The 15-Minute City in a New York Minute
Examining the Feasibility of a “15-Minute City” with the Physical & Economic Constraints of New York City
Our world has been shrinking for a long time — we can hold personal computers that connect us to knowledge, work, and friends in the palm of our hands. In 2020, we have been staying at home to stay safe from COVID-19, leading to the rise of Zoom meetings and creative ways to stay in touch with our human connections. We have looked inwards, but have our cities? In Paris, Mayor Anne Hildago and planner Carlos Moreno are leading an ambitious new way of thinking about urban dwelling: The “15-Minute City.” Their vision would shrink the carbon footprint of urban residents and allow people to spend more time with one another instead of commuting. It is a truly noble idea, and could make our cities even better. But is this plan feasible in New York City, with its five boroughs physically divided by rivers and a much different geographic landscape than Paris? By looking at different neighborhoods in New York, it is clear that more affluent areas could become localized utopias, while poorer communities are left out of this grand vision.
The 15-Minute City
The simplest definition comes from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group: “In a ‘15-minute city’, everyone is able to meet most, if not all, of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from their home. It is a city composed of lived-in, people-friendly, ‘complete’ and connected neighborhoods.” The first core principle of the 15-Minute City are “easy access to goods and services, particularly groceries, fresh food and healthcare.” There are tools now, like the HERE Application, that can plot out if your location can be defined as a 15 Minute City: their points of interest within the area include cultural sites, transportation, schools, and points of leisure. But American cities have a large planning issue that hinders the idea of a 15-Minute City: car culture. Car culture has made cities larger and expand out to the suburbs, creating fewer sidewalks for pedestrians and transit systems that do not help those who need it most. This map, published in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek, shows how Paris has pushed for localized cities, while American cities have been stuck in the past.
These maps inspired me to look at if and where the 15-Minute City concept could be done in New York City. For this, I used data found in the Neighborhood Data Portal collected by the Pratt Center for Community Development (whose data has been tremendously valuable, and I cannot thank them enough for sharing this tool with the public) to find certain points of interest in the city. Then, using QGIS and the TravelTime plug-in, I mapped out those points amongst the two layers created with the plug-in: a 15-minute radius by walking and a 15-minute radius by public transit (I used travel time data from November 18th, 2020 at 12PM) to see how far one could go in 15 minutes and how many points they could reach. The points of interest analyzed are:
- Day Care Centers and Public Schools (K-12)
- MTA Subway Stations
- Large Supermarkets (4,000 sq. feet or larger)
These maps show some interesting data (and raise some issues that this project could better address, which I will discuss at the end), but areas that are more affluent tend to have more crucial services. There are areas with less services but have extensive transit options, but it is essential that New York address economic and racial inequality if it wants to create 15-Minute neighborhoods.
NYC Neighborhoods & Median Household Income
The map above shows Median Household Income (MHI) across every census track with MTA Subway Lines (sorry, Staten Island). For this project, I wanted to show neighborhoods with high income (Washington Square Park in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn), medium income (Inwood in Manhattan, Jamaica and Jackson Heights in Queens, and Coney Island in Brooklyn) and low income (Mott Haven in the Bronx and Brownsville in Brooklyn). These points are the red stars in the map above. Each of these areas have different populations, incomes, and geographies. Again, all of this data is sourced from the Pratt Neighborhood Center.
Higher Income Neighborhoods
Washington Square Park
One of the most affluent neighborhood in the city, the West Village/Washington Square Park has access to every major train line besides the G Train, and many supermarkets, schools and decent access to hospitals. This would easily qualify as a 15-Minute City.
Not only close in proximity, but similar in both MHI, population and access to transit. The area is stretched out over more distance which allows this neighborhood to have access to more supermarkets, schools, and hospitals. This neighborhood would qualify as a 15-Minute Neighborhood.
Both of the High Income Neighborhoods meet the qualifications to be a 15-Minute City. They have access to green space, culture, transit, healthcare, food and education. These two areas are geographically close to one another, and represent the center of New York City.
Middle Income Neighborhoods
Inwood, the top of Manhattan island, is quite condensed. With access to two train lines, it does seem to have access to the four points of interest, albeit in not as many services. But with access to green space and cultural site, this could fall under the 15-Minute Neighborhood, though with little room to grow outwards, it will have to grow upwards.
This is our first neighborhood that would not qualify as a 15-Minute Neighborhood. There is limited access to transit (there is also Long Island Railroad station not shown at the end of the C/E/J/Z line), but only three hospitals and two supermarkets (and only one that is accessible by bus). As this area is on the outskirts of the city, there are fewer transit options.
Jackson Heights (Queens)
A similar shape to Downtown Brooklyn, the transit radius of Jackson Heights is long and with access to several transit lines (note, the C/E lines run as well with the F/M and N/R/Q/W lines). Jackson Heights is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in all of New York (and around the world), one of the reasons why this neighborhood is the most populous of the areas examined. With plenty of schools and access to hospitals, it has all the qualifications of a 15-Minute Neighborhood, but only one large supermarket. Though, this could lead to the inference that there are many smaller grocery stores that serve the culturally diverse population.
Well, we know it has a cultural site. But Coney Island is also home to an expanding Russian and African-American population growth. The geography of the “island” shrinks the area’s walking radius, but with access to the B/D/F/M and the N/Q/R trains, this area is well served with education, hospitals and supermarkets. By the letters of the definition, this area would qualify as a 15-Minute Neighborhood.
As we leave the central area of New York and head to the outer-boroughs, we see a spike of different demographics, but overall, these areas would qualify as 15-Minute Cites, although with the exception of Jamaica (which had the least amount of access to transit). Two of the neighborhoods (Inwood & Coney Island) have been shaped by their geography. Perhaps their shape has lead to neighborhoods that need to be sufficient.
Low Income Neighborhoods
Brownsville, towards the southeastern edge of Brooklyn, has a surprisingly large amount of supermarkets. Also, it’s transit radius is very close in both size and shape to it’s walking radius. It is also one of the smallest, by area, areas of the neighborhoods examined. This means there is very little transit access. Although, this neighborhood is a good example of where exactly the starting point of the travel radius matters: if the point had been made a little more north, several more transit stops along the C/E and J/Z would be added as well as access to a green space. Notably, this area only has one hospital, and has one of the highest areas in the city that uses Emergency Room services as a primary form of healthcare (from the Neighborhood Data Portal).
Mott Haven (the Bronx)
The poorest neighborhood examined, this area is not only physically large but also has some of the most services defined that are needed to be considered a 15-Minute City. Several transit lines run in the southern part of the Bronx. There are also a plentiful amount of schools, supermarkets, and hospitals. By definition, Mott Haven would be considered a 15-Minute Neighborhood. But according to the Neighborhood Data Portal, this neighborhood has some of the highest percentages of people who have longer work commutes. So, could it be considered a 15-Minute Neighborhood?
Brownsville and Mott Haven show some of the flaws in the development and definition of the 15-Minute City. Both have some of the necessary characteristics of a 15-Minute Neighborhood, but yet are some of the poorest areas in the city. We also know that these two neighborhoods (from Pratt) are predominantly Black and Hispanic populations. While it is noble to have a smaller commute for a smaller carbon footprint, there needs to be massive investment and racial reconciliation policies for these neighborhoods to truly be 15-Minute Cities.
Doing this project and analysis led to one major flaw with how the Bloomberg article looked at the 15-Minute City, and one that is clear in the maps: there is no way to determine the quality of these services. So while there are many hospitals and schools in Mott Haven, it does not mean that the quality is as good as the schools in other areas in the city. Also, with supermarkets, the data provided only showed stores with over 4,000 square feet or larger. Without the data of all grocery stores, we cannot determine if these neighborhoods truly lack access to fresh food. And even though there are fewer hospitals in Inwood, we know that New York-Presbyterian is one of the largest and best hospitals in the country. Overall, it is interesting to see how far one can get in 15 minutes from their neighborhood, there needs to be consideration into the quality of the provided services.
Planning a 15-Minute City, which would change the entire way city planning has been done both nationally and globally, is a utopian endeavor, but like the climb to a noble pursuit, comes with its flaws in application. As shown by the neighborhoods in New York, it seems plausible only in more affluent communities that this goal could be achieved currently. And it is not only more economically beneficial, but it is the moral imperative of city planners to create cities that are equitable and just for all of its residents. Before we can reach utopia, we must reckon with the city planning errors and injustices of the past.