Cleveland isn’t known as a walkable or bikeable city, but its new mayor wants to change that.

When Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo touted the idea of becoming a 15-minute city—a place where it’s easy to reach work, school, stores, and other destinations on a short walk or bike ride—it didn’t have as far to go as many other cities. Hidalgo has pushed for multiple changes to help cut air pollution and improve quality of life, from making a highway car-free to adding so many bike lanes that the streets now look more like Copenhagen. But Paris was already compact, densely populated, and relatively easy to walk around in.

The goal is a bigger challenge in Cleveland, which currently has a Walk Score of 57 (Paris has a perfect score, 100 out of 100). Cleveland’s 35-year-old mayor, who took office earlier this year, still wants to move in the same direction.

“We’re working toward being the first city in North America to implement a 15-minute city planning framework, where people—not developers, but people—are at the center of urban revitalization, because regardless of where you live, you have access to a good grocery store, vibrant parks, and a job you can get to,” Bibb said in his first State of the City speech in April. While the city will look at how individual neighborhoods can improve, the concept looks at the connections between homes, jobs, and services on a broader scale.

The city was more walkable in the past, and more people lived a short distance from their jobs. “We had an industrial heritage, and we had housing very proximate to these plants and factories where people worked,” says Jeff Epstein, the city’s chief development officer. Corner stores and other neighborhood retail shops were also within walking distance from homes. But as factories closed, and highways helped spawn the growth of suburbs, city neighborhoods became much less dense, and people had to travel farther.

“A lot of priority was placed on making it very easy for people to drive from the suburbs to their jobs downtown and then leave efficiently,” says Jason Kuhn, communications manager at the bike advocacy group Bike Cleveland. “And that’s how you ended up with this network of roads that are really built for car movement efficiency, and really not for people on bikes. There’s a potential, absolutely, to turn back to the other direction and really make the city work for the people who live there.”

New protected bike lanes that run through the middle of the city and from east to west are already planned, though the overall bike network needs to improve. “You might have a road where there’s a bike lane for a mile, and then maybe it’s gone for two, so it’s kind of broken,” he says. “So it’s still difficult to move around the city by bicycle just because the network is incomplete.” A new “complete streets” ordinance will help improve planning and deal with challenges like wide streets that are difficult for pedestrians to cross, he says.

The city is also starting to map out assets like parks and stores and identify which neighborhoods have the most potential now to be 15-minute neighborhoods. One neighborhood, for example, has a lot of amenities, “but we have very busy streets, sidewalks that aren’t in great condition, and that doesn’t necessarily make that the kind of area where a lot of people are going to want to walk,” Epstein says. “So some of those changes are focusing on the public realm improvements to have more bike and pedestrian activity and make it easier for people to want to take advantage of that.”

Planners are also looking at where there are clusters of amenities near transit, and looking for ways to increase the number of people living in those areas. A neighborhood called Detroit Shoreway has the basic assets of a 15-minute city, but needs around 18,000 more housing units strategically located near public transit. There’s plenty of space, they say, to build new housing, from former industrial sites to closed fast-food restaurants, underused parking lots, and land owned by the city itself.

On the riverfront—where the water was once so polluted that it famously caught on fire, but is now much cleaner—a new 35-acre development plans to add new park space, 2,000 housing units, and new office and retail space, all designed to encourage people to live downtown and easily walk where they need to go.

“We came in with that as a fundamental objective—planning to create 15-minute neighborhoods, and also to be an essential component of getting downtown Cleveland to be part of an 18-hour city, which in essence means that folks can come downtown and find something to do for at least 18 hours of the day,” says Kofi Bonner, CEO of Bedrock, the real estate firm developing the site. The firm just completed a master plan for the area; the first steps for construction could begin in 2024, depending on the city permitting process, but the full project will take 15 to 20 years. The development will help connect the riverfront to the rest of downtown.

The city administration sees multiple benefits for making these changes, says Epstein. “Having a 15-minute city for our residents increases their quality of life—their ability to spend more time with their family, or at their job, when their needs are within a close proximity of their home,” he says. “It has positive sustainability impacts for a city in terms of reduced usage of cars. And it helps to strengthen people’s connection to place and neighborhood.”

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