Are businesses ready for the 15-minute city?

Combined with the continuing popularity of hybrid working, a growing movement espousing eco-conscious localism is changing urban shopping patterns. This has already prompted several big retailers to rethink their bricks-and-mortar strategies
Shoppers walk through a pedestrianised high street in the UK

The basic idea underlying the 15-minute city is simple: if we’re living in any part of it, our shopping, leisure, healthcare and transport facilities should all be within a quarter of an hour’s walk or leisurely bike ride from home. 

The concept has earned Professor Carlos Moreno several accolades since he proposed it in 2016 as a way to challenge the dominance of the motor car and so make urban environments greener and more liveable. Given its associations with the use of traffic restrictions such as ultra-low emission zones, the 15-minute city has also attracted conspiracy theories about ghettoisation. But people needn’t worry too much about such an outcome, however unlikely that is, because the first real working models are still some way off.

For the benefit of local communities

Nonetheless, retailers should note that local authorities have become significantly more interested in urban centres than out-of-town developments in recent years. Councils in Birmingham, Oxford, Sheffield and Waltham Forest, north London, are all exploring the potential of the 15-minute city, for instance. 

“The concept is being implemented here by maintaining local centres where there’s already a good spread of facilities, including for shopping, public transport, health and leisure,” says a spokesman for Oxford City Council. “Keeping all these clustered together attracts more people to a given area and helps it to stay vibrant.”

With people working from home, local shops that were busy only on Saturdays may have customers throughout the week

Stressing the importance of maintaining footfall in keeping such facilities viable, he adds that the council will “direct new developments, including workplaces, as much as we can to our district and local centres. Where the council owns shops, for instance, it’s vital to ensure that rents are set at a level that community businesses can afford.”

During the Covid crisis, the London Borough of Waltham Forest conducted extensive research, including focus groups, to learn exactly what its residents wanted from their localities. 

“We knew that old-fashioned concepts of cities didn’t always make people healthier and happier,” says a spokesman for the council. “We want everyone to be able to meet most, if not all, of their needs within a walk or short bike ride from home.” 

The result has been a plan to introduce a 15-minute neighbourhood that supports local retailers and uses low-carbon modes of transport, such as cargo bikes and electric vehicles, for last-mile deliveries.

Reimagining the high street

The Covid crisis helped to build support for Moreno’s ideas, which are based on the desire to make local communities more cohesive. That’s the view of Tom Whittington, director of retail and leisure research at real-estate giant Savills. 

“As things began to open up again after the lockdowns, people started to experience the 15-minute community themselves. Part of that change was what we call retail reinvention,” he says. 

A change in footfall patterns resulting from the widespread adoption of hybrid working in the UK mean that areas that once mainly hosted shops, for instance, might see more developments devoted to leisure, say, thereby widening the range of facilities on offer in those areas. 

“With more people working from home, local shops that were busy only on Saturdays may find that they have customers throughout the week,” Whittington says. 

Having these facilities clustered together attracts more people to the area and helps to keep it vibrant

Traditional out-of-town players such as Ikea and B&Q, both of which are opening high-street stores, will gain access to a whole new group of consumers who don’t have cars, he adds. 

Since January, B&Q has been testing smaller store formats under a new blueprint known as B&Q Local. Eight such stores have opened so far and another is due to start trading in Sutton, south London, in the next few months. 

Customers will find everything that they might expect to see at a traditional DIY superstore, including kitchen and bathroom design services, according to the firm’s strategy and development director, Chris Bargate.

“Our stores have traditionally been located out of town, so the launch of B&Q Local means that more customers will have our products and services on their doorsteps,” he says.

The reimagined high street is even attracting the attention of department stores and garden centres. Products that were previously sold only from John Lewis’s department stores are being stocked in branches of Waitrose, while Dobbies, the 150-year-old garden supplies chain, has opened so-called Little Dobbies in Edinburgh, Bristol and Chiswick, west London.

The 15-minute city also has implications for ecommerce, notes Peter Blackburn, international commercial director at InPost, a logistics operator specialising in parcel delivery and collection lockers. 

These lockers can “expand the breadth of postal services available in a local area and bridge the gap between online and high-street shopping”, he says. 

Blackburn explains that parcel lockers are ideal for “trip-twinning”, in that they provide a quick and easy way for shoppers to receive or return online purchases while nipping out to their local high street to grab a coffee or a few groceries.

The idealised 15-minute city may still be something of a utopian concept. But, with its principles of localism, convenience and eco-friendly transport already finding strong support from local authorities around the world, its piecemeal adoption will be significant in the future of retail.