Americans typically associate the kind of accessibility offered by 15-minute cities with European metropoles, but with smart planning 15-minute cities can thrive in the United States too.

Step aside, New York and Los Angeles. According to a newly published study by moveBuddha, mid-size American cities of 250,000 to 750,000 residents dominated the rankings of the top 25 future 15-minute cities in the United States, with a few large cities known for engaging in urban planning on the neighborhood level, for instance Chicago and Philadelphia, also making the cut.

The idea that residents should be able to meet their basic needs within a short walk or roll of their home was popularized by Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, early on in the Covid pandemic, and it has been met with widespread enthusiasm among urban planners and policymakers the world over, including in sprawling North America. If we are lucky, the 15-minute city might revolutionize planning of the 21st century to the same degree that Le Corbusier’s concept of the tower and car-centric radiant city did in the 20th century. Urban planners have begun to theorize on what ten-minute cities and even five-minute cities might look like as well.

But before we get carried away with visions of a five-minute city, a title which tiny Whittier, Alaska, a town of 200 residents who live under the same roof might be among the few to lay claim to, let’s examine closer what it means to be a 15-minute city.

What criteria were measured by the study?

To calculate its data, moveBuddha collected and assessed data from the 78 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. To generate its scores, study author Joe Robison used walking and biking scores assigned to cities by Walkscore.com; it also takes into consideration a variety of additional factors using publicly available data (often via Google Places API) that included:

  • Labor force participation;
  • Number of social associations;
  • Food environment index (determines level of access to healthy foods);
  • Access to exercise opportunity;
  • Density of health and safety providers (hospitals, emergency medical services, mental health providers, primary care physicians, nursing homes, fire stations, and local law enforcement);
  • Severe housing problem index (measures overcrowding and properties in urgent need of repair); and
  • Housing to income ratio.
Defining what exactly it means to be a 15-minute city can be a bit complicated because of the diversity of needs people have and the ways in which those needs can change during a person’s lifetime. (Credit: moveBuddha)

Using this data, cities were each assigned point scores of 1 to 10 (10 being the best) in five areas that included commutability, social and physical health, childcare/education, medical and safety, and home affordability. These area scores were then compiled together into a general score. As a company focused on selling long-distance moving services, moveBuddha does have an interest in encouraging people to pack up and head for a more enticing city. Still, even if it the study uses rather blunt metrics and may have an agenda, it’s still an interesting snapshot and discussion starter.

One decision made by the creators of the study that could be considered controversial was to exclude destinations that could be accessed by transit. The decision was based on guidance from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which has decided to omit transit from its definition of a 15-minute city. Still, it seems odd to ignore access to transit when assessing the 15-minute city, since most of us would want to head out of even the most utopian 15-minute city from time to time.

The case could be made to include or exclude certain criteria as well. For example, I would like to see access to veterinarians added to the list. Moreover, some criteria could be parsed differently. For example, some residents — particularly those who experienced police harassment and racial profiling — would view density of local law enforcement as a risk to their health and public safety rather than boosting it.

Which cities were identified as future 15-minute cities?

Miami topped the rankings this year with a total score of 7.83. San Francisco came in second, with a total score of 6.10. San Francisco’s score was negatively impacted by lack of access to childcare (2.3), a common problem in many high ranking cities in the list, including Boston, which earned a dismal score of 0.4 in this area.

According to the makers of the study, Miami earned its number one spot as a result of plans to create small, walkable urban centers throughout the city bearing fruit. The Miami Herald has called Miami “a city of interconnected villages,” and ambitious projects like the Underline, which is repurposing land under its Metrorail elevated transit lines into a ten-mile linear park and trail, are increasing safe walking and rolling options for residents. All of this sounds like a far cry from the city I remember walking and riding transit through when I last visited Miami about 14 years ago so it’s encouraging to learn of these improvements. Granted, the decision to exclude transit quality as a metric likely boosted Miami’s score; the city has been bleeding bus ridership over the past decade.

However, housing affordability emerged as a major issue among nearly all cities that made the list, with Miami (2.9) and San Francisco (3.3) certainly included. Overall, six of the top ten cities listed had home affordability scores lower than 5 (out of 10). Looking more broadly, the least affordable city on the top 25 list was Long Beach, California (2.7) while the most affordable was Pittsburgh (7.3).

A map depicting America’s potential 15-minute cities according to a study by moveBuddha. (Credit: moveBuddha)

What scores did Seattle and Portland earn?

The Pacific Northwest cities of Seattle and Portland were identified by the study as cities actively engaged in planning to become 15-minute cities; however, each city needs to make improvements in key areas to meet that goal.

Seattle, which landed at 12th place in the top 25 list, scored well for its walk and bike score (8.1) and dining, parks, and community score (7.3); however, scores for childcare (2.3), health and safety (2.6), and housing affordability (4.5) were all significantly lower.

Portland was placed at 15th on the list and exhibited strengths and weaknesses similar to those of Seattle. Earning an impressive walking and biking score of 8.4 — Portland was actually assessed as fourth overall in this area — and dining, parks, and community was another strong spot for the Rose City at 6.9. However, childcare (1.0), health and safety (3.2), and housing affordability (4.1) were all found lacking using the data measured.

How do we actually transform “promising” 15-minute cities into real ones?

People may enjoy having nice restaurants and cafés to walk and bike to, but real livability must support people across different income levels and phases of life. Unless concentrated efforts are made to increase availability of affordable housing in high opportunity urban areas in tandem with making easier for families to live in or near urban centers and increasing protection and support for communities at-risk of displacement by gentrification, the U.S. risks 15-minute cities becoming just one more luxury most Americans cannot afford. These investments will be just as vital to the future of 15-minute cities as investments in creating safer infrastructure for people walking, biking, and rolling.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

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Jon

‘Potential’ sure is doing a whole lot of work here, for Miami – the most deadly location for pedestrians – to wind up at the top of the heap.

kernals12

Most Americans already live in 15 minute cities. Everything is just a 15 minute drive away. This whole thing is just illustrating how impossible it is to engineer cars out of our lives.

Shad Mayne

If you had the choice between driving 30min roundtrip to your work, school, gym, favorite stores, restaurants, etc or walk wouldn’t you be healthier, less stressed, save money, and reduce your carbon footprint by walking? Americans are among the least healthy, most stressed, most in (consumer)debt, and largest per capita polluters in the world. Four of the greatest issues in American society could be largely solved by this urban design priciple alone.

A Joy

moveBuddha? Really? We’re now citing studies done by bottom of the barrel for profits as having an iota of actual objective quality or value? This isn’t even an industry leader, much less anything remotely close to an objective source or study. This is like using a mass transit study funded by Volvo.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Seattle has more dogs than children. The only Urban Village with a dog park is Belltown. The rest of our 14 off-leash dog parks are purposely located far away from people, at the perimeters, .g., Magnuson Park, Carkeek Park, Golden Gardens, Northacres on N. 145th. I have to get in my car to let my dog run! This is absurd! We need a new planning standard of one off-leash dog park within walking distance of every Urban Village.

Ryan Packer

South Lake Union has a dog park. Capitol Hill has a dog park next to I-5. Your factoid is incorrect.

asdf2

I forgot about the one in Capitol Hill. But, nobody wants to go to a dog park with all the noise and pollution of being right next to the freeway. Maybe if someday, I-5 gets lidded, they’ll build a much nicer dog park on top of the lid. Until then, Capitol Hill needs a dog park further up the hill where you can watch your dog without going deaf and breathing noxious fumes.

asdf2

I just got a dog myself and I wholeheartedly agree. A dog park should be something people walk to. They shouldn’t be expected to ride in a car or bus to get there.

The dog park doesn’t need to be run in the middle the urban village, but it should at least be within a 15-20 minute walk of it (with good, wide sidewalks).

Michael A. Rice

Northacres is on 1st Ave NE and NE 130th. Hardly the perimeter of the city.

RDPence

It’s unfortunate Seattle is such a built city. If we were starting over on bare ground, how much easier to create a 15-minute city, or whatever the latest urbanist slogan to be created.

Bryan

I don’t think we’re that far off, at least in parts that could serve as a model.

Northwest Wallingford is hands down, in my experience, a “30 minute city.” I got rid of my car several years ago, don’t trust drivers enough to bike without protected lanes, and minimized use of Lyft & busses during COVID.

North of 80% of anything I’ve needed has been within a 30 minute walk, and could probably be 90% if I dropped loyalty to particular providers further away of which there are potential replacements within walking distance.

RDPence

But I thought the point is to have all those urban benefits *without* having to make all the sacrifices that you have made.

Bryan K

What do you mean by sacrifices? I don’t think of myself as having made sacrifices.

RDPence

Not able to patronize favorite stores/restaurants because they are beyond walking distance. Sounds like a sacrifice to me

Bryan K

Oh as needed I just take Lyft (depending on COVID conditions of course during this pandemic – we’ve started using it again after getting vaxxed).

(Gig cars would be an option too, but I don’t drive to restaurants if I can help it anytime, because driving strongly constrains what you might choose to drink.)

RDPence

Bryan, I’m happy we live in. society where you are free to make your own life decisions and not have others make them for you. As I’m glad to have the freedom to drive my Prius across town occasionally to our favorite (and best) Thai restaurant. To each her own, I say!

asdf2

It’s only a “sacrifice” if there’s a significant different in what you’re getting between the favorite store and the closer store. Often, there isn’t. In many cases, the closer store is actually better, just slightly more expensive. But, when the car isn’t a fixed cost, the extra cost of the merchandise doesn’t matter anymore because you’re saving far more than that on transportation.

Eric

Right. Nobody is realistically suggesting that all of a person’s existing business relationships will relocate to within a 15-minute walk. The point is to make it so that most of your day-to-day needs could be served within that radius. Of course you’ll go outside this radius from time to time, but it will be because you genuinely want to travel over there and not because your needs can’t be met closer.

Martin

I wonder how specific neighborhoods like West Seattle and Ballard would fare and how high frequency transit such as a gondola could be used to improve what’s available within 15 minutes like it was mentioned in SkyLink: Rising Above It All In West Seattle (whereiamnow.net)