Carlos Moreno - dreaming of our 15-minute city

Moreno says achieving the 15-minute city requires 'deconstructing the city', or, more specifically, mixing as many different uses as possible


Mark Sammut Alessi writing in the Sunday Independent expressed angst when commenting about the application to build a bungalow village and other amenities in the unspoiled Comino islet.

Nobody denies that Castille treats widespread construction as the Alta Mater which is revered as the prime motor of the economy. Sammut Alessi insists that the population’s psychological well-being certainly doesn’t make this country’s top priorities, since in his opinion, the cash registers within the corridors in Mile End (level four) ring melodiously when new construction permits are on the agenda.

The writing on the wall is that we may have to sacrifice Comino’s beauty for a few business people to make easy money and possibly see some of the spectacular gains eventually populate Dubai’s haven accounts.  He tars this “Comino”  application with a brush tainted as easy money. He questions why are we digging up all ODZ and unspoiled land when there are alternatives such as “empty” inner core buildings rotting away. His clarion call is to warm the heart strings of citizens who feel powerless when they read about public calls for creation of unsustainable wealth-generating business, the kind that brings a sporadic but unsustainable stream of income.

The penny suddenly dropped - watch how the government is actively looking into buying or renting private land to transform it into open, public spaces, appointing an ex-BOV financial analyst Steve Ellul as CEO of a new agency - Project Green.  As pompously announced by Ellul, this fresh initiative is part of the seven-year plan to invest €700 million to create green urban spaces.

Quick on the ball, the Times of Malta editorial took umbrage at this announcement saying “traditionally written by the government, this delivers a sort of false equivalence: the government dedicates €700 million for the construction of open spaces but a substantial amount of this cache will be spent on infrastructure, over and above the €500 million allocated by the government for the continuation of the roadbuilding spree seen in the last years. The €200 million difference between the two budgets does not really imply a change in direction.”

So if TOM is right, is this a new initiative or a ruse? There are quite a few reasons why Project Green was met with widespread cynicism - yet wander dust has not settled on its glossy brochure. It appears that the government shall acquire privately owned land that is within the development zone but has not yet been developed, and surreptitiously open it up for the public enjoyment.

But, one may ask, does this mean that the government will repent and in a contrite mood buy back land from the private owners of Comino, or the yacht project at Hondoq, or various hotel seaside encumbrances or the shanty towns dotting the coast.

The straight answer is, not so fast. We bought for cash a number of band clubs and shares in Lombard but are not so cavalier for the aforesaid.  So the reasonable trajectory for Ellul, armed with a war chest of €200 million, may be to try introduce the 15-minute City concept pioneered by a famous architect Carlos Moreno.

This is an intuitive and adaptable model for people - centred urban development that already popular around the world. Moreno says achieving the 15-minute city requires “deconstructing the city”, or, more specifically, mixing as many different uses as possible. It is an approach to urban design that aims to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within 15 minutes by foot, bike, or buses.

The concept (la ville du quart d’heure) found new popularity in 2019 from Carlos Moreno, a French-Colombian professor (pictured) who developed the idea in pursuit of attachment to disrupt.  Moreno also champions the use of hybrid spaces: turning schoolyards as parks, civic facilities that have multiple uses and multi-use buildings and cultural spaces, such as churchyards and digging underground garages in industrial parks.

Another mentor for Ellul could be Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. She quickly became one of the most prominent champions of the 15-minute city. The idea was a centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign, and it served as a useful, colloquial packaging for Paris to pedestrianize, promote cycling, electric scooters, restrict cars and bring parks and people-first infrastructure to the City of Light. Paris is treating schools as neighbourhood ‘capitals’, enabling these properties to serve multiple functions alongside childhood education, and working to strengthen local commercial networks, services and production under a romantic ‘Produced in Paris’ brand.

Equally challenging for Ellul, this is a minefield and we wish he gains the collaboration of the entire Cabinet.  Critics are quick to remind us of past peccadillos saying any national-wide roll-out of a buying spree in village core does not come without controversy. Lobbies of car importers, village shops, and drivers will fight the idea tooth and nail. Starting by extensive construction of bike lanes this alone, transforms parts of the island into a big construction site.

By comparison, in Paris, Hidalgo came out with plans to eliminate 60,000 parking spots by 2024 and to utilise smart-city technology to make the remaining cars and trucks spots on the road more efficient, speeding up package delivery and making it easier to find parking. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she fast-tracked the transformation of streets into emergency ‘corona pistes’, cycle lanes.

Some may ask if Hidalgo started mitigating Paris congestion with 30 million annual visitors - we augur that Ellul succeeds locally armed with a rich purse in this pocket. Readers may wonder how, with three cars per family (and increasing), we can start replacing parking spots.  It is a counterintuitive way to improve traffic, but in fact, the other approach – adding more roads and other accommodations for cars – is what doesn’t work.

See what we achieved by building the controversial Marsa flyovers (with back-handling allegations) when reality showed us beyond doubt, that more asphalt leads to more congestion, which in turn leads to demand for more roads.

The 15-Minute approach was also favourably commented upon and highly recommended by an article in the Sunday Independent by Carmen Cacopardo, Chairperson of ADPD.

This approach can be seen in action in seven cities – Barcelona, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Milan, Paris and Portland – with the aim of inspiring other local governments around the world in the design of their own approaches. The information it presents has been shared directly by the cities. In each case, it explains the approach each city is taking, the background to its development, and key features and its traffic calming practices.  It also provides links to associated studies and reports.

The spirit is willing, let us see if Castille is genuinely interested.

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