The 15-Minute Town needs Small Business Saturday…every day

Treehugger has long been ambivalent about Black Friday and has often promoted Buy Nothing Day in response to the consumer frenzy. I’ve never been a fan of either concept as all my kids and their spouses work in small service businesses, selling cheese or making espresso.

It’s one of the reasons I was so excited for Small Business Saturday, which was founded in 2010 by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As Stephanie Meeks of the National Trust observed, “When we invest in small businesses, we invest in Main Streets – the places that give our cities and communities a unique sense of place.”

The National Trust has moved on, but there are many other reasons to support the small businesses that form the backbone of our high streets. One of the most important is that they are key to the development of the 15 Minute City, a concept that is key to combating climate change and recovering from Covid-19.

Paris en Commun

15 Minute City was the brainchild of Carlos Moreno, a professor at Panthéon Sorbonne University in France, but it’s really a catchy name for what everyone was doing before the era of big cars and big department stores. It’s a contemporary repackaging of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Main Street Historicism, with everyday essentials within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

But it’s more relevant than ever. As the C-40 mayors explain, “A successful 15-minute neighborhood is ‘complete’ with core services and amenities that residents can easily walk or bike to. Parks for recreation, workspaces and more.”

A well-developed 15-minute city can drastically reduce carbon emissions by getting people out of their cars, both to shop and to work. As more people work from home or in neighborhood co-working spots, they need the amenities, the shopping, the restaurants — we’ve even found that a 15-minute town needs a good bar.

But while we focus on Small Business Saturday and local retail, let’s not lose sight of what big businesses are trying to do in 15 minutes. According to Adam Chandler in The Atlantic, venture capitalists poured $9.7 billion into hyper-fast delivery companies in the last year alone. “These companies with very startup-esque names — Gopuff, Jokr, Gorillas, Getir — rely on their own private neighborhood supermarkets (ominously dubbed “dark shops”) that allow them to move goods and groceries much more quickly than larger companies like Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect,” wrote Chander, who also noted that these services would compete with local businesses.

According to Chandler, “In retail, like in life, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Getting food at warp speed has very real consequences. There’s the potential safety hazard for workers and passers-by in an already dangerous industry, or the fact that these startups, many of which require smartphones, aren’t compared to the bodegas and corner shops they might one day replace are particularly democratic.”


Not missing out on this market, Amazon is refining its drone delivery system, where they fly up to seven and a half miles round-trip and then drop a package up to 12 feet to the ground. Amazon sees this as the solution to the problem: “How do you get items to the customer quickly, inexpensively and above all safely in less than an hour?”

Seriously, it’s hard enough for small businesses to survive in cities with high taxes and rents, pandemics, supply chain disruptions, competition from online shopping, and now drones. What we really want is certainly what the C40 Mayor’s agenda for a green and just recovery wants: “sustainable, efficient and safe mass transit systems that keep our cities moving and our economies running, while keeping our streets car-free, Clean air and blue skies: all residents will live in “15-minute cities” where shops, jobs and essential services are within a few minutes by bike or on foot, surrounded by plenty of green spaces where they can relax, move and play. ”

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That’s why Shop Small and Small Business Saturday are so much more than just an American Express promotion. It’s about rethinking how we build and sustain healthier, low-carbon cities. It’s about creating jobs for our children in our communities. It’s about a much larger picture of how we want to live.

So support Small Business Saturday…and do it all year long.


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