The 10-minute Walking City

Over and over, countless projects and utopias have been made and are still thought out of cities where people would reach out to anything within some minutes of walking distance. Here some thoughts on why this is not a goal and why such dreams will always surface in the news.

Urban migration, the largest ever migration in history, is an ongoing process of people moving from the countryside, rural areas, into cities, seeking out for better lives or so we think. Better lives are promised by both larger amounts of opportunities and resources accumulated in one space, the city. At the same time these resources and opportunities decrease of course elsewhere, namely, in the countryside. So people are moving to cities most of the time because they have to, because there is a concentration of wealth being drawn into cities. China is now the latest most extreme case.

At the same time, our mobility technology has improved dramatically and a democratization of its access too. This has been likely the greatest upkeeper of peace in the world, as so many of us are intertwined with the world and are thus more tolerant towards multiculturalism. The simplification of previous decades where soviets were the bad ones and Americans the good guys is finally over.

The technological revolution that came by with the industrial and now digital revolution made it possible to have for example heat (via electricity), water and information (internet) everywhere, not only on cities. People not only can move with a wide diversity of transportations, from cars, trams or planes, but they want to move. It is a basic necessity to be mobile, to be able to change places and experience new habitats, either tropical or just the cottage house 50 km away. Yet the amount of energy we invest in stacking people in boxes, in buildings, for the sake of efficiency or the 10 min walking distance city is impressive. Yes the ambulances do come to you faster in cities. But maybe, the increase in heart related diseases, panic attacks, accidents, etc, has been increased many fold by that process of staking people all on top of each other. It likely is a vicious cycle we choose not to opt in into our planning.

Now that I live in the countryside, as an urban planner, engineer and architect, I hope the urban migration trend reverses or at least decreases. The often called upon efficiency, via taller buildings and higher density can go so far. It is estimated that 4 to 6 floors high is the optimal ratio, above that the amount of energy intake for construction, pumping water, etc does not compensate. There is an optimal balance that we should investigate better, away from real estate market pressures or lifestyle marketing trends. Also we should apply more lightweight materials to the upper levels of buildings for example with wood.

Let’s take Saudi Arabia, which just presented it’s new megaproject “The Line,” a plan for the development of smart cities connected without cars, with residents given access to nature and all of their daily needs within a walking distance of five minutes. This is not a project based on efficiency or communal living, but on profits for real estate, political gains, tourism and even likely geo-strategic advantages with oil pipelines crossing it through. But the 10 min city marketing works well, it’s a trend that feeds businesses.

In Finland, one of the heads of the largest construction company YIT, Juha Kostiainen, stated in 2021 to the leading Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat that in a smooth city, all the important things of everyday life should be achieved on foot, by bike, or by public transportation.1 These utopias have been around for years and never came true. Walking accounts for 8-9% of journeys, according to the latest traffic survey in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, for decades, not just now. And there are more cycle paths here than ever before. People are not moving to the suburbs or countryside to have some 10 min city with all nearby, they are seeking space, and green areas. Some privacy too, and many, also, a sense of community and human scale, away from the high rises and shoe-boxes called city apartments.

Gamified Cohousing is trying to find that balance between rural and urban. Between having the space, greenery and community of the countryside yet having also a good enough infrastructure around you that you don’t have to hire a handyman for all problems at home or with the car. To have micro communities instead of suburbs might be the way to go. It’s not about the 10 min reach but it’s about integration of people into communities.

The whatever minute cities is a trend that will come back over and over, by urban planners or lay people. Getting stuck within a 10 min walking range has never been humanity’s goal, we love the belonging and we are restless for new places and experiences.

  • Image credit: NEOM
    1. Accessed 18.04.2021 at https://www.hs.fi/kaupunki/art-2000007882212.html, article by Juha Salmi 26.3.2021 []
    Pedro Aibéo is an internationally awarded MSc Architect, MSc Civil Engineer; founder of the Gamified Cohousing Oy, of the World Music School, and of the “Cidadania” theatre+games group. He has a PhDc on ”Architectural Democracy” at Aalto University, and is a drawing teacher and a graphic novelist. Read other articles by Pedro.