How Can Anyone Object to ‘15 Minute Cities’?

We live in an age when the most unobjectionable and necessary ideas for progress can give rise to paranoia and fear. If the most innocuous, unoriginal possible idea can fuel paranoia, how can we hope to have a sensible discussion about the future of our places?

The concept of the 15-minute city is a good candidate for “most unobjectionable idea I have ever heard.” Put simply, the places you need to go ought to be easily accessible from your home. You shouldn’t have to drive long distances and sit in traffic. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t live in rural areas. But it does mean that when planning a city, it should be designed so that it’s  easy to get to things. 

I live in a 15-minute city, or at least part of a city where the things I need are very close to my house. It’s great. I bike 10 minutes to work. It’s a short walk to the grocery store. I’m two blocks away from a public park, five blocks away from a river with a nice walking path, and within walking distance of four good bookstores, about ten coffee shops, and a lot of bars that have live music. I haven’t had a car in the six years I’ve lived here. Walking through my neighborhood lifts my spirits. It’s so nice to be able to get to things without driving.

My grandmother, too, just moved to more of a “15-minute” place. In her old house, she was isolated, and it was difficult for people to visit her and difficult for her to go out. Now she’s a five-minute walk from downtown, can get her groceries across the street, and has friends dropping in to see her all the time. Likewise, my parents moved a few years ago from a suburban neighborhood where nothing was within walking distance (and to get anywhere on a bike was a long, sweaty ride along dangerous streets). Now they live in a neighborhood where you can walk to a park at the end of the street and downtown is a quick bike ride away. The improvement this makes in the quality of life is immense. When I used to go home, I felt trapped in the house, because going anywhere was kind of an ordeal. Now, when I visit them, we get to spend more time downtown in street cafes. What could be more pleasant?

In an article explaining the “15 minute city” concept, Carlos Moreno (and four co-authors) explains first that car-dependence in cities has a lot of negative effects on our quality of life. There’s the poor air quality that results from vehicle emissions. There are the negative psychological and social consequences of being isolated in your home and spending so much time sitting alone in traffic. There are the negative physical health effects that come from sitting in a car rather than walking. There is the lost productivity (and leisure) from time spent in long commutes. You waste gas, you waste time. There is the loss of  biodiversity that comes from sprawl. There is the exacerbation of economic inequality—if you can’t afford a car, you can’t get to a job. 

Walkable neighborhoods are great, and I say this as a classic car lover who actually enjoys driving for pleasure. You can drive miles to the stuff you want if you so desire. But you don’t have to. Moreno et al. talk of “chrono-urbanism,” by which they mean that “the quality of urban life is inversely proportional to the amount of time invested in transportation, more so through the use of automobiles.” There should be easy access to: “living, working, commerce, healthcare, education and entertainment.”

Again, I really think this is the most unobjectionable idea I’ve ever heard. It’s also not even original. It basically just restates the fundamental principles of the “New Urbanism,” which is over 30 years old. The New Urbanists’ criticism of sprawl, laid out in books like Suburban Nation and The Geography of Nowhere, was that it hurt people’s quality of life, and they argued that neighborhoods should be walkable. If anything, the “15-minute city” is just a branding exercise, repackaging common wisdom in urban planning as some kind of new concept. I think it’s a good bit of branding, frankly, because it helps convey to people what it would mean for them to live in a walkable neighborhood (you’d save time, and your life would be easier). But it really is nothing more than a restatement of the extremely obvious.

And so how is it that we find ourselves in a situation where “15-minute cities” are seen by some on the right as part of the globalist takeover? There’s now a conspiracy that this concept is part of some sinister plot of “population control” in which “Drivers will have to obtain government passes to travel through certain areas.” Jordan Peterson (who else?) has a video situating 15-minute cities as part of a plan by Elites to forcibly restrict people’s calorie intake and restrict freedom of travel. Alex Jones is also hopping mad about the concept, of course. Moreno has received death threats. Bloomberg has an excellent report on how the concept came to be seen by some as a globalis plot to turn cities into prison camps. We even have a presidential candidate whose Children’s Health Defense has published an article about how the 15-minute cities are a new form of social control.

Essentially, the “15-minute city” has been conflated with some U.K. traffic control measures that try to restrict auto use in certain areas and enforce violations with speed cameras. The Peterson/Infowars right is not exactly great at drawing subtle distinctions, so when cities have adopted both the 15-minute city idea and the auto restrictions, it’s all seen as part of the same big plot. There’s a popular theory now, pushed by Jones, Glenn Beck, and others, that a giant plan to create a totalitarian world government (often called the “great reset”) is underway. As Bloomberg related, the hypothetical future they envision looks something like this: 

It is the year 2049, and residents of the UK city of Oxford are unable to leave their neighborhoods. If they do, a network of cameras — installed years earlier under the guise of easing traffic congestion — track their movements. If they stray too far from their registered addresses, a £100 fine is automatically removed from their bank accounts. The only cars now allowed on the streets belong to representatives of the world government, who relentlessly patrol the city for anyone breaking the rules.

Now, I actually think a lot of what the U.K. does specifically with traffic control can be invasive and annoying. There are speed cameras everywhere in that country, and while there is evidence that “low traffic neighborhoods” that restrict car use can have beneficial effects, I see how drivers might be irritated at having their ability to drive down certain roads restricted. Nevertheless, the conversation about what parts of a city should be pedestrian-only, or have certain restrictions on cars, could be had rationally, with reasonable disagreements aired. There’s not much of a conversation to be had with the Infowars crowd, though, who think everything is part of a globalist plot.

It’s concerning that we’re at the point where even pretty mundane issues of urban planning can be fuel for paranoia. I think the group that views 15-minute cities as a population control plan are fairly marginal, but I don’t know. As the New York Times reported in March, in the U.K. at least, the controversy has spilled over into the real world: 

In Parliament last month, Nick Fletcher, a Conservative member who represents part of Yorkshire, in northern England, called for a debate about “the international socialist concept” of 15-minute cities, which, he said, “would take away your personal freedoms.” Days later, Mark Dolan, a host on GB News, a Fox News-style TV channel that began last year, warned viewers of what he called the “dystopian plan” being pursued by several communities that depends on “a surveillance culture that would make Pyongyang envious.”

If you thought the U.K. was a place with more rational political discourse than the U.S., think again. 

I want everyone to get to live in a 15-minute city. As I say, it’s great. We deserve a high quality of life in our urban areas. But to move forward, we’re going to have to think hard about the causes of conspiratorial thinking and figure out how to dispel popular paranoia. If Jordan Peterson believes something, my guess is that a lot of other people do, too, and we need to figure out how to keep our friends and neighbors from drifting off into suspicion and fear about tyrannical globalism. 

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