Metropolis

The Year of the Neighborhood

Cities splintered in the pandemic—but only some Americans got to enjoy a hyperlocal utopia.

Puzzle pieces of a city map.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

The urban planner Kevin Lynch spent half of the 1950s asking Americans to draw their cities. What stood out in the mental maps they made for him wasn’t their home or workplace or favorite landmark, Lynch reported in his famous book The Image of the City: It was paths. Take the Jersey City resident who described, in terms that just beg for a Clarence Clemons solo, the approach to the Holland Tunnel: “I always look to the right to see if I can see the … Statue of Liberty. … Then I always look up to see the Empire State Building, see how the weather is. … I have a real feeling of happiness because I’m going someplace, and I love to go places.”

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For a lot of us, that feeling seems awfully distant right now. This spring, CityLab called for readers to submit maps of their new, locked-down world—an artsy twist on Lynch’s project. The results, published in June, came from places with strict restrictions on movement as well as places with none. But one theme was ubiquitous. The geography of daily movement—the thick trunk of the commute, the branches of errands and appointments and parties—had been whittled down. If the city was a tree, these maps were of leaves, tiny and ornate, showing details so minute you might never have noticed them before. The world just felt smaller than it used to be.

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As 2020 comes to a close, many Americans are forgoing traditional holiday trips, whether across the country or downtown—the latest sacrifice in a year that kept everyone closer to home. For some of us, the pandemic has created time to appreciate the charms or strengths of our communities, from spring tulips to mutual aid groups. For others, it means being stuck with their flaws, missing something as complex as the social buzz of a sales-floor job or as simple as a grocery store. For better and for worse, it was the year of the neighborhood.

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It seems likely this trend will stick around even after vaccination. Many white-collar workers may not go back to five-day commutes. Regional attractions like malls, department stores, concert halls, and movie theaters are on thin ice. The downtown spillover economy—from barbershops to lunch restaurants to blue-collar office workers like janitors—has been devastated by remote work. The transit infrastructure that reinforces downtown’s regional dominance is wounded. In prosperous cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and Boston, more than half the workforce is working from home, according to the Census Bureau. And almost everyone is spending more time there.

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The overall effect of this is that, during the pandemic, American cities have slouched toward devolution, splitting into enclaves of prosperous, sedentary consumers and a hypermobile service sector that caters to their desires.

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It’s kind of amazing that we managed to pull it off for more than those first few weeks, when the whole world seemed to cleave into an upstairs-downstairs play. Few Americans actually live within walking distance of a park, a grocery store, and rapid COVID testing. Few neighborhoods are worthy of Mister Rogers. Most of America’s neighborhoods—rich and poor, central and exurban—lack the ingredients of self-sufficiency.

Many of the wealthiest American neighborhoods have no commerce within their boundaries; many more do not permit apartments, which might house people to work selling coffee, teaching yoga, or cleaning houses. This single-use planning has been the deliberate effort of a century. As then–Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover put it in a 1922 defense of single-use zoning separating homes and businesses, “Does your city keep its gas range in the parlor and its piano in the kitchen? That is what many an American city permits households to do.” A century later, the separation of uses has been so thoroughly established that most Americans cannot walk to the grocery store.

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This isolation has not stopped white-collar professionals like regional managers and corporate vice presidents, the people we used to say shower before work (these days, who can say?), from settling into neighborhood routines this year. But they are only able to do so because an army of delivery workers has brought the supply chain to their door. Data from transit systems demonstrates how uneven the travel drop has been, with high ridership even during the pandemic’s worst days at stations in low-income neighborhoods. The result: Neighborhood life for me; delivering groceries, meals, and household goods all over town for thee. Not for nothing has Amazon added more than 430,000 workers this year.

There’s a camp that, under less ruinous circumstances, would see this decentralization as a good thing. The Franco-Colombian researcher Carlos Moreno says cities should aspire to dissolve their downtowns in favor of a polycentric model where every urbanite has the necessities of life within 15 minutes. The modern city’s demands on our time have created an ecological and social disaster, he believes. But rather than going back to the land, Moreno wants denser city neighborhoods that offer all life’s necessities at arm’s length. Instead of mobility, Moreno wants “demobility.” He calls the concept the 15-Minute City.

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If you’ve heard of Moreno’s idea, it’s probably because it was adopted as a central campaign promise earlier this year by Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris. When she launched her reelection bid in February, she latched onto Moreno’s idea as an easy way to describe her vision: “In Paris we all feel we have no time, we are always rushing to one place or another, always trying to gain time. That is why I am convinced we need to transform the city so Parisians can learn, do sports, have health care, shop, within 15 minutes of their home.”

That was before the pandemic shut down her city and France required residents not to stray more than a kilometer from their houses.

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During the coronavirus crisis, the 15-Minute City has meant rethinking what the city’s already got: Courtyards of Paris’ thousand-plus schools and day cares will soon be open to the public on weekends, beginning with community groups who can use them to organize cultural events, adult classes, and workshops. Local athletic clubs will give parents an informal child care space. Municipal services will be decentralized to neighborhood “citizen kiosks.” And the streets will continue to grow more parklike, with plants, paths, and public seating—a clear contrast with half-hearted efforts in American cities to carve out space for people.

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It’s true that neither Moreno nor Hidalgo talks very much about work, which you could chalk up to the fact that they live in a country with a healthy relationship to the job—a place that, as Moreno points out, once had a minister of free time. The French toil fewer hours than the OECD average and retire earlier than almost all their peers. In a diagram of the 15-Minute City, work is literally peripheral—just one more thing 15 minutes away. “Of course, it’s impossible for me to assure a mayor that residents will find work a short distance away,” Moreno told an interviewer in February.

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But the uneven arrival of pandemic-era remote work has made the 15-Minute City look like an upper-class amenity. One recent analysis, in the magazine Chroniques d’architecture, attacks the concept as hypocrisy of the gauche caviar (that’s French for “Champagne socialist”), with its focus on the people buying goods and services near their houses—but no thought for those providing them.

That critique hits even harder in the United States, where the pleasantly collapsing geography of the Zoom set is an illusion created by other people whose maps are expanding to cover more terrain. Those service workers likely come from neighborhoods that suffer shortcomings that are similar (no grocery store, no public health clinic) and different (no bank, no high-speed internet). But the main difference is that they can’t buy their way to a 15-Minute City.

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Many equity advocates in American cities have long complained about the public money that goes downtown at the expense of neighborhoods, deepening crises like food deserts and poor municipal services. But their campaign was always for redistribution, for spreading the riches of downtown far and wide. With downtown flailing and cities and states waiting in vain on federal aid, a focus on neighborhoods is looking less like the Parisian approach of expanding public offerings to fill the gaps—and more like every man for himself.

And why not? As more wealthy people begin to feel physically and spiritually detached from city life, as the bonds of downtown fray, what is there to replace them but the blinkered view that a city is really a cluster of small towns, self-sufficient enclaves that just happen to lie next to one another? The lie in that analysis is apparent in areas that lack basic amenities like parks. But it can look newly reasonable in places where the old perks of big-city life can be summoned to your front door or your TV screen—from behind a laptop where colleagues from all over the world appear every day. Someone else may have to leave their neighborhood every morning, but you never will.

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