Time to step back in time and
reclaim our '15-minute cities'

Piyush S Girgaonkar

At a time when physical distancing and opting for non-motorable transport (NMT) is largely becoming the norm, it is time cities in India go back and revisit their urban planning rulebooks, which propagated pedestrian-oriented and walkability-enhanced planning of city cores.

The 15-minute city’ has become a buzzword in the urban planning domain since the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, made it her re-election agenda. An innovative idea, aimed at establishing hyper-proximity infrastructure — this concept is not new on the urbanism contours, specifically in the Indian context. But in order to transcend Indian cities into resilient ones, inducing walkability and accessibility in the planning process at the micro-level such as wards and neighbourhoods becomes vital.

The idea that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride gave rise to the “la ville du quart d’heure” (15-minute city) concept. A 15-minute city is an urban planning tool aimed at improving the quality of life for city-dwellers. Work, education, healthcare, shopping, leisure and so on are the reasons that impel vehicular trips. The 15-minute city concept focuses on giving residents access to everything they could need within a 15-minute radius of their home, so that such vehicular trips can be curtailed.

The philosophy that cities should be planned for pedestrians and not for cars and motors, is the driving factor behind the development of the 15-minute city concept. In short, everything should be possible, within a 15-minute walking distance.

The endorsement of mixed-use development, installation of pedestrian infrastructure, non-motorised transport zones, enhancing walkability, improving public transport and allied infrastructure are some of the key principles involved in the concept. Driven by the motivation that the streets belong more to pedestrians and less to cars, the concept endorses the widening of pedestrian walkways by narrowing the right of way for cars.

Given the inter-relationship between green and grey infrastructure, the concept could play a major role in improving lives and urban environment. The hope that this concept could turn out to be an exciting prospect in today’s urge to decarbonise cities has attracted several civic governments across the globe. This has made the concept a new global movement, to reject traditional urbanism and uphold optimism. The global alliance of 96 cities which took an oath to battle climate change and enhance sustainability in their functioning is called the 'C40 Cities' group. This group has now declared the ‘15-minute city’ its prime agenda, to ensure ‘green and just’ in the cities.

Five Indian cities, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi NCT, Jaipur and Kolkata, are part of this group. As the concept aims to enhance a framework for mixed-use development and robust public spaces, the understanding of the common code in the context of these five cities becomes necessary. Cities like Delhi, Pune and Kolkata have developed circularly over the years. Mixed-use development is predominant in the city core of these cities. Indian cities have a legacy of mixed land-use characteristics, with commercial-residential use being the most common. As mixed-use development suits the agenda of reduction of motor trips, Indian cities have been developed on the right track. The robust nature of city cores and their fringe areas have already made them 15-minute cities.

Historically speaking, the walled city of Jaipur is already an outstanding example of this concept, developed around 294 years ago. Essential services and recreational facilities, along with workplaces in the walled city are within a 15-minute reach of housing. Further, residents of these cities have a tendency to dedicate the ground floor for commercial and upper floors for residential use. So the ideas of mixed use and ultimately, the ‘15-minute city’ have already existed in Indian roots.

Not just in history, but modern planning tools in India too have focused on self-sustained, walkable neighbourhoods. The editions of master plans of cities like Bengaluru, Jaipur and Bhopal have accessibility and inclusive growth as their fundamental principles. The compact city development concept has also been the principle behind the planning of cities like Nagpur.

The foresight of the Indian planning process with regard to the ‘15-minute city’ is evident from the ‘Urban and Regional Development Plan Formulation and Implementation Guidelines’. This apex set of standards behind master plan preparation, has a separate set of norms for urban residential set-ups with a population up to 5,000, called the ‘housing area level’. Next, there is a separate set of norms for the neighbourhoods with populations between 5,000 and 15,000. These guidelines involve norms and standards for amenities ranging from ATMs to milk booths, parks and playfields to schools and dispensaries. This shows that Indian cities had already been marching towards establishing self-sustainable neighbourhoods right from the 16th century, only, they did not coin a term like ‘15-minute city’.

There is no doubt that despite a legacy of walkability-oriented and accessibility-enhanced planning of city cores, our ever-expanding Indian cities need micro-mobility strategies. Area-based planning models can be vital in attaining the required resilience in these cities. Peripheral areas, where commuters reside, need planning interventions of a scale less than that for the master plan.

Cities like Pune, Mumbai and Ahmedabad have adopted the ‘Town Planning Scheme’ (TPS) model of development. This model is focused essentially on the pooling of amenities and residential pockets in proximity. It has been successful in the case of greenfield developments, as public consultation has been an integral part of the process.

In the case of brownfield development, there is a greater need for management, rather than planning. Local Area Plans (LAPs), prepared for an area equivalent to the administrative ward of a municipal corporation, could help in establishing accessible amenities. Land-use zoning, density, allowed building uses and self-sustainability related aspects are incorporated in such micro-plans. Such experiments and initiatives have already been started by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, which has launched LAPs and TPSs in 25 smart city corporations across India.

Although planning norms, master plans and initiatives do not lack foresight with respect to accessibility in cities, there is a need to endorse more micro-level planning approaches. Thus can the legacy of Indian planning, which the ‘15-minute city’ concept resembles, be sustained and urban complexities in cities be resolved.

The Observer Research Foundation

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