The idea of having easy access to everything you need within the proximity of your home is by no means new. In a 1929 essay, American urbanist Clarence Perry enunciated his ideal “neighborhood units,” or self-contained neighborhoods where residents have all of their needs within walking distance.
Perry’s vision has since lost the urban planning battle to bedroom communities, single-use neighborhoods and car commutes. But, with new emphasis on walkability, reducing carbon emissions and regaining urban foot accessibility, his ideals have returned in the form of the 15-minute city concept — an ideal community where everything from work to education to services and leisure is within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point or neighborhood in the city. In this scenario, cars become optional, residents enjoy ample physical and mental health benefits and community spirit is boosted — after all, it’s easier to get to know the people you pass on a footpath than on a highway.
However, reaching that point of equality in urban accessibility is no easy feat, being hindered by urban sprawl, single-use areas, zoning restrictions and service disparities between neighborhoods. Still, some U.S. cities are better poised for working towards the movement’s goals of providing residents with easier access to all of their needs, whether under the banner of the 15-minute city movement or otherwise. So, to identify these cities, we came up with a ranking system awarding points for four composite metrics: service density, ease of commuting, prevalence of mixed-use properties and green amenities.
America’s Most Viable 15-Minute City Candidates: Miami’s Service Density Pushes It to Top of Standings
With a total score of almost 71 out of 100 points and more than 10 points ahead of the runner-up, Miami is the U.S. city that’s best poised to become a 15-minute city. Of course, it’s no secret that Miami’s downtown — as well as nearby culture-rich neighborhoods, like Wynwood, Little Havana and Coconut Grove — can already function like freestanding hubs where people can live, work, eat, find entertainment options and socialize without hopping in a car or bus. Granted, cars are still largely a necessity in the areas further from Biscayne Bay in the greater Miami metro, but the City of Miami proper features the highest service density in terms of retail establishments, healthcare, educational institutions and leisure facilities.
While its service density garnered Miami the majority of its points, it’s not the city’s only advantage. It also scored well for its commuting score and green amenities. For instance, the Metrorail, which connects the city’s downtown with South Miami, best encapsulates this. The system not only provides efficient public transportation, but is also being turned into an urban meeting and health spot through The Underline — a multi-phase project turning the areas below the Metrorail into a 10-mile park and public art exhibit. Phase 1 in Brickell is already open, while the Phase 2 section around Vizcaya Station is set for completion by the end of 2023.
New York City & San Francisco Reach Podium as Promising 15-Minute Cities in U.S.
Befitting of a high-density city with a long-standing tradition of urban planning and public transportation, New York earned the runner-up spot with a score of 60 points. Specifically, New York had the second-highest service density — a feat impressive in and of itself given that NYC’s land area stands at more than 300 square miles, compared to Miami’s 36. But, the category in which New York truly shined was its commute score. If one thing is true about New Yorkers, it’s that they walk everywhere — whether that’s straight to the office or the nearest subway station.
Walking to where you need to be is becoming easier than ever with the 15-minute concept coming to NYC in chunks. One project in this vein is Innovation QNS, a masterplan for Queens’ Astoria neighborhood between 35th and 36th Avenues that will repurpose vacant and underutilized land into mixed-income housing, as well as offices and retail space for small businesses. The neighborhood will also welcome community health and wellness facilities; a 40,000-square-foot public park; and multiplex cinema. The project was approved in late 2022 and is slated to break ground in 2025, turning this area of the city into a multi-use haven where residents can fulfill several of their daily needs without a long car ride. While such projects have mostly been concentrated in the boroughs’ high-income, high-walkability areas where urban accessibility is most at home, the city's high overall scores still bode well for the future of the 15-minute concept throughout.
Next up, San Francisco made the cut as the third most promising 15-minute city in the U.S., with great scores for service density and commuting score. Here, San Francisco’s districts and neighborhoods are already highly walkable and bikeable, thereby granting residents more options when it comes to getting where they need to be. Moreover, a robust transportation network supplements this, meaning that residents of San Francisco proper have little trouble getting around. And, like with Miami, San Francisco’s most diverse areas are commonly among its most walkable and activity-rich — a mix that promotes both healthy walking and amplifies the sense of community.
Smaller Cities Score Better as 15-Minute Candidates
In the wider list of cities showing the most promise for short commutes and easy access to daily necessities, one clear trend was that of smaller cities making up the majority of the ranking. With the notable exceptions of New York City at #2 and Chicago at #10, all of the other cities in the top 10 had less than 1 million residents. What’s more, four of the top 10 entries had fewer than 500,000 residents.
The trend is similar when looking at entries #11 through #20 in the ranking. With the exception of Philadelphia (#11), all of the other entries in this section of the ranking had fewer than 1 million residents, with seven of them also belonging to the under-500,000 bracket.
These facts emphasize the viability of the 15-minute concept in smaller locations with less urban sprawl. Yet, the presence of three of the nine U.S. cities with more than 1 million residents in the top 20 list (including the largest overall in NYC) is impressive and highlights the scalability of the project — even in America's densest cities — through policies that start at the neighborhood level.
Northeast Leads in Number of Cities With Urban Accessibility, Followed By West & Midwest
At a regional level, the Northeast concentrated the largest number of entries, with seven of the entries in the top 20 hailing from here. Unlike the more recently built cities in other regions of the country, those in the Northeast benefit from urban layouts that preceded cars, meaning they may be one step ahead when it comes to adapting to principles of walkability and livability.
Not far behind, the West and Midwest recorded five entries each, with Western cities placing higher, on average. Nevertheless, the presence of the five cities hailing from the Midwest in the top 20 highlights the success of urban renewal efforts in locations like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Top U.S. Cities by Density of Education, Health Care, Shopping & Third Places
The original 15-minute city concept relies on the idea that residents should have all of their daily needs within quick reach. While walkability and bikeability are great in ensuring that people have alternatives to driving everywhere, having a high number of venues, amenities and services distributed equitably by neighborhood is a must in enabling easy access to daily needs and improving livability.
Thus, as a global tourism destination and one of the South’s fastest-growing destinations for tech, healthcare and more, Miami's performance across the service density metric was outstanding.
This metric comprised six different categories, and Miami scored maximum points in five of them. More precisely, the city has the highest number of retail establishments, healthcare facilities, educational institutions and leisure establishments per square mile. This likely comes as no surprise for a diverse city like Miami, where a plethora of shopping and entertainment options coexist. Plus, the city is also home to a host of world-class healthcare institutions, making it a regional and international health center.
Moving on to another service density sub-category, Miami was also the city to beat in terms of density of third places. This term denotes places besides homes and workplaces where people with similar interests can organically meet and create meaningful connections, which is critical for community-building. Third places can include anything from fitness and sports centers to religious sites and even beauty salons. Once again, Miami’s diversity boosted its standings in this sub-metric, with the wide range and high concentration of third places present in the metro being a benefit of its multicultural composition.
Meanwhile, the only service density category in which Miami did not earn top scores was the safety density score, which was determined by a city’s number of fire stations and law enforcement agencies per square mile. Miami came up just short to land second in this category with 2.3 locations per square mile, with Pittsburgh inching ahead with 2.4 locations.
Podium entries New York City and San Francisco also had the second- and third-highest service density scores, respectively. New York City scored better for its large concentration of retail destinations, third places and leisure establishments — a fact driven in no small part by its status as a global economic and entertainment hub. On the opposite coast, San Francisco has a higher density of educational institutions (21.2 per square mile, the second-highest on the list) and healthcare providers.
Other U.S. cities with high concentrations of services included Jersey City, N.J.; St. Louis; Pittsburgh; and the Twin Cities.
Commuting Trends Highlight Need for Upgraded Public Transportation Systems in Livable Cities
Cities could also earn up to 30 points across six different sub-metrics in the commuting score category. Namely, factors such as the percentage of residents using public transportation to go to work, daily commute time, ease of walking and biking as well as the size of their public transportation fleets relative to population were taken into consideration.
In the overall category, New York City won out with a total of 23.2 points from a possible maximum of 30. As the capital of alternative commuting options in the U.S., NYC’s high score should come as no surprise. As a matter of fact, according to U.S. Census data, only 26.4% of New Yorkers go to work by personal vehicle, while 54.8% commute using alternative transportation, such as the subway, buses, bike or by walking. Still, due to the sheer distance between the city’s boroughs and surrounding suburbs, NYC had the longest commute time of 40.7 minutes on average, earning it zero points for that sub-category. Therefore, to avoid having people waste an aggregated several days per year on the way to and from work, further solutions may be necessary to get New York closer to the ideal of a 15-minute city.
Nearby Jersey City, N.J., had the next-lowest percentage of residents commuting by personal car at 31.6%. This is at least partially driven by commutes to and from New York City, as more than 320,000 New Jerseyites commute to NYC daily. Besides these two entries, four other cities saw fewer than half of their residents commute by personal car: Washington, D.C. (32.2%); San Francisco (35.1%); Boston (38.7%); and Seattle (41.8%) — highlighting them as successful areas for alternative commuting methods.
Of course, walkability and bikeability ratings are an obvious choice for a metric to gauge the accessibility and livability of American cities. To that end, out of the cities in our study, San Francisco has the best citywide walk score at 88.7 out of 100. It was followed by NYC’s 88 and Jersey City’s 86.6.
Meanwhile, the crown for bikeability belongs to Minneapolis. With numerous bike lanes crisscrossing the city and bike-friendly policies, Minneapolis is becoming somewhat of a cyclist’s paradise, offering greater freedom in terms of not needing a car.
The second-best bike score belonged to Portland, Ore. In fact, local authorities committed to turning Portland’s neighborhoods into complete communities as early as 2010, with emphasis placed on ease of commuting and equity in access to services. While a high percentage of Portland residents still commute by car (55%) and alternative transportation methods are not as popular as they are elsewhere, the city’s commitment to offering all residents easy walking or biking access to all of their necessities bodes well for Portland’s future as a potential 15-minute city.
One additional sub-metric of the commute score category was the metro-wide number of public transit vehicles per capita, which highlights the cities that have the most robust transportation networks. In this sub-metric, Seattle came out on top with 125.3 vehicles per 100,000 residents. From King Country Metro buses to light rail, streetcar and even ferries across Elliott Bay, Seattle’s public transit system is enviable. Other cities with large public transit fleets relative to their population included cities in the New York metro — like NYC proper, Jersey City and Newark (each with approximately 115 vehicles per 100,000 residents) — followed by those in San Francisco’s metro where the ratio was just under 100.
Fremont, Calif., Enjoys Largest Park Area Concentration as North Carolina Trio Wins in Tree Canopy Cover
In cities that truly want to turn public spaces into meeting points and encourage residents to leave their cars in the parking lot, green spaces are key. So, to gauge the prevalence of green spaces in the cities in our study, we looked at both the percentage of a city’s area dedicated to parks, as well as the percentage of each city’s area shaded by tree canopies.
The best-scoring city in the overall green amenities metric, Fremont, Calif., also has the highest park area relative to its total size out of all of the cities in the analysis. From the city’s 450-acre Central Park to 50 other community parks, green areas make up 44% of Fremont’s total land area. Furthermore, approximately 90% of Fremont’s park surface is in natural parks, with 10% being made up of designed parks. These ensure that residents are offered ample areas of both designed parks and untouched natural spaces for outdoor activities and social interaction.
Not to be outdone, Chesapeake, Va., had the second-highest park cover at 27.2%, while Scottsdale, Ariz., came in third in that metric.
Even outside of urban parks, trees are essential in preventing the heat-island effect that drives up temperatures in cities during the summer. They also lower noise pollution, increase air quality and make the prospect of walking more attractive for residents.
When it comes to tree canopy cover, three North Carolina metros stood a head above the rest: with 52% of the city enjoying tree shade, Durham, N.C., was the only city to cross the halfway mark in terms of canopy cover aside from fellow Carolina Triangle entry, Raleigh, N.C., at 50%. Then, Charlotte, N.C., was tied with Atlanta at approximately 46% tree cover, while Greensboro, N.C., ensured the state’s dominance by securing the fifth-best showing in this metric.
Clearly, North Carolina is a great place for outdoor enthusiasts and those looking for urban greenery. Still, organizations such as TreesDurham are drawing attention to the fact that tree canopy coverage is slowly being chipped away, raising awareness about the necessity of ongoing efforts to preserve this characteristic that will be essential in the 15-minute cities of the future.
Mixed-Use Developments at Home in Boston, D.C. & NYC
Cities were also awarded up to 10 points for the prevalence of mixed-use properties within their boundaries. To support this, we analyzed both the percentage of mixed-use commercial properties (such as office buildings that also have apartments or retail spaces), as well as the percentage of apartments located in live/work/play communities or developments that aim to offer residents all of their necessities within one place. Both types of buildings are becoming increasingly popular as complete neighborhoods become more prevalent.
Boston is home to the largest share of both mixed-use office buildings and apartments in live/work/play communities nationally. In terms of office buildings, 63.4% of the city’s properties have at least two different classes. For instance, properties like the Financial District’s Millennium Tower offer residents luxury condominiums, class A office space leased to several firms, as well as a grocery store, thereby providing residents with additional convenience.
Washington, D.C. had the second-highest share of mixed-use office properties, while also claiming the fourth-highest percentage of live/work/play apartments. In particular, D.C. was a mecca for mixed-use developments and neighborhoods even before the pandemic, especially in high-demand areas such as Capitol Hill and NoMa — and that trend has only accelerated since.
Even beyond the cases of Boston and Washington, D.C., there was a strong correlation between a high concentration of mixed-use buildings and the share of live/work/play apartments. New York came in third and second place in those metrics, respectively. Jersey City, N.J., was also fifth and third, respectively, while most other markets that were in the top 20 in one metric also had a good showing in the other.
However, the disparity between the percentage of office buildings with an additional type of real estate and the share of communities that also offer residents localized jobs and other services highlights the need for more equitable living spaces close to establishments and services if urban accessibility is the goal.
The study included all U.S. cities where data was available for all metrics. Cities with fewer than 200,000 residents were excluded due to unavailable data on parks, Walk Score and Bike Score. Only cities proper were included, without the surrounding metropolitan area. Population data for 2022 was courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Cities could earn up to a total of 100 points based on their performance in four composite metrics, as follows:
- Service Density Score (up to 50 points). Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau County Business Patterns and Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD).
- Up to 10 points for a city’s retail establishments per square mile. Retail establishments were defined as establishments with North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes 4451, 4452, 4453, 4461, 4481 and 4482.
- Up to 10 points for a city’s educational institutions per square mile. Educational establishments were defined as establishments with NAICS codes 6111-6117 and 6244.
- Up to 10 points for a city’s healthcare facilities per square mile. Healthcare facilities were defined as establishments with NAICS codes 6211-6216, 6219 and 6221-6223.
- Up to 10 points for a city’s third places per square mile. Third places were defined as establishments with NAICS codes 713940, 722514, 812111, 812112, 812113 and 813110 and also included libraries per Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD).
- Up to 5 points for a city’s leisure establishments per square mile. Leisure establishments were defined as establishments with NAICS codes 7121, 7131, 7139 and 7223-7225.
- Up to 5 points for a city’s fire stations and law enforcement agencies per square mile based on HIFLD data.
- Commuting Score (up to 30 points). Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau, WalkScore.com and the Federal Transit Administration.
- Up to 5 points inversely proportional with the percentage of a city’s residents commuting by car, truck or van (U.S. Census Bureau).
- Up to 5 points for the percentage of a city’s residents commuting by public transportation excluding taxis, walking or bicycle (U.S. Census Bureau).
- Up to 5 points inversely proportional with citywide average commute time for on-site workers (U.S. Census Bureau).
- Up to 5 points for a city’s walk score (WalkScore.com).
- Up to 5 points for a city’s bike score (WalkScore.com).
- Up to 5 points for a city’s public transportation vehicles per 100,000 residents (Federal Transit Administration).
- Green Amenities Score (up to 10 points). Data sources: Trust for Public Land, Tree Equity Score.
- Up to 5 points for the percentage of a city’s land area occupied by parks (Trust for Public Land).
- Up to 5 points for the percentage of a city’s land area with tree canopy cover (Tree Equity Score).
- Mixed-Use Developments Score (up to 10 points). Data source: CommercialEdge and Yardi Matrix.
- Up to 5 points for the percentage of mixed-use office properties out of a city’s total (CommercialEdge).
- Up to 5 points for the percentage of apartments in live/work/play communities, defined as apartments in multifamily buildings with at least 50 units which also include retail and/or office space besides residential units (Yardi Matrix).