Will 15-minute cities truly bring back local retail?

Source: “The Point - Utah’s Innovation Community – Framework Plan” - Aug. 2021
Jan 07, 2022

In Draper, a suburb of Salt Lake City, developers recently revealed plans to build Utah’s first “15-minute city,” a residential planning model in which all daily necessities — including shopping — are accessible by foot or by bike within a quarter of an hour.

Initiatives for 15-minute cities are in process in Paris, Milan, Stockholm, Vancouver and Melbourne, as well as Portland (Oregon), Seattle and Detroit in the U.S.

First coined in 2016 by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, the 15-minute city model harks back to how historic cities in Europe as well as early American towns were organized before cars arrived. Instead of distinct districts for working, living and entertainment, the 15-minute city concept envisages multiple neighborhoods, also known as “complete communities,” scattered throughout a city where all three functions co-exist.

Online shopping (eliminating the 20-minute drive to the big box), virtual communication and the work-from-home trend are newer factors making local living more conceivable.

The 15-minute cities concept promises ecological benefits because relying less on cars reduces urban heat, carbon emissions and redundant traveling time.

In the way of social benefits, 15-minute cities and other “chrono-urbanism” concepts promise to reduce stress by eliminating the long commute while enabling residents to tap into connections from close-knit communities.

Pandemic-related restrictions and work-from-home demands have caused households to rethink investing time in their communities to enhance their quality of life. Suburban and outer-city homeowners are said to be seeking similar access to work, rest and play amenities as city dwellers.

Finally, equity is cited as another potential payback from 15-minute cities, assuming equal access to services, community-building amenities and green space can reduce social divides and inequalities.

The hyper-local focus would be a boon for local shopping, presenting opportunities for mom and pops but also national players. WD Partners wrote in a new study that explored in part the 15-minute city trend, “Retailers need to move to where the people are spending the bulk of their lives now: the local neighborhood. The days of ‘build it and they will come’ out in some distant greenfield are over.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How would you rate the development potential and overall appeal of 15-minute cities? Would such hyper-local communities favor mom and pops or offer equal opportunity for national retail players?

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"I have long felt that this model is very effective, and they do seem to also draw shoppers from outside the community that are attracted to the vibe."

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26 Comments on "Will 15-minute cities truly bring back local retail?"

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David Naumann

The concept of 15-minute cities is a brilliant idea. Personally, I would love to live in one of these communities. While it might be a good opportunity for local retailers, it will be hard for developers to turn away money from large retail chains that will want to be a part of these communities.

Lee Peterson

I believe this is the future, not only for living but shopping/retail as well. We recently did a study with 2,700 consumers and their main preference for shopping was “local” (within two miles), driven by the work from home phenomenon. After looking at the results and then talking to consumers, Moreno’s idea already has approval in a big way. Gone are the days of driving 12 miles to a parking lot and coming back three hours later, UNLESS you really want to. Remember, you don’t have to go to stores anymore, you have to want to go to stores, and the 15 minute city (walkable stores) is spot-on thinking for the 21st century.

Gary Sankary

Personally, I love the idea of urban planning based on walking and biking. I do think this opens up opportunities for smaller stores, at least for a while. Keep in mind that Target, Walmart and others have already created small format stores that have the potential to extend their brands to these sorts of communities. The good news is with smaller locations, the playing field for real estate and market share is a bit more level between the national brands and local operators.

Melissa Minkow

This is a fascinating concept. My only concerns are that 1.) if employers don’t offer flexible work from home policies, there’s still a big reason this model isn’t convenient 2.) public transportation has to be really strong in order to allow for people to visit neighboring 15-minute cities.

While this idea is certainly modern in accommodating many established behaviors, it assumes that people will be content not really leaving this zone, which doesn’t align with our globalization-inspired curiosity.

Christine Russo

This looks like recreating a city like New York City (which is arguably the quintessential 15-minute city) in the suburbs. It’s also interesting to hold this up against the mass exodus out of cities during the pandemic and the incredible rise of auto purchases to accommodate the lifestyle.

Bob Phibbs

I think utopian cities always sound great but the devil is in the details as Disney’s Centennial, FL experiment showed. Such a hyper-local atmosphere would not play well with small retail as it has always started in the more forgotten parts of downtowns to afford rent. If it is being subsidized, who picks the winners and losers? And my guess is those residents would rather bank on a Starbucks than an unknown.

Gene Detroyer
I guess by definition, I live in a 15-minute city (NYC). I don’t own a car (nor a bicycle). I can fill my needs within a 15-minute or less walk. But this is probably a poor comparison because of the density of those 15 minutes. We have national banners within a two block radius of our apartment. They include Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Starbucks and Walgreens, and a bank on every corner, sometimes two. However under this situation there is room for the locals. There are two private pharmacies, there are four shops to get a cup of coffee, there is one local supermarket chain and a few bars and quite a few restaurants and those restaurants carry no national banners, just good food. I don’t know how Columbia, Maryland is doing these days. It is exactly as described in the commentary, except it is more than 50 years old. Back then, it was the desirable location in the D.C. area for families to live. If I were moving out of NYC, I would look… Read more »
Richard Hernandez

This is a great idea. When I was a child, my grandmother used to live in an area where this was the norm – everything was within 15 minutes and you could walk to everything. But as the city grew and the movement was towards the suburbs, this concept went away. It is nice to see it come back again.

David Spear

The concept is becoming reality in many parts of the country already. As I drive around the large city of Atlanta, where I live, there are microcosms of this all over the city/suburban landscape. Instead of 15 minute, maybe it’s 20 minute, but I can reference many cities within the larger metroplex where all three functions are readily apparent and vibrantly working. These smaller communities offer rich shopping, dining, living and commuting options. In fact, we’ve made a habit of experiencing these new communities every month. This is a tremendous concept that will only grow in popularity over next several years.

Paula Rosenblum

I like the idea as long as the big chains don’t drive out the independents.

Tom Ryan

Hey Paula – I couldn’t get this in the article but a recent study from MoveBuddha.com found your hometown of Miami had the greatest potential for meeting the geographic goals of the 15-minute city. The top-ten list also included, in order, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Long Beach, Oakland, and Cincinnati. The link is: https://www.movebuddha.com/blog/15-minute-cities/

Paula Rosenblum

I believe it. Because traffic is so bad no one wants to leave their neighborhoods! I’m actually surprised Atlanta isn’t on the list. And my old home town of Boston is a good candidate because of a.) traffic and b.) how cloistered it is as a city.

However my big concern remains the “neighborhood markets” of large retailers. As David pointed out above, the allure may be too great for landlords. I look at Lincoln Road, which has become basically an outdoor mall (with rents that are completely unaffordable) or every neighborhood that has gentrified, and it’s no longer so simple.

My own neighborhood is trying to become that — as rents everywhere else are insane. So that’s the tricky part. Keeping it affordable.

Gene Detroyer

This is exactly what happened in Westport, Connecticut. Sadly.

Jeff Sward

Sounds awesome. And perfectly timed. And a very healthy solution for people, their communities, and the planet. And — it’s not necessarily anti-mall. I’m sure there are malls that will benefit from mixed use redevelopment that incorporates both residential and business end use. Maybe they can be eight-minute cities.

Rich Kizer

I have to tell you, I live in a small area in suburban Chicago. As I think of it, this is nothing new. We have all the little stores you can think of, and probably more. In other words, we are well taken care of from a basics/essentials perspective. All within a mile. And every time a new upper-scale subdivision is built, those stores are there. And for the big stores, nothing is further than a mile and a half. Bottom line? I think we live in a very crowded market with a fulfilled assortment of product within a mile.

Nikki Baird

As someone who lives in the western U.S., where the space is available to create communities like this from scratch, of course it’s interesting – it’s an important antidote to senseless suburban sprawl. I think the better, harder question is, how do you bring that model to places where that suburban sprawl has already happened? It’s easy to start from scratch. Much harder to retrofit – and that’s where the real impact will be.

Retailers are already thinking about this model – think Nordstrom Local. The only question there is, is the net effect still positive if retailers have to ship more inventory around in order to reach into these 15-minute communities when they can’t just drop a big box there?

Dave Bruno

Here in the suburbs of San Diego, the 15-minute city concept is coming to life under the banner of “Master Planned Community.” They are popping up in many areas of the county, and they fulfill many of the requirements as outlined above. They include multiple levels of housing, from low-income to higher income, they include lots of green space, schools, office space and of course retail. And in my experience, local retail dominates these communities. I have long felt that this model is very effective, and they do seem to also draw shoppers from outside the community that are attracted to the vibe.

Oliver Guy

I absolutely love this concept. I despair at the new communities being planned and built in the UK, authorized by local government, that require a car to access any local services – shops, basic healthcare, transportation hubs – yet at the same time central government is doing all it can to discourage car use including limiting parking facilities.

Fifteen-minute cities have the potential of creating innovative new micro-retail concepts – but also the opportunity to blend delivery services with customers picking up, which becomes interesting. Convenient local pick-up points for online purchases could reduce overall environmental impact and reduce cost due to economies of scale in delivering once for a whole community.

Dr. Stephen Needel

This was a hot concept in 1980s urban planning (e.g. Columbia, Maryland, Gene) that failed because it remained a suburban bedroom community concept – work was not much of an option there. That has changed (maybe a little, maybe a lot) in a world where we don’t have to go to the office and we can shop for a lot of stuff online. Adult 55+ communities have been using this concept for some time. As for solving inequality issues, don’t hold your breath – the country has not designed work-at-home for all types of jobs yet.

9 days 8 hours ago
Will this bring back “local retail”? Well, yes. But it also depends on the definition. Physically speaking, the idea would bring stores and other “conveniences” closer in reach to residents of so-called 15-minute cities. But “true” local business as in that which stems, organically, from within — as in businesses owned by locals? That’s a much harder goal to achieve. Especially when developers’ main modus operandi is to lease or sell properties as much and as quickly as possible. Which thus tends to larger retail operations that can, in devious ways, impersonate but not at all embody small (mom and pop) ideals and aesthetics. Therein lies the real issue at hand. Places can be created. But giving them personalities? Hardly. But being able to do that would be something — good or bad? The idea of one of these being more arty and another being tonier makes them interesting and attractive. But then to a sect, not a whole swath. Which then brings in the possibility of inequity in some more than others. However the… Read more »
Ryan Mathews

There used to be another name for “15 Minute Cities” … I believe it was “neighborhood.” With the notable exception of NYC which is, arguably, a collection of neighborhoods, the idea of having everything you need with a 15 minute walk was a casualty of the growth of suburbia where residents needed a car to go anywhere. The appeals of the 15 Minute City are obvious, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why people walked away from it in the first place. One assumes “small boxes” would fare better than “big boxes” ala NYC.

Mel Kleiman

As every panelist has talked about, this is a great idea. I see two significant challenges. One is staffing, and the other is the ongoing challenge of parking. This concept will not make the car go away.

Craig Sundstrom

Sorry, but I think this is one of those examples of something that sounds great until you actually think about it. 15 minutes is about a mile, or more likely one half to two-thirds of that once delays and slower walking speeds are factored in, so you’re talking about an area of 1.5-2 square miles. How much retail can be supported by a trading area that size? (And how often are people going to carry home items by foot/bike in the rain or snow or 105 degree heat?)

This may be what some planners want, but it goes against 200 years of history.

Christopher P. Ramey

Consumers are attracted to that which resonates. Real estate developments are no different. Living in a convenient location is increasingly important. But golf was important too – and we know what happened there.

Convenience is dynamic if the attraction is consistent with residents. This was proven by New Urbanism communities, such as Seaside and Alys Beach, along 30a in Florida.

Considering the current move away from cities, I expect 15-minute cities to grow.

Brandon Rael

The emergence of the downtown-like, mixed residential and commercial districts across the country are such a welcome trend. With fewer dependencies on cars, countless cities and towns across the country are following the NYC and Boston local shopping and living model. This development certainly helps from a lifestyle perspective, but it will also have a negative impact on the larger mall developers and landlord growth targets.

This successful model includes a hybrid mix of local artisans and retail chains, along with local community restaurants and bars. The modern customer is less inclined to drive in traffic to a congested mall. Instead, as those who have lived in major cities such as NYC could attest, having everything near your doorstep is such a great lifestyle choice. The winners in this arena will find a way to balance the local community stores with the national chains and drive a new way to live, work and shop.

Karen Wong

Isn’t this usually why some choose to live in urban cores that are traditionally more walkable? If there’s a way to design this into more communities everywhere, who wouldn’t prefer it?

A version of this was tried in Toronto with the Distillery district. Artists and independents were invited in to rejuvenate the area. Today, it’s a bustling residential area with a popular “main street.” The problem now is keeping that mix as rent is going up and SMBs are getting pushed out by national chains with deeper pockets.

"I have long felt that this model is very effective, and they do seem to also draw shoppers from outside the community that are attracted to the vibe."

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