Fifteen-minute cities are suffering their 15 minutes of fame


The writer is author of ‘The 15-Minute City’

When people drop the inverted commas from an awkward idea, something has changed. Witness the 15-minute city, which for years was known as “the 15-minute city”, because no one really understood what it meant. Suddenly, everyone from rule-making guru Jordan Peterson to Conservative MP Nick Fletcher seems affronted by their varying understandings of what low-traffic, liveable city neighbourhoods are designed to achieve.

Over 2,000 people marched through Oxford in protest at the idea earlier this month, and consternation has spread as far as Edmonton, Canada, where city planners are facing similar resistance. In a matter of weeks, the 15-minute city has undergone a social media acid bath and emerged, bedraggled, as a toxic hashtag and a “dystopian hell”. (A direct quote from a protester’s placard.)

The 21st-century idea, which links to ancient town planning, began loftily: a utopia that fantasised a greener, healthier, time-saving urban existence with improved density of services, culture and retail, thereby reducing carbon-emitting car journeys. To its defenders, if the idea could influence even tiny fractional changes along these themes, then city life would be enriched from the neighbourhood up. Paris, the capital of 15-minute city thinking, has already evicted parking spaces by the thousands, built new cycle lanes and planned a glade-like pedestrianised Champs-Elysées. Re-elected mayor Anne Hidalgo calls it “season two” of the ville du quart d’heure show.

Looking closer, the concept has problems. But, in my view, they’re not the ones that have inspired people to take to the streets. In Oxford, proposals to digitally monitor traffic and reduce congestion are viewed suspiciously as a covert surveillance component of the council’s 15-minute city plans, rousing demonstrations and online fury. These rallies attributed a multi-layered malevolence to the 15-minute city, at once restricting autonomy, privacy and personal freedom. In Fletcher’s view, the movement is an “international socialist concept”.

The truth is surely more depressing and, well, pedestrian. To understand the basics of how a 15-minute city is supposed to work, look down at your feet. There you’ll find proof of the innate human reluctance to walk further than about a mile — or around a 15-minute journey — for routine errands. Beyond this tolerance, people tend to choose motorised transport. You may walk longer than one mile cumulatively in a day, but usually only in short segments.

This so-called walkshed was a foundation for how 15-minute cities were developed on the drawing board. The point is to maximise what you can find within this radius on foot or by bike, which is hard to disagree with. As for the threat of digital surveillance, it’s already upon us. Nowhere is digital enclosure more alive than the city street, station or crosswalk, where headcounts and traffic flows are collected and aggregated. We should be concerned about our privacy. But online amplification of a schoolgirl’s speech at the Oxford rally, suggesting that facial recognition could be used to trigger a warning that the 15-minute city has been breached, creates a distraction. Our daily movements are already data.

It was, after all, anonymised mobile phone data that the National Bureau of Economic Research used to study 15-minute city behaviours in the US. The results were revealing about perhaps the biggest knot in this subject. Apart from the environmental benefits, the 15-minute city aspires to better quality of life. The study showed that those from the poorest parts of American cities surveyed were stuck there. They stayed within 15-minute quarters, while journeys made from wealthier zip codes were longer and taken by car. Breaking this link, whereby lack of movement equates to lack of social mobility, is about more than cars and urban planning. The same problem holds true in Paris, where more people live outside the ring road than within it, meaning the majority are almost entirely untouched by the statutes of the 15-minute city.

Robert Moses justified his plan to carve up 1950s New York with huge expressways, as depicted in David Hare’s play Straight Line Crazy, as a way of connecting city residents with escape routes — to the beach, to prosperity, to new opportunities. New York is lucky that protesters saved landmarks like Washington Square Park from Moses’ bulldozers. But the idea that cities should connect people to alternative lives is worth incorporating into the 15-minute agenda.

The point here is balance. If we can semi-happily feed all our needs from one neighbourhood, life gets dull (lockdown springs to mind). Staying in one place is already an unhappy prescription for many people. It’s a mistake to think the 15-minute city could fix this, as much as it’s an appeal to unreason to suggest it could take away our freedom.

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