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Arup’s City Living Barometer launches shining a light on light on the "15 minute city"

Kate Addlington Kate Adlington Global Press Office,London
19 November 2020

The pandemic has made Londoners more disillusioned with city life than people in other major European cities, a survey by the engineering, design and consulting firm, Arup, has shown. A lack of access to essential facilities in local neighbourhoods has led to nearly half (47%) of Londoners complaining that amenities are too far away.

The survey, Arup’s City Living Barometer, which questioned over 5,000 residents across London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Milan used the increasingly influential concept of the “15-minute city” to assess the liveability of each city. The concept argues that city dwellers enjoy a better quality of life when essential facilities are within 15 minutes walking or cycling distance of home. 

But city dwellers did notice some silver linings during lockdowns

European city dwellers, including Londoners, have recognised some improvements to life in their city during the pandemic with less traffic (37%) and the reduction of air pollution (30%) being the most prized, ahead of spending time with children (25%). The survey also showed that over half (52%) of Londoners used their local shops more than ever during lockdowns and three quarters (77%) expect they will continue shopping locally after the pandemic.

Malcolm Smith, Arup Urban Design Fellow said: “The pandemic has brought us closer to the vision of the 15-minute city as for many it has cut out the commute. It has shone a light on the importance of developing cities in smaller modules, with essential services concentrated around community hubs. In the 19th century the response to Cholera in London brought big infrastructure, the sewer network. I hope COVID-19 will lead to lots of smaller scale but widespread interventions - bringing green spaces to grey places, the prioritisation of cycling and walking and the revaluing of local amenities. The move to the 15-minute city will help us hold on to the things we’ve gained temporarily – less traffic, cleaner air and for many, more time with family.” 

Read Malcolm Smith's perspective: Future proofing our cities with the 15 minute concept

Working from home set to continue

Londoners were the most likely to be working from home most or all of the time (80%), compared to Milan (50%); Madrid (49%); Paris (46%); Berlin (40%). They were also the most optimistic about being able to continue working from home in the future expecting to work two days a week from home, higher than any other city. Commuting time is normally included in the 15-minute concept, but with the majority of people (68%) working from home due to the pandemic it was excluded from the ranking, bringing all cities closer to the 15-minute city ideal. 

The pandemic has reminded us of how cities can be disrupted. It is important we consider and plan for other physical disruption that cities could be facing – like extreme dry or wet weather as a result of climate change. Digital tools and data allowing us to simulate issues mean we are better equipped than ever to understand different future scenarios and responses. We have an opportunity to learn from the pandemic and to become more resilient. ” Malcolm Smith Malcolm Smith Arup Fellow | Cities – Australasia Leader

But the pandemic brought more anxieties and doubts over cities’ preparedness for future shocks

The Arup survey also shone a light on other anxieties about city life increasing as a result of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, coronavirus has created more concerns about the future too:

Three quarters (74%) are now more worried about future pandemics 
Over half (55%) say the pandemic has made them more worried about climate change 
Over half (54%) have grown increasingly anxious about overcrowding in their city 

Worryingly, only half (47%) of Europeans think their city, having had the experience of COVID-19, is better prepared for future lockdowns. Many do not expect a quick recovery either; nearly half (46%) think it will take until the end of next year or longer for things to return to normal and nearly one in ten (7%) do not expect to see things ever go back to where they were before the pandemic. 

1. Focusing on walkability – making the city more walkable by measures such as pedestrianizing shopping streets, planting more trees to provide shade and providing more benches and public toilets. Walking has been shown to make people happier and reduce air pollution. And a walkable neighbourhood increases the informal interactions between people, building ties among neighbours.

Find out more: Arup’s Cities Alive: Towards Walking World Report 

2. Rewilding the city – London has its share of major parks, but not everyone lives within easy access to those. Greenery has an important role in making cities more resilient both by providing residents with a respite but also by providing natural shading or flood defences and cleaner air. There are many things a city can do to bring green spaces to communities. Just one example are the Liverpool modular parklets – combining street furniture and planters which have been installed in the city to provide more greenery.

Find out more Arup Cities Alive: Rethinking Green Infrastructure

3. Creating public space for play – we should be looking to maximise the opportunity for play. It’s been shown that child-friendly cities are friendlier places for everyone. Playful encounters can be built into everyday journeys through interventions that give objects purpose beyond their primary function and foster fascination. Examples include playful bus stops, public art projects or pocket parks such as the Urban95.

Find out more: Arup Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods 

4. Multifunctional space – in densely packed cities like London we need to look to re-use existing or outdated infrastructure such as car parks, school grounds or community hubs for neighbourhood activities after hours. Or looking to temporarily facilities, such as the ones Kings Cross Central used during its redevelopment – including an open-air swimming pool.

Find out more: Meanwhile use, long-term benefit 

5. Creating digital twins – the ability to build online cities in parallel with our physical cities is within our reach. It allows us to model and test ideas that could ensure all developments help contribute to making urban life more enjoyable for communities by helping with everything from reducing air pollution to connecting people with green spaces. Digital twins allow the real-time simulation of cities – empowering policy makers and urban designers to test different scenarios and identify risks and opportunities. And crucially they will allow communities to fully understand the impact of different planning decisions.

Find out more: Digital Twins: Towards a Meaningful Framework