A bike parked in front of a neighborhood shop

Artem Gavrysh - Unsplash

Perks of ‘15-minute Neighborhoods’

May 12, 2021

Imagine a city comprised of neighborhoods in which shops, schools, jobs, and other businesses and services could be found within a 15-minute walk, bike ride, or transit ride from residents’ homes. This was the vision shared by speakers on Tuesday at the National Association of REALTORS®’ Urban Roundtable discussion, “The Rise of the 15-minute Neighborhood.” The panel of community development and planning experts offered advice on how such communities could be created and explored the potential benefits the 15-minute neighborhood could offer, such as improved local economics, an increase in racial equity, and the opportunity for seniors to age in place. The roundtable was offered as part of NAR’s REALTORS® Legislative Meetings.

One major goal of the 15-minute neighborhood, said Calvin Gladney, CEO of Smart Growth America in Washington, D.C., is to give people back their time, so they don’t have to spend hours every week commuting to jobs and driving around to get their daily tasks done. The 15-minute neighborhood, he stated, can also promote health, give greater access to green space, and provide improved options for economic mobility.

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“We envision a country where no matter where you live, or who you are, you can enjoy living in a place that is healthy, prosperous, and resilient,” said Gladney.

He outlined five key components that communities should keep in mind when designing a 15-minute neighborhood:

  • Think in terms of mixed-use development, such as a mix of housing, commercial usage, and small-scale manufacturing in one neighborhood.
  • Make sure residents can get to jobs and to a jobs center.
  • Plan ways for people to get around, whether they are walking, biking, or rolling—keep in mind people who might be using assisted devices such as wheelchairs.
  • Create options for multiple modes of transport—bikes, cars, and transit should all be factored in.
  • Promote racial and income equity. Affordability and attainability won’t just happen; they have to be baked into the plan.

Implementing projects that incorporate these components, however, will often require systems-level change, Gladney stated. In many areas, he said, mixed-use development isn’t allowed under current zoning regulations.

“We believe changing the zoning and land-use relationship is a key component,” said Gladney.

The pandemic made the idea of the 15-minute neighborhood relevant to many who might not have considered it before, said David Goldberg, chair of the Land Use & Transportation Committee of the Seattle Planning Commission.

“You realize you want to be close to everything you need,” said Goldberg.

He noted that Seattle’s own work on developing a 15-minute neighborhood was delayed by the onset of the pandemic but added that the city hopes to have a project completed by 2024. In the meantime, the city has a pilot program in development for the Westwood-Highland Park neighborhood. The project’s area, which covers 25 acres, is more racially diverse and has a lower median income than the city overall, Goldberg said, and it will soon be served by rapid bus transit. In addition, he said the area has been deemed to have a high displacement risk, meaning that once amenities related to the 15-minute neighborhood are introduced, current residents could find themselves unable to remain in their homes due to rising housing costs.

“When you add amenities, these neighborhoods get more popular with people who have a lot of money,” said Goldberg. “We have to be careful to make sure that affordable housing strategies are included.”

The 15-minute neighborhood can also be important for senior citizens, especially for those who wish to age in place, said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP. By 2034, there will be more seniors than children, she said, and many older adults will outlive their ability to drive, spending an average of 7 to 10 years during which they will be unable to operate a car. Transit services and the ability to walk safely to shops, health care services, and other businesses are crucial for older adults, she said.

In addition, while many senior households consist of one or two people, 85% of the housing stock consists of two-, three-, or four-bedroom houses, Arigoni said, making it difficult for older adults to downsize and remain in their current neighborhoods. Over 50% of renters aged 65 or older were rent-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30% of their pre-tax household income on rent, she said.

“A lot of work is needed in order to get communities to function better for older adults,” said Arigoni.

AARP and NAR recently announced the integration of the AARP Livability Index scores into the Realtors Property Resource® platform, which will provide all consumers with better metrics for making age-friendly real estate transactions.

For more on the 15-minute concept, check out NAR’s On Common Ground magazine. State and local REALTOR® associations may also be interested in NAR’s Smart Growth Grant.

Follow all of REALTOR® Magazine's coverage of the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings at magazine.realtor/live.