In this article, we won’t be discussing the “15-minute city,” which is a philosophical, if not ideological, proposal for an urban model. Instead, we’ll do something much simpler and more practical: some basic measurements.
For the basic check we want to perform, we won’t need supercomputing. We’ll do it through simple measurements of influence areas around fundamental infrastructures: shopping streets.
We will determine how far residents of two European cities, Barcelona and London, need to go to shop for everything they need at a store.
Barcelona and London, Opposing Poles
We have chosen to compare Barcelona and London because they represent opposite urban models. Barcelona is dense and organized in a homogeneous grid pattern, while London is dispersed and radial. Most European cities with over a million inhabitants, such as Madrid, Paris, Munich, Milan, etc., fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
A straightforward way to gauge whether residents of a city have good access to commercial services is to measure how far they need to travel to reach the nearest shopping streets. We’ll also consider whether this commercial street has a good mix of non-daily establishments or if it is experiencing commercial desertification.
To identify commercial axes with good occupancy rates and a diverse range of shops, we will apply three requirements. First, the shopping streets must have a minimum of 40 establishments or more. Second, it should not suffer from commercial desertification, with occupancy rates equal to or greater than 80%. Finally, the third requirement is that the presence of non-daily establishments (clothing, shoes, appliances, household goods, etc.) should be 30% or more. We will call a commercial street that meets all three requirements a “top-tier commercial street.”
Now, we just need to establish the measure of “proximity.” We will use two reference distances for a citizen walking to the shopping streets: 15 minutes and 5 minutes.
Walking at the pace of a healthy adult in good shape, at a speed of 5.5 km/h, results in a distance of approximately 1.38 km or 1,380 meters. For the sake of our check, we will round this to 1,500 meters. For an adult who doesn’t walk as fast or is less fit, walking at less than 5 km/h, we will calculate a distance of 5 minutes, which is roughly 400 meters. You will understand why we use these values shortly.
So far, we have defined the destination of the walk — the top-tier shopping streets — and two distances to be covered by a citizen walking from their home.
Now, we need to apply these measurements to the two cities.
London: A 15-Minute City?
In London, we find 60,000 establishments and 51 first-order commercial axes within an area of 500 km2, covering the 15 central boroughs of London.
If we measure the area within a 1,500-meter radius around each commercial street, we find that London has about 100 km2, or 20% of the city, where residents have guaranteed access to commercial services. If London’s residents were evenly distributed, one out of every five residents would have a first-order commercial street within a 15-minute walk from their home.
Barcelona: A 5-Minute City
Now, let’s raise the bar a bit and see how many residents in both cities have a top-tier commercial street within a 5-minute walk from their homes.
If we draw a 5-minute perimeter, 400 meters on foot, around each of London’s axes, we see that only in the very center of London, covering about 5 km2, would all residents in the area be well-served. There is a much smaller total area of about 35 km2, less than 10% of the urban area, where residents living there have everything within a 5-minute walk.
Barcelona has an area of about 30 km2 (55% of the urban grid) served by first-order axes within a 5-minute walk. There is a large central slice that includes parts of Sant Gervasi, all of Gracia, the entire Eixample, and all of Ciutat Vella, where residents have two or more first-order axes right next to their homes.
If we lower the threshold and only consider axes with 40 establishments or more, then 100% of Barcelona becomes a 5-minute city in terms of commerce.
Are All Cities 15-Minute or 5-Minute Cities?
It makes a lot of sense to talk about the 15-minute city in London because they are still far from achieving it. But what about Barcelona, where you have everything within a 5-minute walk?
Although this study does not include educational, healthcare facilities, etc., it suggests how buying any type of product at a store in your neighborhood can be an activity of proximity for the majority of Barcelona, while in London, you are most likely dependent on some form of transportation, either private or public.
London is a clear case of a walkable city, full of parks and endless sidewalks, but it still doesn’t qualify as a close city from a commercial service perspective. Most of its residents live in areas where it takes more than a 15-minute walk to shop for everything. They either need to use a car or rely on delivery services. On the other hand, Barcelona, with all its density and heavy traffic, is a 5-minute city.
In summary, if the goal is to promote close cities where everything is within a short walk, being walkable is a necessary but insufficient condition. A close city, where residents have everything within a 5-minute walk from their homes, has more to do with a dense urban model with mixed-use, generating a sense of immediacy in services, rather than just filling the streets with cobblestones and urban furniture that limit vehicle traffic.
The close city, the 5-minute city, creates a sense of immediacy for everything that all its residents need, whether they walk well or not. I want to buy something; I go downstairs, and I can resolve it in a short time.