by Devanshi ShahAug 25, 2021
The Obel Award is a relatively new, international prize for architectural achievement presented annually by the Henrik Frode Obel Foundation. It has been presented only twice before, in 2019 to Junya Ishigami+Associates, and to Studio Anna Heringer in 2020. This year the award has been given to Professor Carlos Moreno for his urban theory of the ‘15-minute City’. Unlike previous editions, the 2021 awardee has been recognised for urban design as opposed to particular projects such as Junya Ishigami's Water Garden and Anna Heringer's Anandaloy. Each year, the jury formulates a special focus for the award. In 2021, the focus was ‘seminal solutions to the challenges facing cities’. This is perhaps indicative of shifting focuses in the world in relation to design and architecture. Resolving the problems of urban sprawl has a long history, however, the past two years have brought to the forefront the importance of associability and proximity of resources.
Martha Schwartz, who was the Jury Chair for the 2021 award, explained the jury’s decision in an official statement saying, “Like the two previous Obel Award winners, this year’s winner is about protecting the environment and making life better for people. We are living in a time of urgency to make a change and live more efficiently. The ‘15-minute City’ addresses the need for us to rethink how our cities can be reimagined, redesigned, and regenerated for the primary benefit of people and the environment. The ‘15-minute City’ is a real step towards the future – a bold and needed perspective.”
The 15-minute city
The central idea of the ‘15-minute City’ concept postulates that cities should be designed so that all residents can access their daily needs such as housing and education, as well as cultural and leisurely activities within the distance of a 15-minute walk or a bike ride. This would in turn reduce car traffic and CO2 emissions. The idea is conceptualised with a flexibility that allows for the central concept to be adjusted to resonate with local culture and conditions. The idea of the 15-minute city has already been implemented in cities such as Paris, Chengdu, and Melbourne, and has seen a degree of success, which has generated global interest. While the current urban discourse is ripe with discussions on how to ‘fix’ cities, Moreno postulates redefining the term ‘city’ itself.
Carlos Moreno is French of Colombian origin and is the Scientific Director of the ETI Chair Entrepreneurship Territory Innovation and Associate Professor at the IAE Paris Panthéon Sorbonne University. As one of the driving forces behind the 15-minute City, his career is marked by an interest in the complexities of cities and people who reside in them. Combining science, progress and creativity, Moreno embraces cross-disciplinary collaboration between the sciences and creative ecosystems. Throughout his career and his work with the ideas of the 15-minute city, he established six essential urban social functions that are needed in all cities, namely living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying, that can be programmatically defined as housing, work, food, health, education, and culture and leisure.
Moreno's idea of the re-defined city incorporates all the essentials through three key features and four guiding principles. The key features state that a city's rhythm should follow humans and not vehicles, and each square metre should be optimised to serve many different purposes. And more importantly, neighbourhoods should be designed to be self-sufficient to avoid constantly commuting elsewhere. The four guiding principles that are the building blocks of the concept are ecology, proximity, solidarity, and participation. The identified principles and features may seem simple and perhaps even familiar. The ‘15-minute City’ concept shares ideas with other urban theories, such as Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on urban life and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons, as well as many other people-centric approaches to urban planning. In many ways, the ‘15-minute City’ concept addresses more contemporary issues to these established ideologies.
Responding to new challenges such as climate change, and COVID-19, the model supports a decentralised city and a modal shift away from private vehicles. It is important to note that the 15-minute City does not call for a return to village life, but rather the idea of smaller self-sufficient clusters that coexist within a larger scape. By defining and redefining what we consider universal human needs and functions, the 15-minute city is heralded as an adaptable urban model. The model also claims to be free of political ideology and aesthetics and refrains from specifying any particular instructions regarding spatial design, instead it only establishes parameters and programs. A large part of the human-centric proposal relies on the ability of cities willing to apply the recommendation. In some ways, one could say the 15-minute city is a list of recommended practices rather than a design solution.
The jury was conscious of some of the criticism of the model and included a statement acknowledging it as well, saying “Critics have pointed out that the model could lead to increased marginalisation of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. However, this can be avoided by focusing first on underserved areas of the city when implementing the 15-minute city model. The management of resources with an urban policy based on the urban commons is essential for a 15-minute city for all.”
The 2021 Obel Award jury consisted of Martha Schwartz, as Chair (Martha Schwartz Partners, USA); Kjetil Trædal Thorsen (co-founder, Snöhetta, Norway); Louis Becker (Design Principal and Partner, Henning Larsen, Denmark); Dr Wilhelm Vossenkuhl (Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Germany); and XU Tiantian (Founding Principal, DnA,Beijing, China). The Obel Award winner receives a prize of 100,000 Euros and a unique artwork by leading artist Tomás Saraceno.