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Walkable metropolis

LIFESTYLE | U.S. urban planners have embraced the “15-minute city”

Shoppers walk down Northwest 23rd Avenue in Portland’s Nob Hill neighborhood. Nashco

Walkable metropolis
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WHEN MATT BOYD strides along his Portland, Ore., neighborhood’s main street, he passes a bakery, coffee shops, and a Mexican restaurant. The sidewalks, wider than in most downtowns, host racks outside used clothing stores, sculptures (including a larger-than-life statue of Paul Bunyan holding an ax), and signs advertising a nearby tattoo parlor and bike-repair shop.

Bike lanes line both sides of the street, and bike racks are plentiful. Just off the main street, he can take the train downtown to see a professional basketball game or take a shorter trip to Sojourn, the church plant he has pastored since 2017.

Boyd lives in what Portland urban planners call a “complete neighborhood.” Others call the concept a 15-minute city (or 20-­minute city), and politicians and urbanists across the nation in large cities and bedroom communities alike have embraced the idea of residents accessing the bare necessities within a short walk, bike, or transit ride from home. But the redevelopment model has stirred controversy, and it may not always achieve all its ideals.

About 100 neighborhoods make up Portland, and city officials have an ambitious goal of 80 percent of its approximately 635,000 residents living in complete neighborhoods by 2035. Boyd, his wife, and their three boys live in the North Portland quadrant, about 5 miles from the site of the riotous protests of 2020. His congregation of about 40 rents space Sundays in a red-brick building with a parking lot as large as the building itself, a reminder of past car-friendly zoning.

The 15-minute-city concept predates modern urban planning but grew in visibility as climate-crisis worries spread in the 21st century. Urbanists and climate activists joined forces to champion resident access to schools, stores, parks, and public transport while also reducing carbon emissions. More recently, Carlos Moreno, a Paris university professor, is credited with elevating the concept to international attention after the Paris mayor made the 15-minute city a key part of her 2020 reelection campaign.

The Deering Center neighborhood in Portland.

The Deering Center neighborhood in Portland. Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Fifteen-minute-city critics have raised other concerns, particularly over the carbon-­reduction goal. Popular Canadian commentator Jordan Peterson has vocally predicted a loss of civil liberties through monitoring of movement and eventual restriction of cars. Advocacy by groups like the World Economic Forum, C40 (a network of nearly 100 mayors worldwide), and the United Nations has only heightened conservative worries about government control through urban planning.

But locally, opposition to 15-minute redevelopment is less about the environment and more about displacement. Government investment in neighborhoods tends to attract more affluent residents and raise the cost of living, with the effect of pricing out lower-­income residents—the process known as gentrification.

In Portland’s historically black neighborhood of Albina, for example, residents were displaced when the light rail line and bicycle routes expanded and businesses moved in. Ron Herndon, executive director of Albina Head Start, in 2022 explained to a local newspaper how the neighborhood’s redevelopment and growing affluence had affected his 300 employees, most of them women, black or Latina.

“Many of them have been forced to move to Vancouver [Wash.] or east county because they just can’t afford to live here,” the longtime activist told the Willamette Week.

Government investment in neighborhoods tends to attract more affluent residents and raise the cost of living, with the effect of pricing out lower-income residents.

Portland’s redevelopment plan aims to achieve racial equity in housing options, provide more accessible housing for the elderly and disabled, and provide additional housing near transportation lines. Other objectives: public-private development of local parks, job training to keep residents from leaving, government subsidies to entice neighborhood-based businesses, and zoning changes to add commercial centers in underserved areas.

Even the best-laid plans can have unintended consequences, though. When Portland’s nonwhite residents moved to more affordable areas, they found public transportation was not as frequent as in their previous neighborhood.

When Boyd moved from North Carolina to Portland to plant a church, he planned to buy a house nearby and envisioned his parishioners walking to worship and to each others’ homes for small-group meetings. But after three years, the Boyds moved out of their rental house that sat within walking distance of their church and relocated to a still-redeveloping neighborhood about 4 miles away.

“The neighborhood we were in had already been gentrified,” Boyd explained. “And so for us, it came down to purely we couldn’t afford to buy in that neighborhood.” Leaving was painful, he added.

Portland city planners may hope to entice residents to stop driving in their reimagined city, but street-level realities often trump suite-level blueprints.

Despite their ideals about creating neighborhood-focused churches, Boyd and other church planters learned Christians are willing to drive the distance in order to be part of a particular faith community where they feel connected.

After all, Boyd said, “You can’t help who finds your church.”

Todd Vician

Todd is a correspondent for WORLD. He is an Air Force veteran and a 2022 graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course. He resides with his wife in San Antonio, Texas.


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