What makes a 15-minute city?

Winnipeg neighbourhoods lack accessibility and daily necessities

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Winnipeg depends on cars. This is partially due to urban sprawl, an unreliable public-transit system and an overall lack of walking and cycling infrastructure. Applying the principles of 15-minute cities could help address these problems, but not everyone agrees.

While definitions vary, the phrase “15-minute city” generally refers to communities where residents are never more than a 15-minute walk or bike ride away from daily needs like workplaces, grocery stores, schools, medical clinics and recreation spaces.

These 15-minute cities have existed in practice for years, but Colombian-born architect Carlos Moreno recently redefined them as spaces in which residents can access the essential services and locations they need “to live, thrive and learn within their immediate vicinity.”

The term has recently entered the public consciousness, and some people, including right-wing psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, have spread conspiracy theories and vented their frustrations with the concept on social media.

Marc Vachon, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s geography department, says people living in parts of downtown Winnipeg already have easy access to multiple transit routes and amenities.

“If you’re a student living in a residence downtown, you live already in a 15-minute city, because you have access to so many things that you wouldn’t have access in the suburbs,” he says.

However, some areas of Winnipeg’s core can be categorized as food deserts. A food desert is a space where low-income residents have limited or no access to retail food establishments with sufficient variety at affordable prices. People must then leave their neighbourhoods to buy groceries.

John Wintrup, a local urban and community planner, highlights a zoning bylaw that does not allow grocery stores in portions of downtown Winnipeg. “The zoning regulations are actually creating a food desert,” he says.

The Manitoba Collective Data Portal’s Winnipeg Food Atlas was last updated in 2021 and includes an interactive map that displays food deserts in Winnipeg. These regions include parts of downtown, Point Douglas and East Kildonan.

Vachon says the term “15-minute city” is often misinterpreted, because it’s really districts and neighbourhoods that need to change – not entire cities.

He says cities were initially designed with separate commercial districts and residential areas. The COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to these divides, as people saw disadvantages to segmenting cities by district and use.

Neighbourhoods designed as 15-minute cities can specifically benefit lower-income people. Reliance on a car comes with vehicle insurance, expensive gas-station visits and maintenance costs – all of which add up.

“If you’re required to have a car, you’re dedicating more of your discretionary income towards a vehicle,” Wintrup says. However, “the biggest barrier to the 15-minute city happening in Winnipeg is Winnipeg itself.”

Changes downtown depend on zoning regulations and planning policies, he says. More specifically, Vachon says 41 per cent of land downtown is dedicated to parking. Adding affordable housing, businesses and cultural centres to Winnipeg would involve decreasing the city’s reliance on cars and repurposing some of these parking lots and complexes.

Around 60,000 people spend time downtown on a given day, Vachon says. Students account for about one-third of the people who spend their days downtown.

“One of the solutions for downtown, before we even begin to imagine all this, is to bring more people there,” he says. Vachon notes that much of the backlash surrounding 15-minute cities comes from people who fear how new policies may impact vehicle use.

He says advocates for 15-minute cities don’t necessarily want to limit the use of vehicles. Instead, they hope to transform cities so that cars aren’t absolutely necessary.

Wintrup emphasizes the importance of becoming involved in city planning. “You will inherently live in a city based on the decisions being made,” he says.

“You might want to start trying to be involved and influencing those decisions now, so that you get a city that you want to live in, not one somebody else has planned and built for you.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 23, 2023)

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