The Boston Foundation’s 2021-2022 event season launched (via Zoom) with panache and a forum built around a creative, optimistic—some might say utopian but really quite achievable—vision: A region of interconnected “15-minute neighborhoods,” in which people take precedence over cars and community fabric is strengthened as residents meet their everyday needs within a quarter-hour’s walk from home.
Boston Foundation President and CEO M. Lee Pelton welcomed the audience of more than 300 viewers to the release of 15-Minute Neighborhoods: Repairing Regional Harms and Building Vibrant Neighborhoods for All, emphasizing how the type of neighborhoods proposed and described in the report offer an opportunity for greater equity across our cities. “While bike lanes, better sidewalks and mixed-use neighborhoods won’t erase systems of inequality, or fix our housing crisis, or break down residential segregation,” he said, “they open up possibilities.” He introduced the first presenter, renowned urbanist Carlos Moreno, Mayor of Paris’ Special Envoy for Smart Cities and a professor at the Sorbonne Business School.
Moreno took the audience on a whirlwind tour of Paris and the theory of 15-minute neighborhoods—a term he is credited with popularizing—in photos, drawings and graphics. That inspiration set the stage for talking about how we might do similar things in our own region. Boston Indicators Research Fellow Anne Kiyono Calef presented the report’s vision of equitable 15-minute neighborhoods, which incorporates five elements:
- Redesigned streetscapes that include space for walking, biking and gathering
- Accessible commercial spaces
- Diverse housing options
- Diverse and empowered resident populations
- Strong social infrastructure
Boston Indicators Senior Director Luc Schuster then shared a broad policy roadmap, engaging state, regional and local bodies, and importantly adjusting the level of government at which certain decisions get made.
With that background, the expert panel (see names and titles in sidebar) discussed the report and its concepts from different vantage points. Through wide-ranging conversation all agreed that we would benefit on this front—and many others—from having a Commonwealth-wide plan. The development and execution of such a plan, however, needs to fully incorporate and be directed by community voices. In one thread of the discussion, Tracy Corley observed, “There are lots of good efforts, but where we are falling short of what people want to happen is in political will.” Jonathan Berk sees that political will can be changed by educating residents and voters: “When they understand that the reason they have hurdles in their daily life is poor urban planning, they can come together in coalitions to push this forward.” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, the one politician in the group, didn’t disagree, but noted that “change, even for good, brings a sense of loss, so [a leader] has to be a good listener. For example, bringing pedestrian and cyclist traffic deaths to zero means taking away parking spots or traffic lanes, which causes momentary pain.” As Moreno had articulated in his opening presentation, “Focusing on the urban common good is the driver to bring people together.”
The morning closed with participants joining breakout rooms to hear about the local case studies of neighborhoods striving toward the 15-minute ideal: Boston’s Jackson Square, Somerville’s Assembly Square, Worcester’s Canal District, and Reading Town Center. These are described and pictured in the report, well worth a look. They illustrate another of Moreno’s bon mots: “This is not a copy-paste model, like a technocratic city. It takes in the complexity of a city and its neighborhoods. It’s a journey, not a magic wand.”