Just what are 15-minute cities and what does it mean for planning, community engagement, housing, and mobility? Dan Reed of Toole Design Group shares their perspective on what we’re missing when we distill complex planning issues into pithy concepts like 15-minute cities.
Episode 137: Old Wine in New Bottles
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Schultz: Ashley Schultz
Reed: Dan Reed
F: Female Speaker
Cohen: We’re trying something new today on The Movement podcast. First, we have a special guest cohost, my TransLoc colleague Ashley Schultz, and second, we’re going deep into one topic, 15-minute cities with Dan Reed of Toole Design Group. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Before we introduce today’s guest, I want to introduce you to a special guest cohost. As you may recall, about a month or so ago, we lost our cohost, L’erin Jensen, and I thought it would be fun to invite some of my other TransLoc colleagues on occasionally as guest hosts. And so first up is TransLoc’s manager of project implementations, Ashley Schultz. Welcome, Ashley.
Schultz: Thanks, Josh.
Cohen: Before we bring our guest on, just maybe introduce yourself, the work you’re doing at TransLoc, and how you ended up here.
Schultz: I’m fairly new to TransLoc, our new project—a manager of project implementations, and I manage that implementations team that really, you know, helps take our clients’ visions for mobility to a reality by implementing their projects that they purchase from us.
And before I came to TransLoc, I spent some time with GoTriangle doing community engagement for bus service as well as major transit investments. And I also worked for a consulting firm that did transportation planning called Toole Design, which is how I met Dan.
Cohen: All right. And so let’s bring Dan Reed on. So, Ashley—you know, when Ashley and I were talking, you know, she mentioned you, Dan, as a potential guest, and I had had you on my list to invite on the show because I saw you speak at Rail~Volution a couple years ago. So Dan is an urban planner, an architect, a writer who works with communities to design streets, public spaces, and transportation networks. And we had Dan’s colleague Bill Schultheiss on Episode 056. So welcome to The Movement, Dan.
Reed: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I should note that I am not an architect. My background is in architecture—not licensed.
Cohen: Not licensed. Okay, all right. Well, thank you for clarifying that. All right. So, background in architecture, no licensed. Subtle difference. Obviously, a really important difference—[LAUGHTER]—if you are doing plans.
Schultz: Still an absolute genius though—[LAUGHS]—is what Dan is.
Cohen: Still an absolute genius. So y’all worked together at Toole. And, you know, when we were kind of thinking about potential topics that we wanted to talk about, one of the things that we were thinking about was this kind of topic du jour that we kind of hear quite a bit now, which is this concept of 15-minute cities. Just as a kind of layer of context here for those who aren’t as familiar, Carlos Moreno of Panthéon-Sorbonne University talked about kind of four characteristics of 15-minute cities. So one is proximity, things should be close; two is diversity, kind of land uses being several different types of land uses, with a variety of amenities; three is density, so enough people to support that diversity of land use and amenities; and then finally, ubiquity, so kind of common throughout a region so that they’re available and affordable to anyone who wants to live in one.
So, I want to maybe start there with some context there, and then maybe like ask y’all, from your perspective as background working in the field, what do you generally think about 15-minute cities in this concept?
Reed: Well, I think it’s a great idea, and I think it’s something that people, you know, increasingly desire. Right? They want to be close to all of the things they need in their lives. But I worry that sometimes we take it too literally, that the idea of the 15-minute city says that everyone or every neighborhood has to be like this, and that there is this, like, very specific threshold, like if it—if the grocery store is 16 minutes away, then it fails.
I think it is a way to think about how you should plan land use and housing and your transportation network, based on the idea that things should be close to where people live, so they can get to them. And whether it takes 14 minutes or 17 minutes or not, like the idea is that, you know, we shouldn’t have food deserts, for example. Right? A 15-minute city is one where people have access to fresh food and groceries.
Cohen: For sure. This is like one of those things where the description is kind of pithy—right—15-minute city, but reality, 14 minutes versus 17 minutes, obviously doesn’t really matter. Right?
Reed: Right. Like, it’s a way to think about how—you know, what you should base a community on. Right? I think a lot of American cities and regions have been predicated on this idea that, well, if we just build more roads and highways, everything will be close to somebody. A short—it should be, I should say, everything will be a short trip away because you can go there very fast; so it doesn’t necessarily matter where you live or what’s around where you live because you can leave it very quickly. And this is sort of the opposite of that, which is that, you know, perhaps regardless of your ability, if either you afford a car or not, or you can’t drive a car, that you should still be able to reach things close to you.
Schultz: Yeah. Dan, I’m curious how you feel about this, too, because when I was with Toole, I worked on some projects where, you know, 15-minute cities would come up and people would be really excited about it, really interested in it, and they would kind of attach it to the vision of the project, without really diving into, “Okay, what does this mean, who’s at the table, what are the decisions being made, how are we integrating this into, you know, other realms beyond transportation?” Because, yes, like, a 15-minute city is, like, the idea is evolving—involving a lot of transportation concepts. But that also, you know, has huge implications for housing and development and what grocery stores are going to be in what areas, like you just mentioned with food deserts. So it feels like it’s a much more nuanced thing than people are really talking about it in planning.
Reed: Yeah. I mean, I value public input, but I don’t know that we need everyone’s approval to say that stuff should be close to where you live. Right? But the decisions that flow forth from that might be opportunities to consult a community, like, “What specifically do you need in this place?” Right? “What are the things you want within 15 minutes?” Because people may have very different answers. Right? When you look for a house, some folks might say, “I really prioritize being close to my local bar,” and everything else, you know, can sort of go from there. Others might say, “I really need to be close to work.” Others might say, “I really want to be close to a park or my child’s school.” So, you know, within the concept of a 15-minute city are, like, at least one thing that you might want to be next to your house.
Cohen: A couple things kind of jumped out of that. So thinking back to your point before, Dan, the kind of way that the U.S. at least has been built over the last 50 years, predominately, has been around this concept of within 15 or 30 minutes of driving anywhere, you can get to your school, your grocery store, or your whatever. I think this concept, you know, kind of from a philosophical standpoint is trying to get at—and something you just touched on—is, well, can we make that a reality for those who don’t want to do that and who want to live in an environment where they don’t have to get in a car to get somewhere within 15 minutes or 30 minutes to do all of those various activities?
Reed: Absolutely. And it even goes beyond that to, like, people who might be okay driving, you know, longer distances to things—right—because then it comes into the issue of—and I think you said before—like ubiquity—right—or having multiple choices.
When I was in college, I did a service project in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and I remember meeting this family who lived in a suburban part of the region. And, you know, it was a very car-oriented place, but, because of Hurricane Katrina and the damage in the community and there were so many other communities where they lived, the nearest grocery store was 45 minutes away now, by car. And somebody said, “You know, we can’t buy ice cream anymore. We can’t buy anything that might spoil in the car coming home.”
And to them, you know, a 15-minute city means you might have had the option of another grocery store near you in your neighborhood or the next neighborhood over, that there is—what’s the word I’m thinking of—redundancy; so that, you know, were there to be some kind of cataclysm in your community, that you are still able to access the things that you need in your life without having to travel a really long distance.
Cohen: So, Ashley, what that makes me think of is, like, the development patterns, which I think kind of speaks to some of the land use you were talking about before. Right? So in some of these more suburban neighborhoods that are more cul-de-sac’d and less grid-like, you don’t have that redundancy that Dan just talked about. Right? You’re kind of—you have one way in and one way out. Right?
Schultz: Yeah, exactly.
Cohen: I think that’s the piece here that I think, if we’re going to create this—and I think that, to me, is kind of an area I want to dig in with y’all, is how can we layer some of these concepts in if you’re not building something from scratch? Right? So how do you layer these concepts in if you already have these communities that are already built that are single use, they don’t have some of this diversity, they don’t have some of this density?
Reed: Yeah, that’s, I think, something that a lot of places in this country are starting to really take seriously. In the county I live, which is called Montgomery County, Maryland—it’s just outside of Washington, D.C.—there is a county-wide, like, master plan that is being worked on now called Thrive, and 15-minute cities are actually a core part of it—right—the idea that we’re going to provide more stuff close to where people live. And the way that this plan suggests doing that is, like, on, like, these major suburban arterials, where today in some cases it might be strip shopping centers and very car-oriented, you know, commercial uses, in other cases, it might just be houses. Right?
Focusing on the areas within, like, a quarter mile of those corridors to encourage more intensive development, whether it’s mixed-use development—you know, apartments over a shop—it’s a higher density of development; you know, it’s pulling businesses closer to the street, so you could walk to them, so that just, you know, a few blocks away from the big road, you still have the sort of conventional suburban environment that a lot of people still want and need or desire. But now you will have, within a very easy reach of you, the chance to go to a grocery store or have your dentist or daycare—or whatever thing that you need is now just a little bit closer to where you were before.
And this is like what I was saying before, like, literal. Right? Like, the use of 15-minute cities in this context isn’t saying that everyone is going to literally be a 15-minute walk from their thing, because it’s—this is a 500-square-mile community, like, it is not going to happen that way. But it could be the difference between having a 20-minute drive to the thing that you want versus a 5- or 10-minute drive, if you need to do in a car, or if you’re able to, to ride a bike there or to walk, you know, to give people choices, which I think is, again, core to this idea of the 15-minute city.
Cohen: Yeah, for sure. So, let’s talk a little bit about criticism I’ve read of this recently, is that the context here was that folks were talking about corner stores and the value of a corner store in their neighborhood. Right? And so certainly in more dense urban environments, that’s something that’s a little bit more common.
And one of the criticisms was, like, the market is saying that they want delivery. Right? And how does that kind of square with this concept of this corner store? So what do you think about—I’m curious, Ashley, what you think about that, from your perspective.
Schultz: Yeah, well, I guess I’ll take a step back a little bit. What are the communities that have the corner stores and want them? Like, sometimes it’s, like, actual utility, like, “This is where I get my groceries, or this is where I get the things that I need.” But sometimes it’s also, “This is where I have a sense of community and where the community gathers,” or, “That’s our public space, is this corner store, and if you’re, you know, changing our environment in a way that makes us feel like we’re not included, that can be like a big pushback, too,” when thinking about who is bringing up the ideas and what their actual reasons for wanting those.
And I think that is a huge criticism of the 15-minute city concept, is that, you know, who is it for, and is it going to exacerbate gentrification and displacement in communities that are already really struggling with, like, built environment changes?
Cohen: Dan, are you seeing any of that in Montgomery County, where you are, with this concept of 15-minute cities being applied in this comprehensive plan?
Reed: Sort of. I mean, there are conversations about gentrification in this community, but, I think, less so in some of the more outlying suburban areas where they’re talking about, you know, bring—just putting—as I want to say, like, putting stuff close to where people live, as opposed to 15-minute cities. This is an area with very, very high housing costs and rapidly increasing housing costs, like all of the D.C. area. I think home prices in this region went up 16% just in the past year, which is significant.
So, I think, overall, there is an anxiety that new investment will cause prices to go up and price people out. But I’m not sure that I’ve heard it specifically in the context of the 15-minute city. I think the fear is that, like, everything is so scarce that everything could become a threat, which, you know, ironically is kind of the argument for why we need this concept. Right? We want these places to be ubiquitous enough that people are not fighting over them and having bidding wars and, like, running home prices up, so that people don’t see these things as something that will push them out. Like, almost as if to say I want 15-minute cities for the wealthy but for everybody else too. Right? Like, I want like the budget version of 15-minute city, with stores that everyone can afford.
Cohen: Yeah. I mean, to me, this is like, I think, the issue, that in most of these communities in Montgomery County and our area where Ashley and I both live in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina is also dealing with, which is we just need more housing, period. Right? Like, more housing begets more of these other kind of things as well. And then we need more than just the market forces, though. We need the kind of governance level to kind of put some of that structure around where that goes, and how we can do that in a kind of sustainable way.
Schultz: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. And also kind of just really marrying some of these planning decisions with policy to make sure that, you know, if there is concerns about gentrification or displacement, that that’s being addressed, and not just like an afterthought in planning decisions.
Cohen: Thinking back to some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past, have any communities done that particularly well?
Schultz: I think it’s a work in progress. I’m curious, Dan, from your perspective, because we’ve really worked on different—in different places, in different parts of the country. But from what I’m seeing, there’s a lot of interest and a lot of wanting to research and explore that. But putting it into action can be challenging and really depends on the governance structure in place and what the relationships are between departments and people and the community.
Reed: A number of states in the United States are called Dillon Rule states, which means the state basically tells local towns and cities what rights they have and don’t have, which often manifests in what are called, like, exemption laws. Right? I think it’s like Arizona, for instance, banned local communities from having plastic bag taxes. That’s not great. But the flip side of that is states like California. Just this week, the governor signed a law basically requiring all of the local municipalities in the state to allow up to four homes on a single-family lot. Right?
And in that bill—it’s very high profile; it’s been proposed in multiple different ways over the past several years, and it is considered a very key tool to addressing the housing shortage in California, but also fears about gentrification. Right? Because home prices are becoming so high, people are becoming priced out of their communities because there just aren’t enough homes. And that, in part, happens because local communities have very restrictive zoning, in part because of existing residents that, you know, prefer their property values stay high, or they don’t want different kinds of homes in their communities, or what have you. There’s a lot of political pressure to keep things the same.
So, California is one state that did this. They used their power to say, “You have to allow these different types of homes in your community.” And on top of that, there were anti-displacement protections put in the bill that say you can’t do this for—you can’t split the lot, you can’t build—you can’t rebuild multiple homes on the lot, for instance, if a tenant has lived in that home within the past three years. So that, you know, people who are renting don’t have to worry that an investor is going to buy their house and kick them out and put four homes in its place.
Oregon has done similar things with zoning, to open up their zoning laws to allow more types of homes and more affordable homes. And in turn, that’s pushed local municipalities to take a better approach to affordable housing as well. Right? Oregon has required local municipalities of a certain size to allow up to four homes on a single-family lot. Portland took it one step further and said, “We will allow up to six homes on a single-family lot, but two of them have to be subsidized affordable housing.”
So, that is one really interesting tool that I’m looking at, to, you know, the state using its role to basically force local cities and counties to do the right thing—you know, putting their feet to the fire, if you will. Other states have tried this too, with limited success. Both Maryland and Virginia had zoning bills proposed in 2020, which were not successful, but it’s, you know, the progress in California, I think, is really encouraging for other parts of the country as, like, a model for how we can address some of these issues.
Schultz: That’s so interesting, Dan. Do you think that it kind of needs to come from that bigger kind of inspiring state-level influence?
Reed: I don’t necessarily think it has to. You know, there are examples of individual cities that have done these progressive zoning reforms. Minneapolis is the one everyone refers to. Austin is another. Atlanta is looking at it. Norfolk, Virginia, is looking at it. Grand Rapids, Michigan, was like the great-granddaddy of this. They’ve done it—they had, basically, taken out single-family zoning, I think, over a decade ago. But it helps when the state makes it a mandate as well, because, you know, all these examples I have given are, like, core cities—right—like, which it’s great if they’re doing their part to increase housing, but it’s also incumbent on the suburban communities around them, too, to take their fair share of new people, and particularly new people who aren’t as wealthy.
And that’s one way the state can step in and say that, like, you know, everybody has to do their part; everybody has to do their part to accept new residents and new people and to make room for people of all different income levels and backgrounds.
Cohen: It’s really interesting you talk about it from the state level, because I would generally think that the states are going to be more conservative than the individual municipalities, in general. Is that a fair assumption? Maybe not.
Reed: That’s—I mean, that’s often how I think about it. It can make some strange bedfellows. You know, in Oregon, the way they were able to pass zoning reform was a coalition of urban lawmakers in cities like Portland and rural lawmakers, who were basically like, “We are going to hold these liberal communities accountable. You say you want more people. Well, here you go.” [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Oh, interesting.
Reed: I did not see it happen that way in Maryland when a missing little housing bill was proposed last year. But it does seem like a strategy that could be used. It was interesting, the conversations in Maryland around this was actually sort of the reverse of Oregon. There were urban legislators in, like, Baltimore City who said, like, “Well, you know, we already have all these different types of homes, and we have a massive vacancy problem, so that’s not actually the problem we’re trying to solve.” And one rural legislator said, “Well, you know, I don’t understand why people—they can’t afford a house. Why don’t you just work harder?” Right? [LAUGHS] Which is often an argument that some people will make about housing costs. Right?
Reed: So I think it might take a different coalition in different places. But it is interesting to see how housing issues sort of overturn, I think, the left-right divide that people often characterize a lot of these issues are. And that’s very much like a local politics thing. You know?
Cohen: I’m really glad we’re talking about housing here, too, because people live places, and then they go places—right—from where they live. And that’s how that ties to mobility. Right? And I think, you know, when we talk about transportation, when we talk about public transit, when we talk about all these other ways that people move around, you know, obviously, going to and from their home is one of the biggest places they go to and from. So you can’t talk about transportation without talking about housing and kind of where people are living.
I want to maybe wrap this up with one last thing, which is, when we talked about time earlier and how long it takes to kind of get places, you know, Anna Zivarts, who I had on the podcast a couple weeks ago with Disability Rights Washington, she actually had an interesting perspective as it relates to 15-minute cities because she said it kind of puts this onus on the time, not on the access—
Cohen: —which I just thought was kind of an interesting perspective, that, you know, we’re focusing in on that one area, which I think you kind of hit at too, Dan, which is like, let’s not go too far into focusing on the time as much as it’s focusing on the access, which I think is what we really care about. Maybe that’s not as pithy—right—I mean, “everyone access” or “access for everyone.” Although, I guess, it is pretty pithy, actually. But—[LAUGHS]—I don’t know why that hasn’t caught on.
But, you know, that, to me, is, I feel like, part of the struggle here, is I think 15-minute cities at least has gotten a little bit of pull in the market, or some fascination with folks, whereas, you know, some of these fundamental access issues, especially for folks with disabilities, are still not getting enough attention or still not getting addressed.
Reed: No, totally. It is—it sometimes feels like these kind of phrases are old wine in new bottles. Right? And the risk is distracting from—you know, some of the—you know, are like really boring things that could make a tremendous difference in people’s lives. I think you kind of alluded to, like, delivery a little while ago.
Reed: One thing that I’ve gotten really interested in just the past couple years is, like, curbside management. Right?
Reed: Like, what happens at the curb? You know, typically we think about that’s just where parked cars go. Right? But, increasingly, especially during the pandemic, we’ve seen so many other uses. Right? The curbside is where people get dropped off or picked up by TNC providers. It’s where deliveries are made, both like big deliveries or postal deliveries, but also like people getting food delivered or groceries delivered or whatever.
And suddenly, the curb actually provides all of these different kinds of access for people, and for different kinds of trips. And in a way, it kind of bolsters some of the things that we’re talking about. Right? Like, if somebody can’t walk 15 minutes, having what’s called PUDO—right—pick-up, drop-off spot in front of the building actually allows them to access this place they might not have been able to before because it was a convenient place for the car to go. Having delivery services, food delivery services, you know, in a community means that, you know, if it’s there—if the restaurants in your community—there are more restaurants within 15 minutes, there’s more places that can deliver to your house, if you don’t feel like going out to the place.
Like I said, it’s a really boring thing that has a huge impact on how people live and on our quality of life. And it goes in bad ways too. Right? If those delivery trucks don’t have a place to go, they end up blocking the bike lane; they block the sidewalk; they make it difficult for everyone else to do their daily transportation. I hope PUDO can be as much of a buzzword as 15-minute cities. Plus it’s so much fun to say.
Schultz: It really is. Dan, I’ve never heard that before. It’s amazing. Thank you for enlightening me. But, no, I think you’re right. I think, kind of the sexier convenience ideas, like 15-minute cities—oh, it’s even things like bus rapid transit, light rail, these types of ideas or types of transportation, while they are great for everyone, like, there are other things that we could also be focusing on that are just less sexy, I guess, in the long run, like the curb space, bus service, you know, what sort of stop and amenities people have when they’re just taking a regular bus instead of like a rapid transit system.
Cohen: Yeah, in fact, I read a post by another one of our former guests last week, a couple weeks ago, Mike McGinn, the former mayor of Seattle, and the kind of premise that he talks about is, you know, we talk about smart cities, but let’s talk about all of the benefits of the dumb city. Right? And the dumb city being—you know, I’m using air quotes here, but the dumb city being the simple things like, you know, sidewalks and what local things we use to build our homes and so forth. It’s like, this isn’t smart cities, this is just like everyday, get stuff done, move about our community, live, work, all that. So I like that perspective as well.
Cohen: Dan, I know you write a lot, you tweet a lot. Where can folks learn more about some of the things that you share out there in the world?
Reed: I am at @justupthepike on Twitter, and from there you can find links to my blog, my website, and all of the things that I’ve written.
Schultz: Everyone should check out. Dan’s writing is thought-provoking and beautiful and just a treat.
Reed: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate that.
Cohen: Well, thank you so much, Ashley, for helping to bring Dan on. Dan, thank you so much for your perspectives. I enjoyed talking with you both about 15-minute cities and some of the pluses, some of the minuses, and some of the things we need to tackle in order to make some of these concepts that I think are behind that actually work for everyone. And maybe address the problem, as Dan said, old wine in new bottles. [LAUGHTER] So, thank you. Thank you both so much. I appreciate it.
Reed: Thank you.
Schultz: Yeah, thanks, Josh.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.