City Lab Culture What If We Had a 15-Minute City for Friendship?

"Art is Business," reposted By Sarah Holder on July 15, 2023, at 9:30 AM EDT.

Living close to friends matters. Amid a loneliness epidemic, a popular urban planning concept offers a vision for proximity. 

Friends gather at the Place des Vosges park in Paris. Photographer: Michel Setboun/Corbis via Getty Images

When it comes to friendship, closeness matters. Emotional closeness, sure, but also — whether we like it or not — physical proximity. Researchers talk about an ideal "friendship radius" that even the internet hasn't made obsolete. It can vary by person and location, but at a basic level, the closer you are, the better. "We are more likely to spend time with friends that we can easily access," says Elizabeth Laugeson, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Cities worldwide are contending with what the US Surgeon General recently deemed a "loneliness epidemic," one of the public health proposals to solve it is to build social infrastructure that facilitates more human connections.
That’s where the 15-minute city comes in.
The urban planning concept of a 15-minute city is one that's designed so that residents' basic needs can be met within a small radius accessible by foot, bike, or public transit. Those basics include work, school, child care, groceries, and maybe even health care. Life in a 15-minute city would be greener and easier, advocates say. More time would be spent in public and less confined at home or in cars.

Proponents of urban redesign don't always explicitly emphasize social connection. But Carlos Moreno, an urbanist and associate professor at IAE of Paris - Panthéon Sorbonne University who came up with the 15-minute city concept, says "care" has always been central to building a thriving neighborhood. Care can be found in hospitals or social services centers – but also within the support system created by close networks of friends. Friendship, after all, has life-sustaining properties and has been shown to improve physical and mental health.

"I think so often we view it as If we have time, then we'll give attention to our social life. Or, oh, it's a luxury to go out and see friends," said Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and the host of Baggage Check, a mental health podcast. "When in reality, we know that having strong friendships predicts our longevity, it helps our immune system, it makes us more resilient and protected against certain mental and physical health disorders."

Of course, friends don't need to live in the same city to show care now that technology can bridge the distance. But research suggests that geography matters. One study on interpersonal contact in Canada in 1978 showed that the frequency of face-to-face encounters declines once the distance between friends or relatives reaches five miles. Even phone contact started to dry up at 100 miles.

Another study, using the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Index to understand whether emotions are contagious, showed that a happy friend living within a mile of you is enough to increase your chances of happiness by 25%. If your neighbor is comfortable, that ups your chances by 34%. An article on the findings in the Harvard Gazette sums it up nicely: "Happiness appears to love the company more so than misery."

There are unique benefits to living close by to a friend. Being neighbors can build comfort through the regularity of your hangs. It can also make them more spontaneous. "It's a lot different from bumping into somebody frequently because they happen to live on your street, and you can sort of see them on a random day without planning," said Bonior. "Any time you have to plan, there are more possibilities that the planning itself will thwart getting together."

Living nearby would also "make it easier to support one another materially and emotionally," as Adrienne Matei wrote in The Atlantic recently, in an essay arguing that people should move closer to their friends just as they would for partners or family. Child care would be more accessible for those with kids, she writes, and a treat for those without; pooling groceries or hitching a ride to the hospital would save everyone time and money. A proximate shoulder to cry on is warmer than the simulacrum on FaceTime.

There needs to be a scientific answer to how close is close enough. Just as the 15-minute city can be more like a 10- or 30-minute city, Laugeson says each person's so-called friendship radius can vary based on where you live and how you get around. "For some people in urban settings, their radius becomes smaller because it takes longer to travel distances in congested areas," she says. "In rural settings, people may be more willing to travel longer distances to be with friends because there are fewer alternatives."