a certain percentage of units in new buildings affordable.

Dreessen notes that politicians can support affordable housing by building building heights — when they vote to reduce allowable heights, as they did on Parkdale Avenue between Scott Street and the Queensway, they could limit affordability. Fewer units usually means higher cost per unit. With 10,000 people already waiting for social housing, there are many details, small and large, to cope with the implementation of the 15-minute proposal.

Hill says the key element in this area is a facade that shows that the space is a transitional space – “you walk by and you can imagine people enjoying a porch or talking on a balcony.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

Challenges are everywhere: not only in the suburbs and inner-city areas, where residents are concerned about redevelopment proposals, but also in areas that are close to or just in line with the 15-minute description. For example, Centertown’s tree canopy covers 16 percent of this area, compared to the city average of 34 percent. In the Glebe, shrinking households can lead to business closures and declining school enrollment.

“There’s always room for improvement,” says Maloney. The 1032-page official plan provides broad outlines, but many details are in 13 other city documents on topics ranging from urban forestry to transportation, as well as area-specific plans and new green standards, city park strategy and comprehensive zoning statutes.

“There are many layers,” Herzog-Keller says. “It’s complicated. We need interest groups that try to keep the city a little fair.” The industry also has specific interests. But the depth of complexity makes it difficult for individuals or associations to keep up with everything. She argues for a joint approach, a co-creation of these districts. “No one wants to spend their time as a volunteer on combat We prefer to work together to achieve goals.”

But Dreessen wonders if the city will do anything about the community’s input. “There was a lot of engagement on Elgin Street and then the city did what it wanted.” Ditto for the protests and deputations surrounding the felling of hundreds of mature trees for parking at the new Civic Hospital, he says. Engagement and consultation should make sense, but right now it seems like the public isn’t being heard, he says.

Maloney says the city will remain inclusive. During Planning, the public consultation included a public meeting with 300 attendees and 4,000 respondents.

“A lot of stakeholders in the city and beyond need to work together to realize some of these areas and make them more aligned with the concept of the 15-minute neighborhood,” says Maloney. Secondary plans, which assess what is missing and how to get it, involve many stakeholders. “We have had positive reactions to the 15-minute neighbourhood. People agree with the goals and objectives. It’s one thing that can unite us.” The endgame, according to the official plan, is to make Ottawa the most livable medium-sized city in North America. “The best way to do that is by looking at the parts of the 15 -minute neighborhood.”

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