As Edmonton inches towards two million residents, it's looking to a concept that would see the city create 15-minute districts as a way to improve quality of life, help achieve its plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, and control urban sprawl.
The 15-minute city is an urban design strategy that the current city council adopted as part of the City Plan at the end of 2020. The next city council, and its successors, will make the decisions that either help bring this plan to life or leave it to languish. As the municipal election approaches, this is a good time to examine what this concept means for Edmonton.
So what is a 15-minute district?
The City Plan defines it as "small towns in our big city, where people can meet many of their daily needs locally."
The goal is to create "a place where you can get all of the immediate needs and amenities within a 15-minute … distance of your home," architect Shafraaz Kaba told Green Energy Futures. That could potentially include groceries, recreation, green space, housing, health care, small businesses and more — the district plans expected in early 2022 will define what will be included.
The city says it wants to make it possible — not mandatory, but possible — to get to those places without a car, by walking, biking, or taking transit.
If all goes as planned, Edmontonians will be able to access their daily needs (without having to drive) from where they live in their respective districts — the City Plan identifies 15 of them across the city — by the time the city grows to two million people. It's a target that attendees of Taproot's People's Agenda listening sessions said they are keen for the city to implement, expressing that they want to see an overall increase in density and walkability.
But no city is built exactly the same, and Edmonton is particularly sprawled out, meaning how it approaches shifting towards this concept will look different from other cities around the world.
Where does the '15-minute' term originate?
The idea itself isn't necessarily new, as it "builds on principles of New Urbanism and transit-oriented development, and it finds its roots in the idea of the neighbourhood unit advanced by the American planner Clarence Perry in the early 1900s," writes City Monitor's Patrick Sisson.
The urban design concept grew in popularity in 2019 when French-Colombian professor Carlos Moreno further developed the idea of "focusing on economic development in every corner of the city."
Moreno inspired Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to champion the 15-minute city, and it became a core component of her successful 2020 reelection campaign.
"It now stands as her central policy framework to improve quality of life and help the city live up to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement," writes Sisson. "As cities around the world strive to make similar transformations, Paris's experience with the 15-minute philosophy will be closely watched for ideas that can be emulated elsewhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred even more demand for localized amenities as workers shifted to home offices and spent more time in their nearby communities.
What other cities are doing something similar?
Paris wasn't the first place to get on board, but it has likely done the most to put it into practice by promoting cycling and walking, restricting vehicles, and putting an emphasis on people-first infrastructure and parks.
C40 Cities, a coalition of 97 cities around the world that are focused on fighting climate change, has put an emphasis on the concept as a means to post-pandemic economic recovery.
Other examples of cities working on similar strategies include Melbourne, which has built a long-term plan to move towards 20-minute neighbourhoods; Ottawa, whose 15-minute city plan aims to "have residents take half their trips by foot, bicycle, public transit or by carpooling"; and Portland, which plans for 90% of the city to have access to daily needs through its Complete Neighbourhood project.
If these places are focusing on individual neighbourhoods, why is Edmonton building at the district level?
"While other cities may be focused on different geographies, our intent is to recognize that we're different from other cities, we have different needs," said Michael Strong, principal planner with the City of Edmonton and project lead for district planning.
Edmonton currently has 402 neighbourhoods, including the newly approved Meltwater. There are around 200 plans in effect to guide individual neighbourhood development, and those without a plan are guided by the City Plan, city strategies, guidelines, and zoning bylaws. Planning decisions for both residential and industrial neighbourhoods are shifting as a whole towards the direction of the City Plan, and the new district plans will help achieve that overall vision.
Strong pointed to the Building Great Neighbourhoods project as an example of why the city shifted towards the district model, which led to various departments collaborating about how to be more efficient and effective.
"Part of that was understanding that certain neighbourhoods share infrastructure, services, and boundaries. By rolling this up into a district we can then take a better look holistically about how to gain some efficiencies and effectiveness in terms of how we provide those services," Strong told Taproot.
"The districts really came into that conversation about how we work at a much larger scale to provide these things that take our city in that direction as we grow to two million."
While it may get confusing differentiating 15-minute neighbourhoods or 15-minute districts, Strong said overall "it comes down to what we can do to build more compactly."
"Obviously work has to happen at a neighbourhood level, but we're hoping that Edmontonians will not get caught up on the exact definition of 'We're doing it right or we're doing it wrong,' but we're moving in the direction to allow ourselves to live more locally as Edmontonians have told us they want, and to provide more of these daily needs within a 15-minute reach."
Although Edmontonians will still be able to choose to travel by car, the goal is that they don't necessarily have to own one to live here.
While there's no guarantee that residents will choose alternative modes of transportation over vehicles, Strong said the City Plan's emphasis on nodes and corridors will help with that.
"We are trying to change the environment, and that will impact people's decisions to travel as far as they do. By emphasizing more services within a corridor like 124th Street … you may have a car, but maybe you're less compelled to drive it by virtue of the city moving towards a more compact built environment."
At a city-wide level, the City Plan aims to have 50% of daily trips made by active mobility (walking, biking) or public transit, with cars accounting for the other 50%. Currently, less than 25% of all daily trips are made by transit or active modes, so the move towards 15-minute districts will contribute towards that goal.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of making this shift?
There are the immediate advantages of mobility and convenience, which provide improved quality of life because residents can access necessities quicker and more efficiently within their neighbourhoods.
Edmonton also has the highest per capita emissions of any municipality in Canada, according to the University of Alberta. With 15-minute districts, residents will be able to get where they need to go for work or to pick up groceries without needing to own a vehicle, which the city hopes will promote a more sustainable city by lowering carbon emissions and freeing up roads and parking spaces for other uses. The health of Edmontonians could also be improved as they walk or bike more to get around.
The design may also be a boon for the city's coffers — as cities sprawl, costs go up.
"It costs a lot of money to build new fire halls, police stations, ambulance services, and even the roads to get there," architect Kaba told Green Energy Futures. Plus, there's "all of the pipes that deliver our water, our sewage, our natural gas lines, our electricity, all of that takes millions and millions of dollars to expand further and further outwards."
But some urban experts say that 15-minute cities may not transfer well from Europe to North America, and could exacerbate inequality. Toronto-based urban designer and thinker Jay Pitter even called the template "presumptive and colonial" at the CityLab 2021 conference.
"It doesn't take into account the histories of urban inequity, intentionally imposed by technocratic and colonial planning approaches, such as segregated neighbourhoods, deep amenity inequity, and discriminatory policing of our public spaces," she told the CityLab 2021 conference in March.
Pitter is more in favour of a "bottom-up approach to redesigning streets and neighbourhoods that allows people to make their own decisions on design right outside their doorstep," she said. That might see some places go from 60-minute cities to 45-minute cities or 30-minute to 20-minute.
Whether Edmonton's approach to this design will be effective is to be determined, as it's still in its early stages.
How will the city bring its plan to life and track progress?
The city is in the midst of developing the district plans, which includes figuring out which data it will use to measure whether trips for daily necessities are possible within 15 minutes of active transportation or transit.
"But I think we might have to expand our tools in terms of how we capture this data, perhaps capturing it more frequently so that we can understand those trends, instead of waiting every 10 years to understand it," she said.
The city will also have to make a noticeable shift away from building a city that prioritizes vehicles as the main mode of transportation, so increasing density will be crucial.
But by continuing to take actions like prioritizing infill targets, in 2050 Edmontonians might see 50% of new dwelling units added through infill, which is one of the goals of the City Plan. Eventually, residents will be able to physically feel the city changing, said Hassan.
Strong also said it's important to remember that district planning is only one possible strategy that can be used to shape the city, and tools like updating the zoning bylaw, which will dictate how developers build on sites, will also contribute to shifting the focus away from car-oriented planning.
City administration is preparing drafts of all 15 district plans and organizing to conduct a second round of engagement early next year as directed by city council's urban planning committee. The goal is to have council approve district plans by the end of 2022, which will aim to show residents more specifically how their neighbourhoods will evolve.
The district plans will also provide direction to industry about where development and redevelopment are encouraged as well as information for administration and council that will inform decisions regarding land use, mobility, and infrastructure.
The city said the first iteration of the plans will guide Edmonton's growth to 1.25 million, with updates to be made with each additional 250,000 people. Strong and Howaida expect that the soon-to-be elected councillors and mayor will provide direction and feedback on the future district plans.
"We expect them to put more pressure or focus on areas that the city needs to go to respond to new opportunities and challenges and issues," said Strong. "And that the measurement that we do and build over time will help inform that decision to focus on different aspects of the City Plan to achieve it."
The idea to do this story emerged from a discussion during one of Taproot's listening sessions on the People's Agenda, our project to ground our municipal election coverage in issues that are important to Edmontonians.