We’re standing in the exact same spot. But you’re in a 15-minute city and I’m not.
Robert Turner, Alisha Feser. Vancouver Island University. Future Plans Journal (forthcoming).
ABSTRACT: We use overlapping amenity isochrone maps to find zones where Nanaimo, British Columbia residents can live and have 15-minute walking access to “essential” (grocery, pharmacy) and “basic quality of life” amenities (recreational space, library, museum/gallery/theater/cinema, restaurant/pub, and cafe/coffee), but also daycares, public schools, foodbanks, and walk-in clinics. People with different needs have different 15-minute walkable zones within the City. As one’s needs increase, fewer and smaller residential zones are 15-minute walkable. Of all the city’s neighbourhoods, downtown and downtown-adjacent Nanaimo offer the most extensive 15-minute walkability for residents, even residents with the most extensive needs. Initial investigation suggests that, overall, the city’s 15-minute walkable zones offer affordable shelter to most of the top three income quintiles, but are on average unaffordable for those in the two lower income quintiles. Amenity overlap is greatest in residentially dense areas, and residential density provides more residents with walkability to existing amenities, while giving amenity owners a proximate consumer base. As a result, 15-minute walkability in the City of Nanaimo would be improved by: A) zoning to permit density-increasing developments around amenity concentrations and, conversely, amenity development in areas of greater residential density, B) combined amenity-residential density zoning in areas lacking both, and C) pedestrian-friendly infrastructural improvements.
The 15-minute City
The “15-minute city”, Carlos Moreno’s human-centered “chrono-urbanism”, is an increasingly popular concept for evaluating and planning cities. The goal is to be able to walk, (roll,) cycle, or public transit in 15 minutes or less from where you live to everything — employment, health care, food, education, commerce, recreation, culture, entertainment — that makes urban life liveable and fulfilling. To do this, a city’s amenities need to be close, diverse, dense, and widely available.
Urban sprawl makes the 15-minute city difficult to achieve. Low density development increases infrastructure costs, and residents spend more time and money (driving, in traffic, buying gas, parking) getting to and from the places they need to go, leaving less time and money for enjoyment and investment.
Nanaimo, with its relatively low density (1104/km2, vs. Vancouver’s 5750/km2), is a sprawling, car-dependent city; Walk Score — a measure of pedestrian friendliness and walking access to nearby amenities — evaluates Nanaimo’s Walk Score as 35 (out of 100), Transit Score 34, and Bike Score 36. For comparison, Vancouver has a Walk Score of 80, Transit Score of 74, Bike Score of 79. In general, to eat, work, study, and play, City of Nanaimo residents use cars. Average household spending on transportation in 2021 was $9,052, roughly 10% of average household income.
Does Nanaimo have 15-minute walk zones?
Overall, Nanaimo is not a 15-minute walking city. But what about specific neighborhoods? Are there places you can live in Nanaimo with 15-minute walking access to everything you need? If so, where are they?
In an attempt to be inclusive, we measured our 15-minute access in walking time only, rather than cycling and public transit as well. Though we realize not everyone can walk, walking — of all the modes of transport — comes closest to being universally accessible and affordable. We also took a minimal approach to the 15-minute (15:) city, including the following amenities: essential amenities — grocery/supermarket, pharmacy; basic quality of life (or “modest standard of living”) amenities (as defined by the Canadian Government) — recreational space, library, museum/gallery/theater/cinema, restaurant/pub, and cafe/coffee; and daycare and school if necessary.
Overlapping amenity isochrones
We used overlapping isochrone (same time) maps to determine where a 15-minute (or “15:”) city exists. If you wanted to figure out where to live to be able to walk in less than 15 minutes to, for example, both a Library and a Grocery store, we would map the 15-minute walk zone from the Library, and the 15-minute walk zone from the Grocery store, and see where they overlap.
Some amenities exist almost everywhere throughout the city. Google maps scrape data indicates that no matter where you live in Nanaimo, you can walk to a park or free recreational area (green zone) within 15 minutes. The darker the overlapping green the more recreation areas you have 15-minute walking access to. In those areas, there are more 15-minute walk-accessible recreation areas than in lighter green areas.
Most places also enjoy 15-minute walking access to a restaurant, or pub, or fast food (orange zone), and a cafe / coffee.
But not all amenities are in equal supply. In order of decreasing availability: zones where you can live with 15-minute access to museums / galleries / theaters / cinemas, groceries / supermarkets, pharmacies, and libraries:
Daycare and schools
Daycares are concentrated from Departure Bay south:
Public elementary school (K-7) 15-minute walking access is relatively wide. 15-minute access to public high schools is much smaller.
Google maps scrape results show five walk-in clinics. The vast majority of walk-in patients are taken in by the Medical Arts Center at 650 Terminal Ave.
There are two food banks next to downtown Nanaimo.
If we map these walk-in clinics and foodbanks side by side (union), we can see where the light-red (Walk-in Clinic) zone overlaps with the pink (Foodbank) zone.
Google maps scrape data indicate five homeless shelter locations in or adjacent to downtown Nanaimo.
Supportive housing locations are concentrated in central and downtown Nanaimo, Harewood, and an area around Uplands Drive at Island Highway.
Different needs, different 15-minute zones
We apply the overlapping isochrone approach to determine where one can live and have access to everything one needs. Of course not everyone has the same needs. Some people need schools or walk-in clinics in their 15-minute zone, and others do not. But everyone needs access to essential amenities — shelter, medical care, grocery, and pharmacy, and basic quality of life amenities — recreational space, library, museum/gallery/theater/cinema, restaurant/pub, and cafe/coffee.
“Essential” and “basic quality of life” amenities
The overlapping isochrone of all essential and basic quality of life amenities is mapped below. As above, the more intense the color, the more highly concentrated the amenities.
Whether these areas give you 15-minute walkability to everything you need depends on your childcare, schooling, support, and housing needs. People with no kids in daycare or school and no need for support (housing support, foodbank, walk-in clinic) enjoy 15-minute walkability to everything they need in these four Essential and Basic Quality of Life amenities zones (gold) — one centered around Aulds Road and N. Island Highway, a smaller zone just south of Country Club Mall, another in Harewood at VIU, and a large downtown and adjacent zone.
As one’s needs increase, the 15-minute areas that meet those needs decrease, and become a smaller subzone within these golden (Essential & Basic Quality) areas. For example, people with kids generally need daycare and schools in their 15: zone. Likewise, people with low or no income may need access to a homeless shelter, food bank, and walk-in clinic.
We defined 3 broad groups, each with 3 subgroups, based on their group of needs, and mapped their 15: zones accordingly. (Obviously, these groups don’t capture everyone. They are meant as general proxies for a complex population, and a basis for opening a discussion on accessibility.)
No kids in school
Group 1a. Our first group enjoys the largest 15-minute area — in the four zones mapped above.
Essential-basic, no kids.
Daycare & public K-7
Group 1b. For people who need 15-minute walking access to daycare and elementary school, there are two adjacent 15: zones, one covering an area roughly adjacent to downtown, and Harewood next to VIU. A tiny zone exists next to Beban Park.
Public high school
Group 1c. There are three essential and basic quality of life amenity zones where you can walk in 15 minutes or less to a public high school. From north to south, they are a very small polygon at Hammond Bay Rd. and Uplands Dr., a slightly larger diamond-shaped area at Bowen Rd and Island Highway, and a much larger bilobal area at Harewood @ VIU and Pine St. at Fitzwilliam / Third St..
Foodbank, walk-in clinic
Group 2a. An area including downtown and adjacent gives you 15-minute walking access to a foodbank and a walk-in clinic (in addition to essential and basic quality of life amenities).
Foodbank, walk-in clinic, daycare & public K-7
Group 2b. Two smaller zones next to downtown support 15-minute walking access to daycare and public elementary (K-7), in addition to a foodbank and a walk-in clinic.
Foodbank, walk-in clinic, public high school
Group 2c. A tiny sliver of residential houses support 15-minute walking access to a foodbank, walk-in clinic, and a public high school.
Shelter or supportive housing, foodbank, walk-in clinic
Group 3a. There are six supportive housing or homeless shelter locations within 15 minutes walk to a food bank and walk-in clinic (and Essential and Basic Quality of Life amenities).
Shelter or supportive housing… daycare & public K-7
Group 3b. Of these, four supportive housing locations (red diamonds) are also within a 15-minute walk to daycare and elementary school (pink zone), though the two downtown homeless shelters are one minute or less outside this (pink) zone.
Shelter or supportive housing… public high school
Group 3c. None of these supportive housing or homeless shelter locations are within 15 minutes walk of a public high school (with essential and basic quality of life amenities 15: access), but they are all within 30 minutes walk.
“Pedestrian friendliness” — Walk Score™
If we check our findings against Walk Score — a measure of both amenity distance (decaying points given up to 30 minutes walk) and “pedestrian friendliness” — the downtown and adjacent area scores highest, with a “very walkable” Walk Score of 80. (Vancouver’s overall Walk Score is also 80.)
The downtown Nanaimo and adjacent area — from Dawes Street to the north, to Pine Street to the west, and Farquhar Street to the south — is a basic 15: city.
Of the other zones that qualify as 15-minute walkable, the next best Walk Score of 73 goes to the much smaller zone at Hammond Bay Rd and Island Highway, unsupported with no kids in school (gold), and a tiny sub-area (bright green) if you have kids in public high school.
Harewood at VIU, which qualifies as 15-minute walkable for people who do not need a foodbank / walk-in clinic, homeless shelter, or supportive housing, has a “somewhat walkable” Walk Score of 50.
The other 15-minute walkable zone for people not needing support and with no school-age kids is a small area at Beban and Labieux has a Walk Score of 59 (“somewhat walkable”).
Affordability — housing spending vs. household income
The 15-minute city concept is meant to put people back at the center of urban life. It is not enough to have zones that have 15-minute access to all of life’s amenities. People must also be able to afford to live in those zones. Housing is generally considered “affordable” by most lenders and organizations if it is 30% of pre-tax household income.
Nanaimo’s average household income in 2021 was $93,487, while median household income was $74,402 (Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) data, City of Nanaimo 55). Average household spending on shelter in 2021 was $20,046 ($1670/month). If your household spending on shelter and household income are close to the average, you spend 21% of your income on shelter. If your household income is close to the median, then you spend 27% of your income on shelter. Both are under the 30% cutoff affordability point. But as incomes drop further down below the median household income, unless shelter costs also drop by the same percentage, shelter becomes more and more unaffordable.
We superimposed our 15-minute walk zones on ESRI’s 2021 Median Household Income map as a rough proxy for who can afford to live in these zones.
Nanaimo’s 15-minute zones map almost entirely onto places where median household incomes are $19,000–65,900. The remainder (around 20% or less) overlaps with the $65,900–112,800 median household income zone (white).
Extrapolating roughly from 2021 income distribution data (2022 State of the Nanaimo Economy, 56), approximately 45% of the city population’s income is represented by the 19–65.9k (light purple) zone. This still represents a broad range of median household incomes.
Group 1. “essential” & “basic quality of life”, no support
Group 2. foodbank & walk-in clinic
Group 3. shelter or supportive housing
Based on the overlap of our nine 15-minute walk zones with 2021 median household income zones, we can arrive at a very rough understanding of incomes in the different zones generally:
Nanaimo’s 2021 average household spending on shelter ($20,046) qualifies as “affordable” (30% of household income) when household income is $65,900 or above. The further down incomes drop below $65,900 (the upper limit of the light purple map zone), the more unaffordable (>30% of household income) shelter becomes.
Based on 2019 BC data, as average household income decreases, average shelter spending increases as a percentage of household income, with shelter becoming unaffordable (>30%) at some income level between the second and third income quintiles. (This inverse shelter affordability vs. income pattern holds across previous years’ data.)
On average, shelter is less affordable and generally unaffordable for those in the lower income quintiles. Nanaimo’s downtown and adjacent median household incomes roughly correspond to quintiles 1 and 2 above. It is more likely that these groups find housing more unaffordable at least than in the Aulds Rd. and Island Highway adjacent 15: zone.
The 15: city model is intended to improve urban life quality by decreasing the cost — in money and time — of getting to employment, health care, food, education, commerce, recreation, culture, and entertainment.
The largest area of 15-minute walkability is downtown Nanaimo and adjacent. Though there are different 15-minute zones for different need / demographic groups, and access depends on affordability and availability of housing, downtown offers essential and basic amenities to more of our groups than anywhere else in the City of Nanaimo.
Generally, as one’s needs increase, the smaller one’s 15: zone becomes. Downtown and adjacent 15: zones are no exception. Still, whether one needs a homeless shelter, supportive housing, a foodbank, walk-in clinic, has kids in daycare, public K-7 or high school, it’s more likely you’ll have 15-minute walking access to your needed group of amenities if you are downtown or adjacent to downtown. But as one’s needs increase, the other three 15: zones disappear entirely — one roughly centered around or adjacent to Aulds Rd. and N. Island Highway, an area at Bowen Rd. and Island Highway, and a more significant bilobal area at Harewood @ VIU and Pine St. at Fitzwilliam / Third St.. Unsurprisingly, these three other zones overlap more with the $65,900–112,800 median household income area than the downtown and adjacent 15: zone. Only downtown still contains 15: zones or locations (supportive housing and homeless shelters) for the most severe need groups.
This is not to say that the supply of housing is sufficient or affordable enough to meet the demand of all members of any of our demographic groups. The point of this analysis is to identify where groups of amenities exist for different demographic groups, identified by their groups of needs.
Downtown — amenity concentration and population density
The downtown and adjacent area concentrates not just more amenities but also people (2–5000/km2) than the northern (Aulds @ Island Highway) and Beban essential-basic 15: zones. The latter zones contain an overlap of basic-essential amenities, but their lower population densities mean that they are within walking distance of fewer residents.
As a result, downtown Nanaimo and adjacent areas’ concentration of amenities and population density make it the largest and most intensive 15: zone in all of the city. Where residential density and amenity concentration coincide, 15: walkability improves. Amenity concentrations in places (like Westwood Mall) where population density is lower also improve 15: walkability but only for the smaller number of people living in adjacent, low-density neighbourhoods. Pedestrian friendliness also tends to be worse in the latter areas, and better where amenity concentration coincides with residential density.
If cities want to improve 15: walkability, amenity zoning should locate amenities close to population density. Conversely, in places of amenity concentration, zoning should permit residential densification.
On the other hand, zoning especially for essential and basic quality of life amenities and residential densification centered in areas without either would improve 15: walkability throughout the city and reduce the need to travel more than a minute walk to areas of existing amenity concentration. In other words, zoning that promotes mixed use as opposed to either homogeneous residential or homogeneous amenity concentration makes cities more 15: walkable.
Finally, cities can plan infrastructure to support “pedestrian friendliness” — e.g., increase and improve sidewalks, slow vehicular traffic, and make blocks shorter.
Though the 15: city literature includes distance to work as a factor in evaluating neighbourhoods, data on distance from home to place of work in Nanaimo was not available (though the fact that 78.8% of residents drive to work may suggest that work commute distance generally exceeds 15 minutes walk). Moreover, including 15: walk distance from work would likely prove overly restrictive in defining 15: zones. Finally, our data scrapes were conducted in May, June, and July 2022. Amenities who have since acquired google business profiles with City of Nanaimo addresses are not reflected in our analysis.
Apify / Jakub Drobnik. Google Maps Scraper. Retrieved May-Jul 2022. https://console.apify.com/actors/nwua9Gu5YrADL7ZDj
Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) 2021 Canada Median Household Income map, and generated 15: zone maps. Retrieved and generated Aug-Oct 2022. https://www.arcgis.com/home/item.html?id=7fe9d81b0bc64010b712a42b50d1e7d0
Government of Canada. (2022, Apr 20). Opportunity for All — Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy.
Manhas, A. City of Nanaimo. 2022 State of the Nanaimo Economy. Retrieved June 1, 2022. https://www.nanaimo.ca/docs/doing-business/economic-development/2022-state-of-the-nanaimo-economy.pdf
Moreno, C. et al. (2021, Jan 8). Introducing the “15-Minute City”: Sustainability, Resilience and Place Identity in Future Post-Pandemic Cities. Smart Cities. https://doi.org/10.3390/smartcities4010006
Province of British Columbia (2018, Feb 19). Defining affordable housing. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/housing-tenancy/affordable-and-social-housing/afffordable-housing/defining-affordable-housing
Quantum Geographic Information System (QGIS) maps. Generated May-Oct 2022. http://www.qgis.org
Regional District of Nanaimo. Housing Definitions. “Affordable Housing.” Retrieved May 1, 2022. https://www.rdn.bc.ca/housing-definitions
WalkScore. Living in Nanaimo. Retrieved May 1, 2022. https://www.walkscore.com/CA-BC/Nanaimo