Sunday, October 17

The city of 15 minutes?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the city has emerged as a topic for social reflection. Since then, articles and spaces in the media that focus on the urban issue have multiplied, seeking answers to many of the problems that have come or were magnified by the health crisis. The habitat where many of us develop our daily lives, and so much determines our quality of life, was emerging little by little, finally in our country, as a matter of social interest.

Reflection on the city is giving rise to proposals of great interest, which encourage the “social conversation” about it and continue to bring it closer to citizens, something that we have to congratulate and promote. Having a society more concerned with its public space, its mobility, the level of air pollution, the facilities in its neighborhood, its ability to participate in decision-making processes, etc. is configured for the coming years as a factor with great capacity for transformation and improvement of urban enclaves, regardless of their size.

Among the proposals that this more attentive look towards the urban question has generated, one stands out due to the great media impact, the diffusion and the adhesion it has. It is about “The city of 15 minutes” that is proposed to us from the French sphere and, specifically, from the action that Paris is undertaking. The main idea behind this way of understanding the city and the action in it is based on the principle that everything we need to develop our daily life (school, health center, park, market, etc. and our job post) work) is located a maximum of 15 minutes walk from our home. It is a great proposal that is not new, as some voices from urban planning and sister disciplines have already pointed out. It takes the concept of “city of proximity”, rooted in the action of planning and urban planning for decades in the western framework, and associates a measure of time, the fifteen minutes, in order to limit mobility and thus move towards more sustainable cities.

Among the elements that characterize the way and the approach with which the concept of “the city of 15 minutes” is presented, I want to pay attention to one from this text: the fact that it is raised, as it is being done in a generalized, as a novel proposal to face the complex urban problems of the present. Taking for novel and, from there, uncritically assuming the conceptual proposal of “the city of 15 minutes” carries risks. The main one, from my point of view, is that it makes the value of urban culture invisible, by not establishing a direct relationship and indebted to the many theoretical and practical experiences that from Western urban planning have placed the city of proximity in the center of its proposed above.

Bringing up the recent experience in our country, this is the case, for example, of the plans that gave rise to new developments in the eighties, as well as actions to remodel the existing city, which explicitly sought to mix of uses and give rise to neighborhoods that they had in their area with the equipment, services and green areas necessary for the development of daily life, working with the concept of identity. They also sought to promote local commerce and generate distributed centralities in the city where tertiary uses could be located that would offer jobs in the neighborhoods themselves or in their proximity. To mention a few, I will refer to the General Urban Planning Plans of Malaga, Tarragona, Madrid, A Coruña, Gijón or Seville, among others, which were part of that “great generation of plans”, as Juan Jesús Trapero (Professor of Urbanism and Spatial Planning of the ETSAM) a few years later. They not only made a relevant contribution to Spanish urbanism, but also to Europe. From international instances they were observed with great interest, considering, as Mauricio Marcelloni (Professor at the IUAV) pointed out, an exception in a European panorama already dominated in those years by deregulation processes that negatively affected planning and action in the city. In our country, this experience was followed by a very different one in the 1990s and 2000s. It resulted in numerous examples of new developments whose essence is well represented by the PAUs (Urban Action Plans) of Madrid, where the concept of proximity, neighborhood, together with other criteria rooted in urban culture, disappeared in favor of criteria external to the discipline.

Observing all this allows to put on the table the question that I wanted to reach: posing “the city of 15 minutes” as a new concept cancels the memory of the experience described and prevents us from something key when acting in the city: use the past to learn continuously (something relevant in all disciplines to avoid falling back into mistakes made in the past, as pointed out by Umberto Eco). Contextualizing the proposals of the present in the past action is necessary, since it allows us to be able to work with and from the urban culture, the only way in which urban planning can give rise to meaningful responses for the society it serves. In addition, looking at the present with the perspective that the past gives allows us to navigate with discernment through the excess of information in which we move and, from there, ask ourselves relevant questions.

For example, with regard to the aforementioned experience, it is worth asking: what changes precipitated so that the action in the city (in general) renounced the concept of “proximity” from the nineties? Why was the appearance of a concept such as “the city of 15 minutes” necessary to value to society something so assumed in urban theory and action as the concept of “proximity”? Not asking ourselves questions like these leads cities to assume the concept of the 15-minute city in a rhetorical and sometimes contradictory way (as this concept coexists, for example, with processes of emptying commerce and proximity services in urban centers) . On the contrary, the ability to ask ourselves questions such as those indicated brings out many of the substantive issues and problems on which urban planning and the disciplines with which it necessarily relates when acting in the city have to reflect, make self-criticism and work. From my point of view, only by questioning ourselves about the present of the city from the knowledge and perspective that the past provides will our society be able to walk the path towards an ecological and just transition, along with other great challenges facing cities at the present time.

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