Work, play, and sustainability in the 15-minute city

The 15-minute city provides a framework for businesses and sustainability to coexist and thrive

Illustration courtesy of iStock

The past year has seen major changes in the world of work, but the next challenge? How to implement strategies and systemic improvements that will keep businesses booming, employees engaged, and a sustainable environment top of mind for the long haul. 

This is where the idea of a 15-minute city—in which humans have access to all their needs by walking or bicycling within a quarter hour or less—comes in. Not only does this reduce carbon emissions, it reconnects people to their neighborhoods and promotes well-being. As cities in the U.S. start to reopen, the idea of getting employees back to the office in a sustainable way can also repower the economy. We explored this idea recently in a panel discussion at the WeWork Innovation Summit. Watch the session on demand here. Here are some takeaways from the discussion.

Reducing the carbon footprint

The global pandemic has impacted our carbon footprint. The 2020 Global Carbon Project reported a 7 percent drop in global emissions of carbon dioxide last year, with ground and aviation transport accounting for 40 percent of this decrease. Americans were also commuting 890 million fewer miles per day in 2020

Andy Keeton, data and product Strategist at Commutifi, a commute management and data automation platform, says there are three metrics his organization looks at to help businesses quantify the impacts of a commute: cost, time, and CO₂ [emissions]. “Before the pandemic, an individual was spending about $6 each way on their commute. They were taking 27 minutes each way to get into the office, and they were polluting 10 pounds of CO₂. While everyone has been working from home, all of that’s gone—that’s a ton of time and cost savings,” he says. 

The effects of a 15-minute city are profound because replacing cars with active modes of transportation like walking, biking, and electric scooters adds up over time. “A single individual could save $3,000 a year, 100 hours, and 5,000 pounds of CO₂ simply by shrinking everyone into a smaller space. That’s over 100 trees you would otherwise have to plant to offset it,” says Keeton. 

Putting the employee experience first

Companies are turning to a decentralized “hub-and-spoke” model to cut down employees’ commuting times, and adapt to the way employees now prefer to work. WeWork piloted this practice in New York City by having one central headquarters surrounded by satellite offices spread throughout the city. Over 70 percent of employees reported being satisfied with this model. 

Chris Pyke, Ph.D., senior vice president of product at Arc Skoru, says that “people have become aware that where they work has a direct influence on their health.” His team’s research shows that employee satisfaction and sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive. “From a design standpoint, we see the projects [buildings] occupants prefer and have higher levels of satisfaction also have 50–60 percent lower business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions. We can have both [sustainability and employee satisfaction], and in the real world, these are not trade-offs,” says Pyke. 

Additionally, what drives employee satisfaction is not only the space itself but also the freedom of choice that a company provides. The hub-and-spoke model empowers people to move to places of comfort and well-being, and complements the hybrid workplace that is becoming the norm. 

It not only draws a line between work and home but also supports the natural creativity that stems from being around colleagues in physical proximity, not to mention the mental health benefits of in-person camaraderie and collaboration. “We need to think about workplaces that promote choice and fight isolation, enhance productivity, and fight burnout,” adds Pyke.

Good for the environment = good for business

The 15-minute city has yet another benefit: It allows new businesses—such as mom-and-pop shops and independent retailers that benefit from more foot traffic—to flourish. Retail healthcare is another area that will see big changes, as Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, explained how it would work in Queens County, the fourth largest city in the United States and the largest geographic borough. “If you want to get to the crux of ‘live, work, play,’ there ought to be healthcare at arm’s length, for example on the first floor of a WeWork building shared by different occupants. Your healthcare, not withstanding telehealth, needs to be close and can be very well served by being in close proximity to the workplace,” he says.

If we look at it from another perspective, the concept of a 15-minute city supports active, multi-modal modes of transport like walking and biking, which not only benefits the environment but helps businesses too. A research study from Transport for London revealed that people who walk, cycle, and use public transport spend up to 40 percent more money each month in neighborhood shops than motorists in local shops. Overall, improving infrastructure to support these new forms of transport can increase retail sales by up to 30 percent

Employers will also save on parking costs if more employees walk or bike to work. “Most companies provide a limited amount of parking for employees. Say, you have 200 employees and 100 drive in, and then 150 drive in—where will you get 50 more car spaces? Opening up satellite offices saves tens of thousands of dollars from parking costs alone, and provides all of the benefits that come from employee happiness and well-being,” says Keeton. 

Where to from here?

The 15-minute city is a triple-threat solution across people’s lives, businesses, and the planet. The panelists outlined actionable next steps that should be implemented immediately. 

First, rearrange hiring processes and choose talent not only based on skill but by taking into consideration a candidate’s preferred way of working. Grech says, “As an employer, it might be just as important to find someone really good who doesn’t need to come to the office—which would be a benefit for me, for them, and for the environment.”

Second, rethink the role of the workplace beyond 9-to-5 and by keeping the employee experience top of mind. Pyke views the future workplace as not only a place of work but a place of well-being. “Our workplaces should address our psychology and keep employees engaged and more productive,” he says. “The workplace isn’t just a canvas. It can do good in an intentional way.”

Keeton reiterates the importance of the commute and how it can be restructured to better influence employee well-being and the environment. “Flexibility is key,” he says. “Think about how you can provide a flexible environment for your workers—whether that be work schedule or how they come into the office.” It’s the icing on the cake to turning this 15-minute city into a reality. 

Watch the session on demand here.

Melissa Yap is a content marketer for leading technology platform SteelHouse and a freelance writer with Australian roots, now based in Los Angeles via New York City and London. Her writing has been featured in Fortune, Huffington Post, Monocle, CNN, and Adobe.

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