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Does Metro Vancouver have the time and space for a 15-minute city?

New urbanism outlook generating controversy over office space and other city amenities
How compatible are City of Vancouver downtown office towers with 15-minute city planning principles and new urbanism initiatives to make cities more livable and their services more convenient and accessible?

In the 1960s, pop artist Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes; in the 2020s, urbanist Carlos Moreno has proposed that everyone in cities should have access to all the services they need in 15 minutes.

Warhol might have been peddling pop culture irony with his prophecy, but Moreno is earnest about his 15-minute mantra.

He has dubbed it the 15-minute city plan. It champions the proposition that modern cities need a major overhaul – not just a politically expedient tinkering around the edges to lighten up the more down and dirty aspects of 21st century urban life. Moreno’s 15-minute plan proposes a top to bottom city makeover that shifts city planning from prioritizing automobiles to prioritizing humans.

“In a nutshell,” he explains in the October 2022 TED talk that kickstarted debate over his plan’s impact and practicality, “the idea is that cities should be designed or redesigned, so that within the distance of your 15-minute work drive, people should be able to lead the essence of what constitutes the urban experience, to access work, housing, food, health, education, culture and leisure.”

What could be wrong with that?

Nothing, say 15-minute city (FMC) proponents; a lot, say FMC critics and government conspiracy theorists.

Consider, for example, the opinions of Itxu Díaz.

In a February 2023 National Review opinion piece, the Spanish journalist, author and satirist cites reports in the French daily Le Parisien and conservative newspaper Boulevard Voltaire that citizens are fleeing the city in part because of high costs and a precipitous drop in the quality of life in the city’s core, but also because Paris, one of the first major world cities to adopt FMC initiatives, is preparing to ban car traffic from its downtown core in 2024.

That elimination of traffic-driven urban vibrancy, Diaz argues, is bad for city business. Moreover, he writes, it is bad for human interaction.

“Turning cities into dozens of small, self-contained ecosystems would only worsen our own epidemic of alienation and make us even more insular in our habits.”

Worse still, he adds, an FMC “could only work by giving too much power to the government.”

And therein lies fodder for conspiracy theorists when it comes to the FMC movement.

Top-down edicts from government are not big with a lot of people; big ideas from urbanists in the European Union are even less palatable for people in North America.

But, as Wes Regan points out, Moreno’s 15-minute city concept is neither new nor nefarious. Regan is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning and a former City of Vancouver community economic planner.

Regan says that the new urbanism at the heart of FMC planning dates to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: “When we started talking seriously about sustainability.”

That sparked discussion of city planning as a foundational piece of the sustainability puzzle.

“Having access to parks or health-care services,” Regan says, “or just having a walkable city, where you can get out and ride your bike somewhere safely and use different non-automobile modes of transportation.”

But the idea of neighbourhood units is far older than the new urbanism of the late 20th century. It dates to the 1920s and American city planner Clarence Perry.

Regan says Moreno’s mnemonic messaging of the new urbanism planning approach in a 15-minute package provides an easily digestible and visual way of thinking about its convenience and appeal: 15 minutes to work; 15 minutes to shops; 15 minutes to health care, etc.

But what about those 15-minute city conspiracy theories?

“It really is not about trying to limit people’s movement,” Regan argues. “In cities, it’s more about empowering access to everything people typically need, and planning in such a way that it’s easier to walk and cycle. And that it’s easier to make that choice instead of hopping in the car and having to go further afield for something. So, really, it’s about empowering people, not disempowering people.”

Simply put, the FMC, he says, is more about an overall approach to city planning than a rigid 15-minute government top-down decree.

Fair enough, but how practical is it? Would it work in Metro Vancouver? What does it mean for businesses and their offices?

Practicality varies widely depending on the vintage of a given neighbourhood or municipality.

The City of Vancouver, for example, has better FMC potential than other Lower Mainland municipalities, says Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

“Vancouver does quite well, simply because its urban fabric was determined not only by the walking city but by streetcars.”

However, as Yan points out, 75 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents live outside of Vancouver, so Surrey, Burnaby and other more-recently established Lower Mainland municipalities whose planning has catered to the automobile will consequently have a harder time adopting FMC principles.

“The bigger challenges are probably going to be in those communities as opposed to the City of Vancouver.… It’s particularly challenging to incorporate [FMC] from now on [because planning] has already been laid out in certain ways.”

Challenging for residents and urban redesign initiatives, but also challenging for businesses, employees and office building economics.

For starters, population density dictates business viability. That is one of the key conclusions in a retail-commercial district small business study prepared for the City of Vancouver in 2020.

It found that local shopping areas with fewer than 40 people per hectare in an approximate 15-minute “walk shed” “were more likely to have ‘red flags’ for health and vitality.”

Also, as Yan points out, Kerrisdale-Dunbar and other high cost-of-living neighbourhoods already have a challenging time attracting employees for local businesses.

Finding workers who could afford to live 15 minutes from those businesses would make staffing even harder.

COVID-19 ignited debate over office space and how it is used. The battle to balance the pandemic economy’s remote working model with the push to repopulate business centres and downtown office cores is far from resolved.

FMC initiatives could raise the temperature of that battle.

For example, Deloitte’s Urban Future with a Purpose report notes that in Paris, which began its FMC initiatives of hyper-proximity and multipurpose localities in earnest in 2019, the mayor has committed the city to creating cycling lanes in every street and eliminating 60,000 parking spaces.

Parking lots in some areas have been replaced with public gardens, and buildings have been converted into public housing that includes offices, day-care facilities and clinics.

Diversifying the use of office and other commercial buildings that are unoccupied in the evening and other set times is another planning principle pushed by FMC advocates.

But the practicality of repurposing office space in downtown cores varies depending on the economic state of those cores.

Consider, for example, Calgary versus Vancouver.

Calgary’s downtown office space vacancy rate has been hovering around 30 per cent since late 2021; Vancouver’s was closer to 10 per cent in 2023’s first quarter.

While he sees Calgary as somewhat of an outlier in the downtown office building vacancy category, Adam Jacobs, senior national research director for Colliers, says the city has “kind of reached the point of, OK, this is a bad thing.”

Repurposing its downtown office real estate to fulfilment centres, affordable housing or other uses therefore might make more sense, he says, than “waiting around for the next big resource company to lease five million square feet.”

Demolition, he adds, is another Plan B.

“I think we’re seeing in a lot of cities across the country – Winnipeg, Calgary – [where] you’ve got a lot of old buildings [and] maybe the demand for them just isn’t there the way it was five years ago.”

However, Jacobs says the office market is not as bad as people perceive it to be.

“If you asked a random person who didn’t work in the [commercial real estate] industry, they’d probably say it was like 30 or 40 per cent vacant; it’s nothing like that.”

But leased office space is not necessarily occupied office space. And that is at the heart of concerns over hollowed-out downtown business cores.

Regan also points out that balancing employee remote work demands with office leasing costs is challenging. Adjusting municipal land-use zoning to make it easier for offices to be built in residential areas, he says, could be one way to achieve a workable balance.

But, as Jacobs points out, Vancouver is well served by transit, and its downtown is well connected to the city’s neighbourhoods.

The FMC planning model to him is more about mobility and connectivity.

It does not mean “don’t go downtown. And I also don’t think it means build office towers out in Kerrisdale. And – between interest rates and work from home – nobody would do that anyway, right now.… It’s not practical.... You’ve got transit, and you’ve got work from home. So why do people need to have an office built in the suburbs?”

Jacobs adds that part of the attraction of a downtown business core is its energy and social buzz. For employers wanting to attract the best employees, that matters.

“We sometimes hear that the suburban office is an obstacle … [that] ‘I don’t want to drive out to work in some suburban office park. I want to be able to work downtown. My friends work downtown, it’s more convenient, it’s less expensive.’ I think downtown is still where it’s at for a lot of occupiers.”

On those counts, Jacobs says, Vancouver is still performing very well.

However, he notes that amenities are increasingly being used to lure people back to offices in what he describes as a “flight to quality” – swapping overall office space for less space but less space in a higher quality office with more amenities.

Zoning and density are key considerations in cultivating FMC philosophies.

“On the whole,” says Regan, “if more office spaces come available [closer] to desirable and emerging neighbourhoods, this is one plausible scenario businesses may have to closely consider.”

He adds that increasing residential density in commercial corridors such as Broadway and Kingsway in Vancouver will increase customers and demand for legal, accounting, health care and other service providers.

That, he says, “would be good news for commercial property owners and developers and even existing tenants who may benefit from the additional foot traffic.”

But Regan adds that widespread marketplace disruption from remote work setups, artificial intelligence and other technology and urban planning overhauls complicates any predictions about the future of office space in city business districts and elsewhere.

However, here is one prediction city planners can take to the bank: The success of new urbanism planning or any other radical retooling of communities will depend on open two-way communication and buy-in from residents and businesses from the outset.

Without it, the seeds of conspiracy are sown.

“This is what happens when you exclude the public,” says Yan. “Rumours or innuendo start floating around [when] you have not included them in the process of talking about their future and their future city. This is inevitably going to happen, especially in an era of social media. But it’s also a lesson in community planning, right, that to do community planning, you need to include the community.” 

This article was first published in BIV's 2023 edition of Office Space magazine

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