OPINION: Why We Need 15-minute Communities

by Andrew Kidde

Residents all over Seattle live in “deserts”… food deserts, job deserts, open space deserts. In this case a “desert” neighborhood is one where you have to make a long trip to get to grocery stores, job centers, parks, or other essentials. Happily, the City Council just took a step toward fixing our child care desert problem by passing the “Childcare Near You” ordinance. This measure, which Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to sign into law, reduces the barriers to establishing a childcare center in single-family zones. Yet the problem remains, and the city knows it because it also commissioned a study of food deserts, which found that food deserts — places where there are no walkable or nearby grocery stores — were scattered throughout the city. But a significantly large food desert was concentrated in the Delridge-South Park-Georgetown area. 

These deserts require many Seattle residents to drive long distances just to meet basic needs. But what if you can no longer afford to drive because you lost your job during the pandemic? What if your bus line has been eliminated in recent transit cuts? What if you don’t want to drive because of the climate and air pollution your car will emit?  The high cost of our land use deserts becomes clearer with each disaster.

What if instead our communities were laid out so that stores, jobs, key services, and transit were all within a 15-minute walk of every resident? That’s the basis for the 15-minute community, an idea that has been gaining traction around the world — you can find out more here, here, and here. In nearby Vancouver B.C., the City Council is exploring how to bring back corner stores

Perhaps you wonder why our neighborhoods aren’t already like that. The most obvious reason is simple: the law doesn’t allow it. Vast areas of our city are zoned for a monoculture of single family housing. This zoning pattern has been linked to our history of racist redlining practices, as well as our housing affordability crisis. To these disasters, we can add that Seattle’s current zoning pattern creates land use deserts.  

The good news is that the city can change our law back again to allow the stores, jobs, and services that neighborhoods need. And more good news: changing the law is basically revenue-neutral. In the face of the pandemic recession, there are few programs the city can afford to initiate, but beginning work to establish 15-minute communities is one that requires little money and addresses the current needs of our neighborhoods.  

Some Seattle neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill, are already 15-minute communities. In many communities, however, residents fear that their local businesses are under threat. A couple years ago, Puget Sound Sage worked with the Graham Street neighborhood in South Seattle to create a vision for its future. The report noted that the community saw small businesses as “the heart and lifeblood of the neighborhood.” These businesses not only provided “culturally relevant goods and services” and “income to their owners and employees,” but they are also “critical gathering spaces for young and old alike.” The community concluded that “stabilizing and growing these businesses will be key to our vision.”      

Small businesses have taken a blow during the pandemic: many have closed, and we must plan a recovery for our local economies now. Allowing small businesses to relocate in areas currently zoned single family can help keep some businesses viable. To be sure, residential areas should not become home to businesses that pollute or cause other nuisances. But small businesses that serve neighborhoods should be allowed to locate where the community can easily access them. It is ironic that a common complaint about these kinds of land use changes is that there is not enough parking for a small business in single family areas, yet the whole idea of 15-minute communities is that they can be reached on foot by the neighbors they serve. 

Allowing more businesses in residential areas may also spur a more substantial economic recovery. Seattle leaders should consider the example of other cities that have grown strong economies out of broken ones. Post-war Tokyo was bombed to rubble during World War II, only to become an economic powerhouse 30 years later.  More recently, Dharavi, a neighborhood of Mumbai, India, and a home for immigrants for several decades, has become a successful hub for cottage industries. These major economic successes were incubated in well-functioning 15-minute communities.

Adopting the 15-minute community as a guiding principle of our land use laws addresses multiple issues we currently face. By reducing the need for driving, this change will reduce the dangerous pollution that causes respiratory disease and climate change. By providing a lifeline to local businesses, it helps maintain neighborhood cultures. By promoting more self-sufficient neighborhoods, it helps create the kind of resilient, connected neighborhoods that will help us grow back our local economies and allow our neighborhoods to weather the onslaught of crises that seems to hit us so regularly these days. The time for 15-minute neighborhoods is now. 

Andrew Kidde lives in southeast Seattle. He’s the chair of the Rainier Valley Greenways Safe Streets and on the leadership team of 350 Seattle. A former mediator, facilitator, and planner, Andrew became a full-time climate activist in 2015. His current focus is how transportation and urban design can evolve to create sustainable healthy communities. 

The featured image is attributed to Jamie under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.