Big cities may aspire to be 15-minute communities in the belief it will improve social connections, well-being and overall liveability.
But smaller cities, towns and villages often have many of the elements needed to be 15-minute locales, in which daily necessities such as food, work, schools and recreation are within a 15-minute walk, bicycle or transit ride from home.
“There is a misconception that the 15-minute neighbourhood is new – in reality, as many of our agents and brokers in cities such as, Brampton, Ottawa and Regina have indicated, principles of this concept are already in place and likely to expand in Brampton and Ottawa,” said Elton Ash, the Kelowna-based executive vice-president of Re/Max Canada, which released a report on the phenomenon June 22.
“The theme of the report as far as smaller communities are concerned is to be aware of the citizens’ desire now to be more community-centric, where the schools are walkable and there’s a local grocery store, and a mixture of housing from subsidized housing through to co-op housing and condominiums.”
The allure of small towns was seen both before during the pandemic. The exodus of those priced out of key urban markets prior to 2020 was followed by those looking for the breathing room they couldn’t get in dense urban communities plagued by the coronavirus.
Within Western Canada, Vancouver was the hardest hit, losing nearly 24,400 people to Kelowna and smaller communities within the province between 2020 and 2022, on par with the affordability-led exodus between 2016 and 2018. Meanwhile, growth in the Prairies’ largest cities slowed as migrants eschewed the larger centres.
“Historically, we’ve lived as a society in 15-minute cities,” Ash said, noting streetcar lines guided the expansion of cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, a move paralleled in the current expansion of light rail networks to the outer neighbourhoods of Calgary and Edmonton.
But the freeway boom of the 1960s and 1970s reoriented communities around motor vehicles, changing the dynamic within communities. Neighbourhood retail gave way to the shopping mall, and travel times were measured by driving distance rather than walking.
“We moved to this car-centric society, which now we’re seeing is not conducive to lifestyle,” Ash said. “We know through the searches on our website, Remax.ca, and through Realtor.ca, the things especially young families look for today are walkability scores, proximity to schools.”
Moreover, the appetite for commuting has paled following the pandemic and hybrid work arrangements have become more entrenched.
“People after COVID don’t want to commute,” Ash said. “There’s growing consumer demand for neighbourhoods that allow residents to achieve work-life balance, greater affordability and access to amenities that boost quality of life – a trend that we expect will continue to gain momentum in the coming years.”
The trend is one companies such as shared-space provider IWG is banking on with its expansion into smaller markets across the Prairies, including Red Deer and Saskatoon. The company is also actively seeking opportunities in Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, Brandon and Portage la Prairie.
The report endorses such a move, noting “Brandon’s liveability would increase with greater proximity to work/professional opportunities.”
While several neighbourhoods in cities such as Kelowna and Regina have embraced the 15-minute spirit and residents rate the quality of life highly, smaller cities often lack the jobs that would prevent people from commuting – something IWG recognizes and is trying to address.
Re/Max says the 15-minute vision can’t be up to the private sector alone, however. All three levels of government need to step up to make the vision work.
“Canada and its three levels of government must implement a housing strategy that will significantly and expediently build more homes across all markets, large and small,” Ash said. “Being aware now, as a smaller community, it’s so much easier to look ahead and plan for this stuff now.”