A Hyperlocal Global Urban Movement

Photo by: Mathieu Delmestre

OBEL AWARD winner Carlos Moreno explains the complexity theory behind the 15-minute city concept and the growing global movement it has created led by scientists and mayors.

12 OCTOBER 2021

Cities need to breathe.”

These are the words of scientist Carlos Moreno who envisions a living city with a human scale that takes advantage of, but is not controlled by, technology.

“We live today in unbreathable cities, cities with stress that are totally unsustainable. We need to transform our mobilities. We need to change our urban lifestyle,” he says.

Carlos Moreno, scientific director and professor at University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, is the winner of the OBEL AWARD 2021 for his work on the 15-minute city. This makes him the third recipient of the new, international prize for architecture that honours recent and outstanding contributions towards changing the physical, designed environment for the common good.

“I want to thank the jury for giving me this award. In my opinion, it is in fact a triple recognition: On the one hand, it is a recognition of my academic work, but secondly, it is a recognition of the international movement generated by the 15-minute city. And thirdly, it is a recognition of the commitment by different mayors around the world in embracing the 15-minute city,” says Carlos Moreno.

The spark for scientists and mayors

In short, the idea behind the 15-minute city is that all residents should be able to access their daily needs within the distance of a 15-minute walk or bike ride. When Carlos Moreno proposed the 15-minute city model five years ago, he says that people considered it a good idea but a utopian concept, mainly because they thought it unrealistic that everyone should work close to home. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a radical transformation of the workstyle, however. According to Carlos Moreno, young people in particular have discovered the possibility of using digital technology to gain more freedom in their work-life balance and to replace the commute time from their home to their office with useful time for living. “Covid is the spark for transforming our cities,” he says.

The 15-minute city gained traction globally during the Covid-19 pandemic when the urban network C40 cities decided to promote the model as a new roadmap for a post-pandemic world. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo made the 15-minute city an important part of her reelection campaign in 2020 and invited Carlos Moreno to be closely involved in the work of transforming Paris using his concept.

“The close collaboration between Hidalgo and my team of scientists made it possible to transform the city of Paris and to inspire cities worldwide to follow the example. As a result, I was contacted by mayors around the world telling me that they were implementing the 15-minute city in their city. I think that in the history of urbanism, this situation is very original: that we have scientists developing new concepts and at the same time we have mayors who listen to scientists such as myself and decide to implement the concepts in their cities,” says Carlos Moreno.

Robotics and urbanism

Carlos Moreno is trained in mathematics and computer science, specifically robotics and artificial intelligence. Just after the internet revolution in 2000, the professor was one of the proponents of “smart cities” and using computer science and mathematics to optimise the functions and management of cities. However, with time and with the increasing awareness of climate change as the most important threat for humans, he changed his mind.

“I decided that my duty was not to continue to propose tech solutions but to orient my professional activities towards understanding the complexities of cities, understanding the impact of climate change, the role of the economy, and the social aspects of cities,” he says.

Cities are incomplete systems, imperfect systems, in permanent evolution

The shift from robotics to urbanism was not as radical as one might think, however. According to Carlos Moreno, there are many similarities between the two fields, and he found that he could apply his knowledge of complexity to gain a better understanding of cities.

“Cities are the most complex systems created by humans. And one of the characteristics of a complex system is the non-possibility of predicting its evolution. So, as complex systems, cities are totally unpredictable. Cities are incomplete systems, imperfect systems, in permanent evolution – fragile. We need to consider cities as complex systems and imagine new ways to generate adaptable solutions. This is how I came to propose the living city instead of the smart city. We need to abandon this idea of the city controlled by technology,” he says.

Architecture in a complex system

The concept of the 15-minute city and the theory of complexity that lies behind it are highly relevant to architects. If cities are complex systems, and therefore unpredictable and fragile, architects must create solutions that adapt to changing conditions, according to Carlos Moreno.

“Architects generally focus on a building and the functionalities inside. But we need to develop a holistic vision. When you decide to embrace the discipline of complexity and see the city as a complex system and a living organism, buildings are also part of the ecosystem. In this way, a building needs to live and breathe, and it needs to transform and to change its uses over time,” he says and continues:

“With the current climate emergency, it is totally necessary to have an adaptable environment in the city if we want to be resilient. Therefore, I think that we need to generate a new movement with architects, urbanists, landscape architects, etc., to propose a new paradigm for transforming cities into living, sustainable, resilient cities with a human scale.”

Expanding a new urban lifestyle

The 15-minute city promotes walkability and cycling in big cities. However, in less dense areas, it may not be possible for people to access all essential urban functions by foot or by bike.

“Today, the 15-minute city is based on high-density, compact urban zones. We need to broaden our focus to include different densities and territories: from the small cities to the mid-sized cities and even to the rural territories. We need to keep the concept of the 15-minute city but imagine new ways to implement its principle of proximity in other densities,” says Carlos Moreno.

At the moment, the professor and his team have started a new experiment in the South of France to understand behaviours at this lower level of density: the 30-minute territory, based on the same scientific concepts of polycentrism and new proximities. The OBEL AWARD prize will help him and his team for future efforts to focus on different urban and territorial densities. This will allow for the full use of the 15-minute concept and its potential to reduce CO2 emissions globally and increase the quality of life for people, he says:

“The OBEL AWARD for me is a very important recognition of my work. I think that it is a wonderful opportunity for me and my team for continuing and upscaling our work and for spreading this new urban lifestyle.”

Read the article A Hyperlocal Global Urban Movement on the OBEL AWARD website: obelaward.org.