The allure and the challenge of 15-minute neighbourhoods

The allure and the challenge of 15-minute neighbourhoods

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

The COVID-19 pandemic shrank our personal world. Most of us stopped commuting; homes became offices. Restaurants and gyms closed, and we took to our neighbourhoods for diversion and exercise. En route, we discovered what was within reach. Without knowing it, many of us entered the 15-minute neighbourhood, a concept the city has recently adopted to help guide development until 2046. 

In essence, the concept suggests that basic needs for individuals should be located within a 15-minute walk (or 1,200 metres) from their homes. This includes shops, schools and daycare, amenities (think libraries and greenspaces), plus transit, so you can easily get to things outside your 1,200-metre walk, such as medical specialists or friends. 

It’s an ideal long promoted by urban planners such as Jane Jacobs and proponents of new urbanism, but with the pressing need to reduce our carbon footprint — including relying less on personal vehicles — this new incarnation is spreading globally. Paris’ 15-minute city plan has resulted in many new cycling lanes, 70 per cent of street parking turned over to other uses, more co-working hubs, parkettes in school playgrounds, 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 because there is no need to store copious amounts of things, and residents want to spend time out and about instead of staying 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 slash greenhouse gas emissions by 96 per cent by 2040 to meet the city’s goals. Ottawa’s population is expected to increase by 40 per cent — an additional 402,000 people — by 2046. The new official plan accommodates this growth primarily through more urban housing, rather than continued suburban sprawl. This means fewer new roads, but if it’s going to work the city will have to invest in parks, sidewalks, cycling lanes, rapid transit, and all the other components of 15-minute neighbourhoods that make it easier for residents to rely less on their cars. This is vital given that 40 per cent of city greenhouse gas emissions are transportation related. 

Also in the series: Pros and cons of life in seven Ottawa neighbourhoods:
Barrhaven West
ByWard Market
Billings Bridge
Old Ottawa East
Vanier North

The 15-minute plan does look positive from an environmental point of view, says Angela Keller-Herzog, the executive director of the Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES), a network of 49 organizations. “At first glance, we’re being told we are going to develop into a walkable, livable, healthy city where there’s no need for everyone to have a double garage, but we need to unpack it.” 

That process reveals challenges. Ottawa developed in the typical 20th-century, North American manner: houses built kilometres away from businesses and amenities, with personal vehicles essential. Over the past two years, city planners mapped and scored neighbourhoods according to the availability of services and amenities, and walkability. Not surprisingly, those with the highest scores are mostly older neighbourhoods, such as the Glebe, ByWard Market, Centretown, and Hintonburg; these areas developed in grid patterns, off a main commercial street, before the car was king. However, only about 20 per cent of Ottawans live in amenity-rich neighbourhoods. Sixty per cent of new housing 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 per cent will mostly be new builds in fields bordering on suburbia. 

Overall, the new official plan aims to improve or evolve 15-minute neighbourhoods everywhere (excluding the Greenbelt and rural areas outside villages), says city planner David Maloney. In sprawling suburbs such as Kanata and Orleans, the 15-minute ideal is a long way off. The initial goal is to make them more walkable by building cut-through paths from residential streets to existing amenities, which will improve pedestrian and cycling routes, and through rezoning.

But how do you attract services and amenities to create a main 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’ve identified … In time there will be the services and amenities.” 

Continues Simmonds: “In traditional cities that was part of life. You feel you’re part of the community – you feel connected and grounded. This idea that you could be completely car-free – it’s neat. But it’s a huge challenge in suburban areas.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

However, that eventuality depends on residential density. It’s a Catch-22. Implementing the 15-minute concept in the suburbs is “not impossible, but it’s not practical,” says local architect and planning advocate Toon Dreessen. “A 15-minute walk won’t get you out of some big box parking lots.” For this reason, he says the 15-minute walk concept doesn’t work perfectly throughout town. Making a city livable may mean different things in different parts of the city — outside the core it may make more sense to expand park-and-ride options, for example. 

Though the 15-minute concept may not be immediately applicable, city-wide transit, with its environmental benefits, could be. With our LRT system beset with problems, including a public inquiry, and Ottawa residents paying the fourth highest adult fare in Canada, the city has some work to do on transit. 

“If we are serious about the 15-minute concept, we need more frequent, reliable, accessible, and affordable public transit,” says Keller-Herzog. The official plan does outline improvements to transit frequency and capacity, all with a view to achieve its goal of having the majority of trips via sustainable transportation — walking, cycling, transit, or carpool — by 2046. 

A third overarching problem concerns availability of affordable housing. Fifteen-minute neighbourhoods are desirable neighbourhoods — as more amenities are established in an area, house prices increase, and there is a very real danger of gentrification. Orlando, Florida, saw adjacent property values increase by 80 per cent after the construction of pedestrian friendly infrastructure and bike lanes. Closer to home, Hintonburg exemplifies this: in 2000 the average house 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 properties owned by government agency Canada Lands offer unique opportunities. “The greatest challenge would be introducing small-scale retail and diversity of uses other than residential.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

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

Dreessen notes that politicians can support affordable housing through building heights — when they vote to reduce allowable heights, as they did on Parkdale Avenue between Scott Street and the Queensway, they can limit affordability. Fewer units typically mean a higher cost per unit. With 10,000 people already waiting for subsidized housing, there are many details, small and large, to face in implementing the 15-minute proposal. 

Hill says the most important element in this area is a facade that shows the space to be a transition space – “you walk by, and you can imagine people enjoying a front porch or talking on a balcony.” Illustration by Chantal Bennett

There are challenges everywhere: not only in the suburbs and inner urban areas, where residents are concerned about rezoning proposals, but also in areas that are close, or actually fit, the 15-minute description. The Centretown tree canopy, for example, covers 16 per cent of this area compared with the 34 per cent city average. In the Glebe, shrinking household sizes could mean business closures and declining school enrolment. 

“There’s always room for improvement,” says Maloney. The 1,032-page official plan provides broad strokes, but a lot of the 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, urban park strategy, and comprehensive zoning bylaws. 

“There are lots of layers,” says Herzog-Keller. “It’s complicated. We need advocacy organizations that try to keep the city a little bit honest.” Industry as well has specific interests. But the depth of complexity makes it difficult for individuals or associations to keep track of everything. She advocates for a collaborative approach, a co-creation of these neighbourhoods. “Nobody wants to spend their volunteer time in fights. We’d rather work together to meet objectives.” 

But Dreessen wonders whether the city will act on community input. “On Elgin Street there was lots of engagement and then the city did what it wanted.” Ditto for the protests and deputations around cutting hundreds of mature trees for parking at the new Civic Hospital, he says. Engagement and consultation should be meaningful, but right now it seems like the public isn’t being heard, he says. 

Maloney says the city will continue to be inclusive. During Planning, its public consultation included a public meeting with 300 attendees and 4,000 survey respondents. 

“A whole lot of stakeholders in the city and beyond need to work together to achieve some of these areas and make them better reflect the concept of the 15-minute neighbourhood,” says Maloney. Secondary plans, which will assess what is missing and how to get it, will involve many stakeholders. “We’ve had positive feedback on the 15-minute neighbourhood. People agree with its goals and objectives. It’s one thing that can unite us.” The end game, according to the official plan is to make Ottawa the most livable mid-sized city in North America. “The best way to do that is to look at the components of the 15-minute neighbourhood.”