What is a 15-minute city?

Does an urban ideal that works in Barcelona translate to Baltimore?


Hey team, and welcome back to one5c. The Polar Vortex is blasting much of the U.S. with extreme cold, and Central Park has had its first real snow accumulation in nearly two years. Naturally, the incredible chill immediately spurs thoughts about the impacts of the climate crisis, but the quiet of the snowy streets in my New York City neighborhood also reminds me of something I felt at the beginning of the pandemic. The stark silence of carless avenues during lockdown really shifted my thinking about cities, and I quickly became obsessed with how to reinvent our urban spaces in a way that’s as equitable as it is ecological. 

There’s, of course, no single answer that applies everywhere, but this week’s digest does include two novel notions: the eminently walkable 15-minute city, and a Robin-Hood-esque plan to fund affordable housing. Any interesting approaches taking shape in your hometown? I’d definitely love to hear about it! —Corinne 

The Kapolei Energy Storage facility on Oahu. Plus Power

Hawaii’s last coal plant loses its spot to a gigantic battery

Coal in Hawaii has been on its way out for quite some time, but a massive new battery has officially put the final nail in the dirty fuel’s coffin. The Kapolei Energy Storage system, made up of 158 Tesla Megapacks, replaces the Aloha State’s last retired coal plant, and can provide 565 megawatt-hours of instantaneous power and stabilize the grid at times of peak demand. The storage is a fantastic sidekick to the state’s already glowing solar industry: The sun doesn’t shine every day, so batteries like this one are a crucial component of sustainable, reliable energy.

Funneling carbon—with fly feces

Insects are secret climate superheroes for all sorts of reasons. While some eat waste and others offer a more sustainable food supply, the black soldier fly may hold the key to making the fertilizer industry considerably less dirty. When flies go through their life cycle, they create a substance called frass, a combo plate of feces and shredded exoskeletons. These leavings are a triple threat for farms: supplying nitrogen for crops, bolstering pest resistance, and socking away carbon. This photo-filled feature from Atmos looks at the fly-rearing operation at Chapul Farms, an Oregon outpost taking frass to new heights.

A hot year for the ocean

The climate emergency’s impact on weather is obvious worldwide (have you looked at the weather map today?). According to a study published last week, some of 2023’s nastiest “freak” events were due to “astounding” ocean temperatures. The ocean absorbs the vast majority of heat caused by carbon emissions, and this new data shows that the oceans are likely the hottest they’ve been in 1,000 years—and are heating faster than they have in the past two millennia. The authors are still hopeful, however; they told The Guardian that changes to our energy systems can avoid things getting even messier. 
More: What the polar vortex has to do with the climate crisis, plus 4 other weather myths, debunked

Mansion taxes are a reality star villain—and a climate champion

If you didn’t think Netflix’s Selling Sunset was a show about the climate crisis, think again. This season’s villain wasn’t a competing agent or demanding client, but a mansion tax, which is designed to address the affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles. A lack of affordable housing is deeply intertwined with rapidly shifting climate risks; it forces people into wildfire and flood zones in search of livable homes and leaves unhoused populations trapped in unbearable heat. Taxing resource-intensive and oversized mansions is already taking off elsewhere—namely Seattle, Boulder, and Santa Fe. “It’s the closest thing to a needle-mover we’ve ever come close to,” experts tell Bloomberg. Don’t let the cringing Oppenheim twins convince you otherwise. 

Mic-drop climate stat

What is a 15-minute city? 

Werner Lerooy/Shutterstock

Could this scene from a car-free Sunday in Brussels become the norm? Werner Lerooy/Shutterstock

Brussels, a city famous for its traffic congestion and sprawl, is the latest burg getting a climate-friendly makeover with a recently approved “Good Living” plan. One of the initiative’s key goals is to make the Belgian capital a “city in 10 minutes.” The concept is hardly new: Urbanist Carlos Moreno introduced the idea of a “15-minute city” at the COP21 Summit in 2015. The gist? An urban core that prioritizes human well-being over vehicles.

What is an x-minute city? 

Planners have crowned towns as 10-, 15-, and 20-minute cities in various cases, but no matter the time stamp the key is creating metros in which residents can get to work, housing, food, health, education, culture, and more in just a short bike ride or walk. This can be done by repurposing parking spaces into public areas, creating mixed-use developments like Barcelona’s “superblocks,” and building out pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure like Paris’ 600-plus miles of bike lanes.  

Beyond the potential health benefits—like improved mental well-being and increased physical activity—x-minute cities also promise to curb greenhouse gases. Vehicular traffic accounts for 78% of emissions in urban areas. This approach to development also prioritizes urban green spaces; a flourishing canopy can reduce carbon dioxide levels and help cool urban heat islands.

Is an x-minute city feasible everywhere?

Most American cities are built with cars in mind, which is a difficult route to back out of. A few places, like New York, are already known for walkability and accessible public transit. Other locales have more work to do. Cleveland, for instance, wants to become a 15-minute city by upping private investment in public transit, and Portland has adopted a 20-minute neighborhoods concept, where people live within a half-mile of stores, parks, and schools. 

Critics of the x-minute city warn there’s more to unwind than you can see on a map: Sprawl has contributed to inequities like segregated neighborhoods and discriminatory policing. Focusing on policies that target food deserts, support local schools, and rezone high-traffic areas to act as cultural hubs can buoy any neighborhood.