15-Minute Community

Background

The 15-Minute Community is the concept that all of the basic everyday needs a person has can be reached within a 15-minute walk from their home. To be more specific, near your home, there should be coffee shops, groceries, pharmacies, restaurants, day care, schools, a park, a library, places to work. Further, these 15-minute communities should be connected by transit and safe bike routes to allow free interchange from place to place. Of course these places will also be connected by automobile, but we believe there are advantages for both the community as a whole, and for individuals within it, for transit to be seen as the primary form of transportation.

Why the emphasis on transit over personal vehicles? We believe that good transit is more efficient, more convenient, and also far cheaper overall than personal vehicles for getting around in dense areas. It also leads to a more pleasant neighborhood with less traffic, and less space used parking automobiles. And, perhaps most importantly, it is more inclusive. Transit serves people who cannot drive, perhaps because they are too young or too old, perhaps because they are disabled, or maybe just that most of their income is going to pay rent instead. Some level of transit is needed by even the most car-dependent areas in order to serve these people. Why not make it a bit better, allowing everyone more convenience and giving everyone a level playing field?

There are many places that are taking this vision and using it remap their communities, but perhaps one of the best examples is Paris. The current mayor was elected in 2020 with this as part of her platform. Since the pandemic, they have dramatically increased the number of bike paths in the city, and have begun reclaiming parks from places that used to park cars. They have closed some roads to vehicles to allow better pedestrian access. And they are planting a huge number of trees.

The by-product of all this would be to reduce our staggering cost of transportation, both in terms of dollars spent, and, most importantly, in greenhouse gas emissions and health impacts.

Realizing the Vision

The 15-minute community is purposefully stated as a vision we can all relate to, not a set of steps in an urban planning document. As a vision, it has broad applicability, and can also be thought of in different ways by different people. But I believe that if you embrace the vision for Seattle and Puget Sound, it provides a better context for thinking about many of the problems we are currently debating in our community, including growth, density, affordable housing, and transportation.

One corollary that comes from this vision is that it requires density, because for a coffee shop or a grocery to have enough customers within 15 minutes it requires a fair number of people living nearby. These people could be in a dense urban core, or they could be in a village surrounded by farms or forests. Either way, their community should be organized so they can walk to the things they need. Zoning requirements that make this difficult or impossible, like minimum lot size, minimum parking, minimum square footage, height allowances, and maximum units per lot should be reconsidered. Not that we should remove all zoning requirements, but we should reconsider them in light of what kind of community we would like to build.

Another corollary is that all communities require some affordable housing: communities that have coffee shops, restaurants, and groceries, must also have housing nearby that the people working in these places can afford. So communities should allow for a mix of different income levels among residents. I believe that such policies would work to build better social cohesion. This may mean more requirements or incentives for builders to build affordable housing.

Specific Policies

I am sure there are many policies that would help us get us closer to the vision. Here's a selection of possibilities:

  • Reform single family zoning so it allows up to four units per lot, or six if two of them are affordable housing. This rule was passed in Aug 2020 by Portland. 69% of Seattle land is occupied by single family housing, and the majority of the land is zoned so that only single family houses may be built. This pushes all other development – multi-family, retail, office, industrial – into what is left. In 2017, 88% of all new building was in zones occupying just 18% of the land. This bottleneck is a large part of what is driving up the cost of living in Seattle, and driving residents out to outer suburbs.

  • Allow the first floor of buildings on arterials to be retail.

  • Allow office buildings on arterials.

  • Support transit in Seattle in King County, as well as city-to-city train service

In the Media