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15-minute City: Conspiracy or Much Ado About Nothing?

Thursday, Februari 23, 2023

The “15-minute city” concept is gradually becoming more widely known and more popular in urban planning. However, not everybody is happy with this, and some in the UK are claiming it is a plot.

The idea of a “15-minute city” is simple. Residents should have everything they need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home. The idea is backed up by a partnership between C40 Cities, a network of leaders from the world’s largest cities and UN-Habitat where they plan on delivering a proof of concept through five pilot projects. Deloitte identified it as a key trend in its 2021 study of the urban future. Some of the cities that have actively taken some actions toward this concept are Paris, Stockholm, and Portland, USA. In Stockholm, the project was called “Street Moves” and was meant to implement changes on a single-street level, which is being tested in four sites around the city.

However, not everybody is happy with this concept. In UK, the “15-minute city” is being denounced by right-wing commentators and politicians as an international socialist conspiracy. “These will take away your personal freedoms,” said Nick Fletcher, conservative MP for the South Yorkshire constituency of Don Valley, on his twitter. “I spoke in Parliament today to ask the Government to hold a debate on the international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighbourhoods,” he added. In the minds of libertarians, it represents an unprecedented assault on personal freedom and attempts to put everybody in “a cell”.  “These deeply illiberal, un-British 15-minute cities are beyond the pale. They're hurting communities, hurting small businesses and they’ve got to go,” warned a furious presenter on GB News.  Some online forums have claimed that the 15-minute city represents the first step towards a Hunger Games society, in which residents will not be allowed to leave their prescribed area.

There are unanswered questions and ambiguities in the 15-minute city concept that should be addressed. However, these ambiguities can also lead to conspiracy theories. Would wealthy residents, and their money, remain in gated enclaves? Who is providing the services and where do they live? Critics of the concept claim these ambiguities have an agenda behind them, as well-known Canadian conservative Jordan Peterson articulated in a recent tweet, seen 7.5m times: “The idea that neighbourhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea,” he continued, “and, make no mistake, it’s part of a well-documented plan.”

The pandemic proved to be a powerful trial for how a 15-minute city might work in practice with all these pilot projects led by UN Habitat, the C40 Global Cities Climate Network and the World Economic Forum. This probably helped to boost fantasies of conspiracy theorists that it is all part of a grand global scheme of totalitarian oppression.

Personal Comment:

The current uproar has precedence. In 2012 there was significant worry and conspiracy theories around “Agenda 21”, which is was a relatively innocuous UN resolution calling for sustainable urban planning. People believed that by promoting sustainable development the government was going to seize their land and cars and force them to live in tenements. At that time, the ultra-conservative John Birch Society said that Agenda 21 “seeks to take away your freedom to travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas.” Despite the apparent baselessness of these worries, the conspiracy seemed to have some impact, with many states passing resolutions against Agenda 21. Many of the fears expressed by the likes of the John Birch Society haven’t happened. Even outside the states that passed these resolutions, which implies they were ungrounded fears. Although it is true that now, nearly 10 years later, the days of gas-powered cars are numbered.

I think, this is a good example of how difficult it is for people to accept new changes, especially when these changes interfere with their travel habits and daily lives. Then again it might also just be an example of opportunists finding fame through propagating grand sounding ideas that that are completely detached from reality. As we can see from the example with Agenda 21, public acceptance is critical. In that case a small percentage of Americans taken in by Agenda 21 paranoia (to be precise, 85 percent of them didn’t even hear about it) steered the larger discourse, making public acceptance difficult.

The Written by Kateryna Melnyk,
RISE Mobility & Systems