The One-Minute City

Our streets tell us what our cities are really about

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The street is the basic unit of the city: all systems converge on the street, all culture plays out there, one way or another. Streets host protest or celebration, but also quiet reflection, chance encounter,mundane chore, creative exchange, the complex essence of everyday urban life. “The magic of the street,” according to Rebecca Solnit, is in precisely this “mingling of the errand and the epiphany.”

Streets reveal what cities are really about: culture, conviviality, community, commerce. Note, therefore, that they are not about traffic. Yet for the last few generations, streets everywhere have been degraded and denuded, those primary purposes relegated in favor of becoming mere conduits for the private car. The impact on our cities has been disastrous, for in denying the street’s ability to create and carry culture, in favor of traffic, we are denying the idea of the city itself.

Now, however, it seems increasingly clear that this narrow definition of street life has reached the end of the road, as influential cities signal another direction. After Barcelona’s Superblocks, Paris is now playing out its 15-minute city concept, reorganizing much of the city such that its citizens can meet most of their daily needs within a short walk or cycle ride from their home, obviating the need for car-based transport. The COVID-induced lockdowns in many cities also enabled streets to breathe, the suddenly empty streets allowing us all to take stock, briefly glimpsing what streets could be without the noise, fumes, and mutually exclusive hunks of metal. We could momentarily imagine what streets could be, if life, human and otherwise, were allowed to return to our fundamental public spaces.

Yet though the 15-minute city is eminently sensible, it betrays its somewhat technocratic origins, in which the municipality simply better organizes amenities around clusters of density on behalf of districts of people, rather than any deeper shift in planning practice. Indeed, planners like Jay Pitter have critiqued the concept’s blunt hierarchies, particularly if carelessly transposed to other contexts, noting that “it doesn’t take into account the histories of urban inequity, intentionally imposed by technocratic and colonial planning approaches.”

Addressing such inequity and lack of diversity can only happen at a finer grain, working from the street up. Such a super-local starting point works with the reality of difference on the ground, addressing communities at a scale that does not obliterate difference, but lets voices be meaningfully heard. What if the 15-minute city was broken down to hundreds of street-scale interactions instead? A smaller scale does not mean smaller ideas, but more complex conversations, more diverse responses, more inventive designs, retaining the vivid color in the stories of everyday life of the street, rather than abstracting upwards into a “district.” Hence, the one-minute city.

Urban area with Street Moves project elements
The Street Moves elements are constructed from Swedish timber, softening the materials usually found in the street as well as conveying ideas about circular economy and local resources. They also enable adaptation and customization, over time. Photo © Dan Hill

This one-minute city is simply the urban space outside your front door, the street your block sits on—but more importantly, the relationships you have with that environment, and in that environment. It’s not literally bound by 60 seconds, but loosely describes the most immediate neighborhood, defined by regular and direct participation, by shared and intimate responsibility. Here, you probably know the owner of the bar on the corner, the teachers in the kindergarten, the names of your neighbors, or even the trees. You can imagine planting tomatoes or herbs in the street with these people, and later harvesting and sharing them together. Whereas you are unlikely to be planting tomatoes in some street a 15-minute bike ride away. That may still be in the same municipality-defined district, formally, but it is hardly your neighborhood. In the one-minute territory, we blur the line between dwelling and street, enacting a different responsibility for our environment, engaged rather than outsourced.

Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency, and ArkDes, the Swedish national center for architecture and design, have been pulling together public and private sectors in Sweden for a mission to explore these one-minute cities, initiating a an urban project called Street Moves, which explores how to build out these new kinds of streets defined around culture and nature rather than traffic. Starting in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsingborg, prototype wooden structures provide a base layer for different “applications,” building out other possibilities in on-street parking spaces. In the first instance, young children from four local Stockholm schools decided upon the designs of their streets. The street designs the street. As each street has different people on it, each street will be different, with the emphasis on the lived expertise of the neighborhood. This “street-up” model is clearly a quite different approach to the traditional urban planning model, which zooms in from the top-down, even in the generally benevolent 15-minute city mode.

Street Moves Urban design with wooden elements
Street Moves elements offer places to store e-scooters and bikes, as well as providing social spaces. They could create new spatial and social interactions with shops, community centres and workspaces on the street. Photo © Dan Hill

Ultimately, these simple wooden structures will fade away, moving elsewhere, starting different conversations. But having triggered a movement, the streets can continue to evolve, producing new forms of natural and cultural environment, designed and owned by the streets themselves.

This is the one-minute city; an open city, a diffuse patterning of organically diversifying and adapting neighborhoods, at an intimate scale within which citizens can meaningfully own, design and coproduce public and natural life in their streets, their squares, these markets, these gardens, these theaters of everyday life. These one-minute neighborhoods sit within 15-minute districts, just as those districts in turn sit within larger cities, within bioregions, nested like brightly colored Matryoshka dolls.

Street Moves is a small step in this direction, but with its ambition of describing an arc from a handful of streets to all the streets in the country, it may be an important one. It begins to explore how a super-participative super-local patterning reverses the polarity of traditional urban planning, moving from street up to neighborhood, to district, to city, built up on a dynamic of diverse adaptation. The 15-minute city has immense potential, but only if the one-minute cities within are thriving, owned and produced by the streets themselves.

Main image: The street transformations were designed by young school children whose schools sit right on the streets. Their suggestions included sandpits, shelter, chalkboards and play spaces, sitting alongside the Street Moves seating and micromobility spots in the background. Photo © Dan Hill

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