Is Paris burning? It sure is, with new ideas for a post-pandemic Paris. The French capital, led by its mayor Anne Hidalgo, is on the path of recrafting a 15-minute city. A city in which most of its residents need to just walk and cycle. A city in which you will need to go no greater distance than that in terms of time to live, work and play.
As every city in the world talks centralisation, Paris talks decentralisation. As every city talks of business districts, entertainment districts and areas that are about specialisation of interests, Paris wants to do it differently. In many ways, Dubai, with its mania to name every vertical with a city of its own (Media, Education, Logistics, Lifestyle, Internet City, etc.), seems to be its polar opposite.
So what’s special about the 15-minute Paris? The mayor of the city has used the peace of the lockdown to ideate and put into place a whole network of cycle tracks, reposition car parking formats on the streets and free up space for the green and the friendly, as opposed to the grey and the boorish. Paris is going to look and feel different in a while, if the mayor has her way.
The thought of a 15-minute city in itself is interesting. In many ways, every small Indian village is a 15-minute village, if not smaller. In many ways, villages happened everywhere with just that thought in default. A village is all about access to everything you needed to live, work and play. You needed a network of wells, access to clean drinking water, access to buy the basics, access to food, water and clothing, and access to places of worship even.
And then the villages grew up to be small towns, and the towns into big cities. India today has hundreds of big cities and towns with a population of more than 1,00,000. And around 10 big cities with a population of more than three million. Are we 15-minute cities? I suspect we are better. Possibly four-minute cities even. But are we directionally right? Are we moving towards the proposed Paris model? Or are we becoming a Dubai? And what’s the right thing to be? I do believe that cities are living beings. Cities are as alive as its peoples.
Cities in many ways go the way its people want them to. In the beginning, there is the yen to become bigger and bigger, and when push comes to shove and when bigness itself becomes a heavy liability to bear, it is time to break up into smaller units that are more manageable. A big city that is finding it too difficult to manage its myriad issues at the mass level therefore opts to split itself into smaller and more manageable entities. Possibly a ward-level management format as opposed to a big city form of management.
This movement of a big city into a micro city happens rarely by design, and more often than not by default. Those who live in these cities decide to become locals in their choice of living, restricting themselves and their movements to the locality they live in. They buy locally, work locally (more so now with work from home as the norm), educate themselves locally and entertain themselves locally as well. You create for yourself a comfort zone, a locality and community oyster of your own making.
A big city is therefore an amalgam of micro-cities in any case. We need to recognise it for what it is. In India in particular, in most cities you can just step out and you are in your markets, of both the wet and dry kind. You have hotels and restaurants around, and you have retail stores of every brand to buy from. The new habit of branded retail outlets today is to have not one branch in a city but possibly 20. Enough to cater to the needs of the micro-cities within the city. And you have schools and colleges and tutorial institutes all over and within reach. Add to it the digital sustenance mechanisms of e-commerce, edtech, e-entertainment and telemedicine, and you are set to get as local as you wish to be.
Very simply put, when you get out of your home less, it means you have got all you want without stepping out. A one-minute city is just that. The less you step out and commute, the less is the burden then. A zero-pollute existence even. And precious time saved for sure. A one-minute city, four-minute city or a 15-minute city is not only about you. It is about the immediate ecosystem you live in. The moment you decide to buy local, you encourage local trade of every kind, be it of the street-cart or local ‘kirana’ store variety. The local street presser will iron your clothes now, as opposed to that big branded outlet you normally take your clothes to iron.
Water finds its own level. The local ecosystem then energises itself to cater to the needs and wants of the people who live around them. And guess what, when you walk into your local ‘kirana’ store, it’s more likely that the guy behind the counter recognises you and asks you about your kid and how her karate classes are going on. This will not happen at that big organised retail hypermarket for sure. Personalisation wins at local.
But then, it’s all about what you want. Do you want Selvam the fishmonger to recognise you and do that friendly chat about your success with marriage alliances for your son? Or do you want the anonymity of the big city of the future? An anonymity you enjoy when you walk into a big centralised store of the supermarket 21 km away, where it does not matter whether you are man, woman, child or cat, just as long as you have a living credit card on you. To Paris then! To Dubai then! And to each of our Indian cities then!
Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults