15-minute cities: how old solutions can become new innovations
3 min read

15-minute cities: how old solutions can become new innovations

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A long-held staple of urban planning, the concept of the “15-minute city” has re-emerged as somewhat of a controversial concept in recent times. In essence, it aims to ensure people can reach essential services like schools, grocery stores, and doctors within 15 minutes commuted by foot or bike. In other words: sustainable mobility is at the core of the concept.

As Juan Carlos Escudero-Achiaga, Head of Mobility & Data Science at Vitoria-Gasteiz, explained in a recent ICLEI Member webinar on Mobile Cities: “‘The city of proximity’ idea behind the ‘15-minute city’ concept has been our city’s approach for many decades. That’s marvellous – because in only 15 minutes it’s now possible to go from the city centre by bike to the city surroundings, and every neighbourhood has, within walking distance, most daily needs absolutely covered. That is amazing!”

With World Bicycle Day and World Environment Day just around the corner, we are taking inspiration from the old roots and new applications of the 15-minute city concept, and looking at other ways cities from across Europe have drawn inspiration from the old to shape the new sustainable urban mobility systems of the future.

Old solutions become new innovations

While European towns and cities may be motivated to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable mobility and transport, it is not always easy to keep pace with innovations in a field that is changing so rapidly. By building on other cities’ experiences, however, this gap may be filled. After all, a solution that is tried-and-tested in one city may be innovative in a new context, or can be built upon through peer exchange.

Ana Dragutescu, ICLEI Europe transport expert and FastTrack Project Coordinator explains the ways that networks can support these efforts. She says, “Local authorities are ready to be at the cutting-edge, implementing the most innovative sustainable mobility solutions. It's our job to help break down the barriers that are slowing them down.”

A group of 24 cities have been doing just that as part of the CIVITAS FastTrack project. Through this peer-to-peer exchange programme, ICLEI Member Braga (Portugal), for example, has put in place plans to develop a traffic management system, building on the experiences of ICLEI Member Bologna (Italy). Through a series of learning sequences and capacity building weeks, the city learnt about the importance of data availability and gained a technical, regulatory, and organisational understanding for what makes such traffic management systems effective.

At the same time, the devil is often in the details, which can be brought to light through exchange. As Paul Fenton, Program Manager in the Environment & Health Administration and Clean Vehicles Group at the City of Stockholm, explains: “Fossil-free transport is an inevitability, but it remains a big challenge… It is particularly a challenge for a lot of hidden sectors, or hidden vehicle types, which the city hasn’t worked with before. I’m thinking of tourist buses, personal pleasure boats, etc. It is complicated, and it makes the importance of talking in these types of fora and learning from other cities really important.”

Upskilling for the future

It is not inevitable that all municipal mobility and transport departments will have the capacities required to learn from, build upon, and apply lessons from other cities. Capacity development is thus crucial. Fortunately, this is being recognised across the EU, with 2023 being the European Year of Skills. To this end, this year’s Urban Mobility Days, organised in collaboration with the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU, will focus on sustainable mobility and transport skills and skill development.

As Ana Oregi, Deputy Mayor of Vitoria Gasteiz – who sits on ICLEI Europe’s Regional Executive Committee and on the CIVITAS Policy Advisory Committeeexplains: “Vitoria-Gasteiz provides a great example of how coming together with leaders across Europe can help all cities to move people and goods more sustainably. In recent years, we have leveraged the knowledge and resources gained from being active members of the European mobility community and projects to increase use of sustainable transport modes, redesign our public transportation network, and refine our SUMP. Plus, we have been able to share our expertise with proven solutions like ‘superblocks’ with our community of peers to help everyone reach sustainable urban mobility.”

Indeed, there are a myriad of ways to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge that other cities have regarding sustainable urban mobility! Become a CIVITAS City, take advantage of the FastTrack final recommendations and knowledge coming out in the coming weeks, and join us at European Sustainable Cities and Towns conference to see the rich tapestry of ways that European cities are making urban mobility more sustainable.

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