15 Minutes to Everything: Q&A with Erika Pinto

Erika Pinto headshot

Would you want to live in a neighborhood where you had access to a grocery store, café, health care facility, and park — or some other combination of desired amenities — within a safe and easy 15-minute walk or bike ride from your home? Some cities are betting that you would. The so-called 15-minute neighborhood (or city) concept promotes people-centered development to provide benefits such as convenience, affordability, decreased air pollution, reduced carbon emissions, and greater equity. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept has gained currency among urban planners and municipal officials keen to secure downtowns and surrounding areas from economic downturns worsened by car-oriented development. Concern for quality of life and the desire for resilient and connected neighborhoods has inspired some cities to make zoning changes and offer economic incentives for high-density, transit- and pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development. Paris is currently in the midst of such a transformation.

In The 15-Minute Neighborhood: A Framework for Equitable Growth and Sustainable Communities in San José and Beyond, SPUR Housing and Planning Policy Manager Erika Pinto explores how the 15-minute model could help improve and accelerate San José’s approach to planning for more compact and connected urban development. The brief proposes that a 15-minute city framework could support realization of the urban villages called for in the Envision San José 2040 General Plan. We spoke with Erika about 15-minute principles and planning for more complete communities.


How does the 15-minute city concept apply to city planning today?

The concept of the 15-minute city has evolved from a now century-plus city planning tradition emphasizing walkable, mixed-use urban design principles for accommodating urban growth, city services, and new mobility and access patterns. In the 1950s and 1960s, many American cities like San José annexed land and exponentially increased their footprint to accommodate growth — and they did so as urban policies like single-family zoning, parking minimums, and highway expansion were decentralizing living and work environments, geographically spreading out other services and amenities. The 15-minute concept approaches urban planning as a way to leverage land use development, urban design, and placemaking strategies to retrofit communities so that all people can enjoy a high quality of life. San José is experiencing tremendous growth and economic investment from both the private and public sectors. With increased commercial and residential development on the horizon, it’s more important than ever that the city employ models like the 15-minute neighborhood to balance investment in physical infrastructure with investment in street networks and public spaces that bring people together, connect natural habitats, and provide health benefits.


What are the urban villages that San José wants to build?

More than a decade ago, the city began planning for growth by adopting a new land use strategy. The city would plan urban villages to emphasize livability, affordability, and access to opportunity through dense, mixed-use development that is served by transit, is friendly to pedestrians, and features a variety of housing options. Unfortunately — and for a variety of reasons — few of the 60 villages called for in the Envision San José 2040 General Plan have been approved. Since 2011, the year the plan was adopted, more than 60% of San José’s residential development has occurred in areas without an urban village plan.


What’s the holdup?

Well, the city’s density-enabling plans and policies have so far not resulted in substantial growth. Needed zoning changes weren’t made – city staff is working on making them now — and the development types envisioned in the city’s plans didn’t match real estate market conditions. In addition, the city’s urban village requirements have led to complications for developers. State legislation and city-sponsored policy adjustments have relaxed those requirements, but developers and businesses still indicate confusion about them. Importantly, approved plans (especially newer ones) often identify amenities and improvements that might be required for development approval, but the plans don’t estimate their costs or specify which entities are responsible for building or making them. Moreover, the amenities and improvements — for example, street and public infrastructure enhancements such as tree plantings and widening of sidewalks — can vary from plan to plan. The result is uncertainty for investors and lack of accountability if the amenities that the city and community prioritized fail to materialize.


Are the more complete and connected neighborhoods the city envisioned a possibility?

SPUR believes so. Despite their challenges, urban villages provide an existing policy framework to enable implementation of the principles of the 15-minute city, alongside other key urban policy changes. These strategies include policies for local and regional transit-oriented communities, complete streets and urban design guidelines, and placemaking. The primary task is to create an environment that encourages the shift toward walkable and sustainable urban landscapes. Transitioning from car-oriented to walkable neighborhoods requires interventions, including concentrating public investments near transit hubs, offering time-sensitive permitting and fee structures to spur immediate investments, encouraging human-centered urban design, and establishing implementation support for critical projects such as the development of affordable housing.


You note that some upcoming transportation investments will make a renewed focus on more complete and connected neighborhoods even more critical.

Yes. Aside from the BART Phase II Extension, which will expand regional rail transit to downtown San José, the Valley Transportation Authority will expand service along light-rail lines and create extensions via the Eastridge Connector. The agency has big plans for transit-oriented development at 18 sites; the crown jewel is a major redevelopment of Diridon Station. San José can take advantage of these investments to strengthen connections among neighborhoods. That’s important because not every neighborhood can be expected to house every desired amenity — and certainly not every specialized service. In 2022, the San José’s Department of Transportation took a meaningful step by approving Move San José, which establishes a new decision-making process that joins citywide policies, neighborhood improvements, and reinvention of city streets. This citywide mobility plan will help fulfill the goals in the General Plan, and it aligns with the goals of 15-minute neighborhoods.


How do urban villages and 15-minute neighborhoods increase equity and address the climate emergency?

San José started making changes to its zoning and planning requirements in the 1950s. Over time, these changes led to car-centric, low-density, single land uses that helped create and perpetuate racially and economically segregated communities with inequitable access to critical public resources such as parks and public spaces. Moreover, these requirements sustained a pattern of development that has collectively contributed to a rising carbon footprint and an increase in commute times, traffic congestion, pollution, and energy use. The 15-minute city rejects all that. It creates a framework to deliver access to critical services and amenities in an environment that encourages walking and social interaction. It offers a variety of housing types at a variety of price points, which could strengthen social cohesion. And it makes living without a car tenable, which lowers household costs and reduces pollution.


What strategies can San José use to pursue equitable and climate-friendly growth?

After convening a cross-sector working group, conducting interviews and workshops, and consulting with stakeholders to better understand the utility of the 15-minute concept in San José, SPUR recommends six strategies:

First, double down on commitments to inclusive urban growth and prosperity, setting specific goals for sustainability, accessibility, and improved quality of life.

Second, foster the co-creation of cities with community members.

Third, catalyze and incentivize 15-minute framework demonstration projects, public-private partnerships, and land use policies such as mixed-use zoning, transit-oriented development, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and adaptive reuse and revitalization.

Fourth, encourage diverse uses of buildings’ ground floors.

Fifth, leverage city data and make the data publicly accessible to equitably improve services.

Finally, develop a city-led center for urban design to ensure implementation of design principles consistent with the 15-minute framework.

Together, these strategies would help San José meet its goals of creating more complete and connected urban neighborhoods, in the process extending opportunity to many more people.


Read The 15-Minute Neighborhood