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Bringing 15-Minute Neighborhoods to Seattle

Nick Tritt has been interning with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways over the past quarter as part of his UW Environmental Capstone Program. He conducted research on the 15 Minute Neighborhoods strategy. In the interview below, I asked him about some of his key findings. 

Gordon: If you lived in a 15-minute neighborhood what would your life be like?

Nick: Urban planning has long been focused on moving as many cars as possible and though mass transportations systems like Seattle’s own Link light rail are expanding, what if we thought about how to bring people’s daily needs to their own neighborhoods? What if instead, we made it possible so you could get all your daily needs within a 15-minute walk from home? A 15-Minute Neighborhood vision brings amenities like grocery stores, retail shops, restaurants, parks, childcare, and places of employment to where people live. When we focus on how the different spaces in our lives such as residential, commercial and recreation areas can be intermixed instead of in separate areas of the city, meeting all our needs by walking becomes the easy option, and likely the more enjoyable one! When you think of some of your favorite neighborhood streets in the city, I bet some of them are bustling, tree-lined main streets full of character where a short walk is all it takes to run some errands, meet a friend for coffee, and visit some favorite shops all while getting some exercise in along the way just by walking. Those lively streets and the folks who live among them are the heart of the 15-Minute Neighborhood vision.

15 minute neighborhood graphic from PPS

Gordon: What does a 15 neighborhood look like in theory?

Nick: All of the goods and services we need and want would be located in the same safe walkable radius from our homes. Compiling data from many pedestrian-focused academic papers and municipal transit studies show that the largest non-work needs of people in the day to day are:

  • Grocery Shopping
  • Recreation & Exercise
  • Running Errands (mailing, appointments, dry cleaning, pet care)
  • Retail Shopping (clothing, electronics, books, home & hobby items)
  • Healthcare
  • Entertainment (venues, theaters, art exhibits)
  • Natural Areas
  • Public Gathering Spaces
  • Restaurants & Bars
  • Places of Worship
  • Social Services
  • Child Care Services

Having a choice between similar amenities does matter, as several studies point out that with grocery stores specifically, people often frequent several different stores to purchase food. Consumers navigate their priorities of convenience, price, and specialty options to decide which store will fit their needs best when they shop.

It’s important to consider the distances most people are willing and able to walk for their needs. Industry-standard data points out that 5 minutes is the ideal distance and 20 minutes is the maximum a person is willing to walk before choosing a different option. At the average adults’ walking pace of 3mph, 15 minutes allows for about a ¾ mile around their front door. The close proximity of amenities in a 15-Minute Neighborhood makes multi-stop trips easily accomplished all within the same walking route.

Gordon: What weren’t you able to find during your research?

Nick: Some research still outstanding is survey data of the specific daily, weekly, and monthly needs of people beyond broader categories such as groceries, parks, and errands. Next step research is finding out more about the types of errands, recreational activities, and shopping habits people have and their frequency. Another unknown is data supporting how people may have different walking thresholds for different amenities and activities, which can inform the placement of new development.

Gordon: Where have 15-minute neighborhood plans been adopted?

Nick: Below is a map of cities around the world that are implementing versions of 15-Minute Neighborhoods into their official municipal planning documents, ranging from Barcelona’s famous Superblocks and Paris’s fresh new 15-Minute City plan, down to Charlotte’s Complete Neighborhoods and the 20-Minute Neighborhood plans from our regional neighbors in Portland and Eugene, Oregon.

15 minute neighborhoods map

Gordon: What are the core components of a 15-minute neighborhood plan around the world?

Nick: There are many things that 15-Minute Neighborhood style plans have in common regardless of where they are happening throughout the world. Mixed-use development is by far the most common trait among plans because when buildings and spaces have multiple uses and open zoning, the cultural, residential, educational, recreational, and commercial spaces coexist, potentially in the same building. Several plans layout the three D’s of urban walkability; Distance, Destinations, and Density. These factors represent having many areas that are easy to walk in a comfortable distance, presence of the most needed business and facilities destinations, and a dense enough resident, employer, and visitor population to financially support all the amenities in a neighborhood. 

Gordon: What are some of the supporting strategies that complement a 15-minute neighborhood strategy?

Nick: Strong bicycle infrastructure and multi-modal transit hubs are widely supported in cities with 15-Minute Neighborhood plans because they allow people on foot to go beyond their walkshed without resorting to cars. More bike lanes, especially those with physical barriers, provide extra protection and space from cars, while well-planned transit hubs can contain pedestrian facilities such as bathrooms, lockers, and information services. 

One other big similarity between cities planning for pedestrian priority is providing more green space and general vegetation in neighborhoods. Greening a neighborhood definitely involves well-maintained parks but also adding street trees, greenery, and pocket parks in vacant lots or oddly shaped and small pieces unused city space. Detroit, MI has made great strides to bring more nature into the city by turning a defunct railroad line into a 1.65-mile-long greenway and supporting extensive urban farm and garden opportunities throughout the city.

Gordon: What do you think should be a part of a 15 Minute Neighborhood plan for Seattle?

Nick: As Seattle progresses toward a more walkable city, we need to make sure that developmental change does not take away the character of our neighborhoods. This includes maintaining racial diversity and equity within communities. We must preserve affordable housing and fully engage with all community members to address everyone’s needs. The individuality of neighborhoods and their unique aesthetics, architecture, and landmarks are part of the intangible characteristics of walkability that make us want to take in the town on foot and feel the community pride with our neighbors and visitors enjoying the scenery. Fostering small independent business growth not only adds appealing character to a neighborhood but in mixed-use development, there is more opportunity for residents to live where they work and be that much more invested in their community.

Recently, the miles of new Stay Healthy Streets in Seattle show that when given the opportunity, communities come alive with activity in new public space options for families to gather, safely play and travel by walking or biking. We need to continue to find similar opportunities to expand pedestrian space through easily implemented temporary traffic lanes and parking minimization. Farmers markets in Seattle, notably the Ballard Farmers Market is an example of what could come from experimenting with reclaiming roads for community space. For less dense areas, being creative with using space in multiple ways such as getting a pop-up retail market or food truck corral in parking lots or school grounds lets less walkable neighborhoods experience having more amenities close to home.

Thanks for all your work on this Nick! For folks who want to support helping Seattle become a place where everyone can walk or roll to their daily needs, donate or sign up to volunteer