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The Pandemic Is Making The Case For 15-Minute Cities

The view from East Downtown into Downtown Houston.

The focus on health and wellness in design has gained unprecedented attention since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago. As the majority of office employees continue to work from home, architects are paying close attention to how the changing face of cities could help with mental outcomes in the community.

“COVID has opened the door to the discussion of health and wellness with our clients, where previously it may have been a topic that was a little more difficult to broach,” Abel Design Group Managing Principal Jeffrey Abel said during a Bisnow webinar on Jan. 21.

Advanced air filtration systems, touchless technology and anti-microbial materials have all been discussed at length over the past year, but as the location and method in which people work continues to shift, there is an increasing focus on the bigger picture around urban design and health.

In particular, there is growing recognition of the benefits of remote work or hub-and-spoke arrangements, which reduce or eliminate the time that many Houstonians are forced to spend in traffic.

Diana Davis, Perkins&Will principal and managing director, said that one of the most interesting conversations happening in urban design right now is regarding “15-minute cities,” where people can live, work, play and meet all their basic service or retail needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

“There's a real opportunity for us to do that, that not only helps our mental health, strengthens our connections to our neighbors, but also helps the health of the planet because we're able to function on a smaller sort of carbon footprint,” Davis said.

There is also the potential for 15-minute cities to revitalize neighborhoods that typically see most of their residents leave during the day to commute many miles to work. Gensler principal and co-Managing Director Hunter Clayton said that more mixed-use developments in Houston could help facilitate a strong sense of community, which is beneficial to mental health on a broader scale.

“I think Houston and our kind of sprawling environment has a great opportunity to start defining what that community development, mixed-use development can actually be in the years to come, including downtown and repurposing some of our vacant buildings with mixed-use, livable components so that that becomes its own community again,” Clayton said.

Abel said 15-minute cities within Houston could also help bring back a sense of local pride to many neighborhoods, which could have a positive spillover effect across the city. That could result in cleaner streets, more foot and bike traffic, and more community engagement.

“Houston has a long history of the wards. And those were communities within the city. And if we were to re-embrace that, and do this 15-minute city, then I think you will see a lot more pride come back,” Abel said.