15-Minute Cities: Are The Conspiracy Theories True?

March 29, 2023
15 min cities

This article is available via podcast. You can also view a summary video here.

When you Google “15-minute cities,” you’re essentially hit over the head with a frying pan of praise for the new urban planning model – including none-too-thinly veiled threats that if you’re not a fan, you’re a conspiracy theorist. Considering conspiracy theorists have been racking up the wins on everything from natural immunity to a number of other current events I won’t mention for fear of being censored, I was immediately intrigued. Plus, people usually aren’t this passionate about city planning projects. (My search for “first 15-minute city” was immediately met with an article titled, “Inside the 15-Minute City Conspiracy Theory Sucking in Gullible Australians” – which seemed a little… aggressive?)

So I decided to take the name-calling out of it and focus on the facts.

15-Minute City Confusion

First thing’s first: We’ve gotta keep our “conspiracy theories” – I’m using air quotes because they’re actually verified, ongoing events – separate. Despite mainstream media slapping “conspiracy” labels on most discussions of social credit score systems or QR-code scanning requirements for local travel, these things are real. I’ve reported extensively on China’s social credit score system (find the full article, video, and podcast here) and even CNN has documented the COVID-related QR-code programs in Russia and China (that’s where all those scary social media videos come from). But just like the social credit score system and COVID QR code programs are separate, the 15-minute city concept is also its own thing.

So let’s be really careful about not lumping them all together – because that’s how the whole, “You’re a crazy conspiracy theorist!” claim takes off. Stay grounded in the facts. Trust me: They’re scary enough.

What Is a 15-Minute City?

The concept behind the 15-minute city is simple: Ideally, residents can get to mostly everywhere they need to go within 15 minutes. The World Economic Forum provides this handy chart:

WEF 15 minute city chart
Source: World Economic Forum (2022)

Carlos Moreno, a self-described “scientist and humanist,” is credited with coining the term following the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. According to Moreno, if we want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, we have to “radically change our urban lifestyle.” Moreno – who also serves as scientific advisor to Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris – claims:

In the urban environment, [office commuting] is the main factor for generating, on the one hand, pollution and on the other: a decrease in the quality of life. On average, people lose two hours for a round trip from home to work. We have accepted until now the unacceptable; we have accepted the loss of our useful time. I proposed a new urban lifestyle based on radically reducing this.

Hidalgo – a Socialist party leader – liked the idea and, during the 2020 COVID lockdowns (in the words of the World Resources Institute), “seized the moment to take the first step in creating a 15-minute city [in Paris] and expand an ambitious set of temporary bike lanes and street closures to provide more space for social distancing.” But don’t get it twisted, this whole thing is a lot bigger than bikes.

The same article quickly jumps to how “resident-focused urban development” is driving changes in how Paris is actually governed – including devolving aspects of policy-making to the city’s boroughs and creating a “participatory budget” of $82 million that residents can allocate to crowdsourced projects. (New York City also has a participatory budget that has allocated $120 million to 706 community-designed projects over eight years.)

According to Moreno, it’s about “mixing living with working” and “reconquering public spaces not for cars but for humans, for playgrounds, for elderly people, for cultural activities.” The Sorbonne professor also has pretty strong feelings about how people should work, stating:

Working from home is not necessarily a good thing. We need to avoid making working at home the standard because it isn’t possible for all people to have good conditions at home for working, if they don’t have enough space, if they have children. We also need to maintain socialization for working. I prefer the concept of decentralized work, to have decentralized locations for going to work in the proximity, maybe for several hours, or one, two or three days a week. Then if you do go to the central corporate tower, you are doing it because it is totally necessary.

Blurred Lines

If it seems like the simple concept of developing a city with amenities nearby has somehow evolved into a much larger, fuzzier vision encompassing climate change, government, society, and the economy – you’re not crazy. In fact, as hard as the mainstream media tries to downplay the concept (see The Guardian’s article last month: “In Praise of the ‘15-Minute City’ – The Mundane Planning Theory Terrifying Conspiracists”), complexity is baked into the batter by both the theory’s planner and its biggest proponents.

In a multi-post “15-Minute City Spotlight,” C40 – a global network of mayors closely intertwined with the United Nations (in 2022, the U.N. Secretary General called the leadership of C40 mayors “essential” to achieving sustainable development goals) – the organization covers everything from widened sidewalks and expanded bike networks to a “reimagined vision for society” focused on social equity (see C40’s “Inclusive Community Engagement Playbook”). Moreno himself is quoted as saying pursuit of the 15-minute city concept is for “the survival of humanity after 2050.”

And the hyperbole doesn’t stop there. For a simple “mundane planning theory” that – according to the mainstream media – shouldn’t concern anyone at all, the idea’s being painted with some pretty broad strokes. While the World Economic Forum calls suburbia “the antithesis of the 15-minute city,” in looking back at how “residential neighborhoods were [originally] plotted far from commercial centers,” one journalist takes it a step further, claiming:

The 15-minute city is a radical rejection of just about everything the U.S. has built in our lifetime.

So what has everyone all riled up? Is a world with everything nearby – and apparently a lot of inclusive, bicycle-riding neighbors – really that bad?

Here’s where things go south.

The 15-Minute City “Conspiracy Theory”

In the first Guardian article mentioned, the author goes out of his way to note that while 15-minute cities may warrant a few questions, “the threat of our rights being curtailed by travel permits isn’t one of them” (as “conspiracy theorists” warn that bureaucrats could eventually restrict travel and confine activity within each 15-minute utopia).

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening in Oxfordshire, England.

In the name of fighting climate change, Oxford, England has already launched a travel permit system. In 2022, Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council officials confirmed that the city plans to install “traffic filters as a trial on six roads in Oxford.” The trial is currently planned to begin in 2024.

Officials continue:

The traffic filters are not physical barriers of any kind and will not be physical road closures. They are simply traffic cameras that can read number plates. If a vehicle passes through the filter at certain times of the day, the camera will read the number plate and (if you do not have an exemption or a residents’ permit) you will receive a fine in the post. [...] Oxford residents (and residents of some surrounding villages) will be able to apply for a permit to drive through the filters on up to 100 days a year. Residents living in the rest of Oxfordshire will be able to apply for a permit to drive through the filter on up to 25 days a year. Buses and taxis will be able to pass through the traffic filters freely at all times, people can walk or cycle through them at all times, and there will be exemptions and permits for blue badge holders, emergency services, health workers and both professional and non-professional care workers. People receiving frequent hospital treatments will also be eligible to drive through the filters. [...] Residents will still be able to drive to every part of the city at any time – but in the future, during certain times of the day, you may need to take a different route (e.g. using the ring road) if you want to travel by car.

While city leadership is quick to point out that Oxfordshire residents will not need permission to travel across the city, the fine print adds a caveat about how that travel can be accomplished:

Everyone can go through all the filters at any time by bus, bike, taxi, scooter or walking. Furthermore, residents will still be able to drive to every part of the city at any time – but in the future, during certain times of the day, you may need to take a different route (e.g. using the ring road) if you want to travel by car.

(In a pretty brutal take-down, a 12-year-old girl from the area notes that taking the ring road could add an additional 20 minutes to a standard trip – dramatically increasing drive time and thereby her carbon footprint.)

Oxford officials explicitly refute the claim that traffic filters will be used to confine residents to their 15-minute neighborhoods, attempting to separate the two initiatives with a reminder that 15-minute cities are addressed under a different project (Local Plan 2040) and claiming:

The 15-minute neighborhoods proposal aims to ensure that every resident has all the essentials (shops, healthcare, parks) within a 15-minute walk of their home. They aim to support and add services, not restrict them. For the benefit of Oxford residents, what we are aiming to do is to ensure that areas of the city such as Barton, Blackbird Leys and Rose Hill have all the essential services that areas such as East Oxford and Jericho already have.

Oxford is also trialing “low traffic neighborhoods,” or LTNs, which is “an area where motorized traffic is prevented from taking shortcuts through a residential area by means of traffic filters.” According to the County Council: “This creates quieter and safer streets where residents may feel more comfortable when making local journeys by cycling, wheeling or on foot.”

Despite the reassurances, plenty of people are still skeptical. As quoted by The Epoch Times, Douglas Farrow, an ethics professor at Montreal’s McGill University, notes:

I don’t know that the talk about dystopia is just fringe now. Perhaps a good many people realize that the ceding of controls over their movements is a move of submission to totalitarianism. I’m not quite sure how else one would read it.

Farrow also raises a strong point:

You’re going to have to reduplicate everything for each community or deprive some communities of those things. It’s not viable from an economic standpoint. It’s not viable from an environmental standpoint, in spite of that being the justification given. What it is viable for is political tyranny, and that’s why people are objecting to it.

15-Minute City Criticism

Are people crazy, based on pilot programs like those in Oxford and the “world-changing” language employed by its proponents, to wonder if the whole 15-minute city concept might be more than just a run-of-the-mill urban planning strategy? Could 15-minute cities become a tool of control, exercised under the guise of fighting climate change?

Before you say no, note that powerful figures have been toying around with the idea of restricting freedom in the name of climate change for quite some time. For instance, the Health Minister of Germany, Karl Lauterbach – who also serves as Adjunct Professor of Health Policy and Management at Harvard’s School of Public Health – has stated:

I have the impression that we in Germany and also in Europe, let alone in the United States, would not have been able to defeat this [COVID-19] pandemic without developing a vaccine. However, there will never be a vaccination against CO2. We therefore need measures to deal with climate change that are analogous to the restrictions on personal freedom in the fight against a pandemic.

(For a full televised interview, discussing Lauterbach’s comments – which originally appeared in Die Welt – see the German public broadcast station, Phoenix. A shorter compilation is available here.)

And yet, despite real-life, travel permitting examples – such as those highlighted in Oxfordshire – public statements advocating for increased restrictions on personal freedom to fight climate change by none other than the Health Minister of Germany (note: Germany presided over G7 in 2022), and oddly fanatical support of what the public is simultaneously being told is a “mundane planning concept,” Moreno – founder of the whole idea – calls concerns over the strategy absurd, stating:

This kind of fear-mongering is, to me, something very fascist. [...] But it's also so absurd that it shows that the people buying [it] are terribly gullible, terribly ignorant, in line with flat-earthers or those people who think the world is controlled by lizard people.

And there you have it. A perfectly calm defense befitting a perfectly mundane urban planning model.


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