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Untangling the 15-Minute City Mess
Why people are worried about a changing urban environment
It’s rarely cause for celebration when a subject I cover on this newsletter enters the political discourse, but the recent controversy over “15-minute cities” is especially grim. I should probably just close my laptop and, I don’t know, pound my head against a wall until I forget about the whole thing. But there are some important issues that need to be untangled here, especially regarding how we go about changing the urban environment.
Last week, British Conservative MP Nick Fletcher stood up in the House of Commons to call for a debate about “the international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighbourhoods.” Fletcher said these urban planning ideas were a “second step,” following the spread of car restrictions that “do untold economic damage” to cities. That second step, however, will “take away personal freedoms as well.”
So what in god’s name is going on here? The 15-minute city is a TED-Talkish idea popularised by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, proposing that people in cities should have all their basic needs accessible within a fifteen-minute walk or cycle. That might include work, schools, shops, doctors, leisure amenities, and so on. The basic principle is to reduce the need to travel longer distances, especially by car, benefitting the environment and making city life healthier and more convenient.
Fletcher’s speech in parliament was very vague, and seemed to be mainly concerned with Ultra Low Emissions Zones that penalise polluting vehicles. These aren’t actually linked to 15-minute city proposals, though the connection isn’t crazy either: the two obviously share a logic of regulating cars in urban areas, and truly walkable cities do require car restrictions to work. What has created a fuss is that Fletcher seemed to be echoing paranoid speculations, swirling on TikTok and other platforms, that car crackdowns and 15-minute cities are part of a longer-term scheme to limit our ability to travel at all.
At the most extreme end, the theory is that there will be “climate change lockdowns,” with special permission required to leave your designated zone of the city (Oxford City Council even had to release a statement denying this claim). It does not help that Moreno’s ideas have received backing from institutions like the World Economic Forum, to which all kinds of sinister machinations are attributed on the Internet. But even the less barmy complaints are, well, still quite barmy. GB News presenter Mark Dolan recently stated that “in a free country, you ought to be able to get in a car and drive wherever you like,” and that fundamental liberties are at stake in “allowing the state to control your movements by car.” Who does Dolan think builds the roads that determine where you can drive?
So, some urban planning proposals were fed into the online sausage factory, and came out flavoured with conspiracy theory and culture war. For most commentators, the conclusion is that only loony libertarians could feel threatened by more pleasant, safe and walkable cities. Except I don’t think it’s actually that simple.
I should put my cards on the table. While I like driving on the open road as much as the next person, I’m really not a fan of cars in cities. In fact, I hate them. The 20th century movement to redesign the UK’s urban spaces around the automobile was, in my humble opinion, one of the worst tragedies to befall this not so green and pleasant land. London is the most congested city in the world. And the problem is not just pollution and noise. Chaotic streams of fast-moving metal boxes rip apart the urban forms and patterns of life that cities require to be humane places. Both physically and psychologically, they undermine the experience of living together that makes a city more than just a barbarous collection of strangers.
But it’s precisely because I care about this issue that I find the coverage of it frustrating. To improve urban planning in the long term, authorities need to build legitimacy for reforms. In stead, the paranoid fringe serves as an excuse to brush past the reasons people feel alienated by anti-car initiatives. I don’t take a lot of comfort from polls showing support for measures like LTNs (Low Traffic Neighbourhoods), where side streets are blocked off using bollards or traffic cameras. Perhaps only a minority feels angry at this stage, but the way changes are being handled does not bode well for the future.
Even I can see that there are people who need cars in cities. Given the way our settlements are laid out, I can easily imagine a situation where, in future, I will need one too. So there is a conflict of interests, which demands careful planning and deliberation. And yet, judging by what I’ve heard from people who rely on cars to take children to school and get to work, London’s recent wave of LTNs and cycle lanes were simply foisted on them, in many cases while they were locked down during the pandemic. They now have to struggle with more congestion on the remaining road space.
Charlotte Gill has written about the tradesmen who have been stuffed by the new restrictions, the dodgy studies used to justify the consequences, and the lack of accountability from councils. This is not how you persuade people their sacrifices are worthwhile to improve life in the city.
The other set of problems here is more difficult to grasp, but no less important. People always judge new regulations in the context of their broader experience of authority. Even well intentioned policies will provoke hostility if they resonate with existing grievances. When it comes to cars, many will suspect the burgeoning restrictions are yet another tactic to harvest income from drivers. Are they wrong? I’m not sure, though it’s worth noting that Haringey, a single London council, was expecting to raise £5.7 million in LTN fines after one year.
There is also a class dimension in play here. In and around cities, those whose livelihoods depend on driving are more likely to be working or lower-middle class than those who cycle or work from home. And who will be able to afford the houses in the tranquillity of traffic-free streets? It’s suggestive that Hackney, London’s archetype of gentrification, is pushing the hardest on LTNs. Such distinctions are not lost on those who feel persecuted by regulations, however much they distort the bigger picture of the winners and losers in a car-based society.
We should also consider another, more ambient layer of context that shapes attitudes to urban planning. In the 21st century, our interactions with authority are becoming increasingly depersonalised and mediated by technology. There may not be many police officers on Britain’s streets, but public behaviour is constantly regulated through announcements at railway stations, signs with stark red forbidden symbols, monitoring of online activities, and above all, security cameras glaring down from every eave and gateway. Britain has more security cameras per person than any country bar China; London actually has more than Beijing.
This matters not just because car restrictions are enforced through surveillance technology, but more generally, because a remote and punitive state cannot easily win the trust of its citizens. That, in turn, makes the latter more likely to react defensively when it comes to something as sensitive as redesigning urban space. The suspicion is always that they, the authorities, are taking something away.
Despite all this, I can’t bring myself to oppose measures that create more car-free areas. As a guiding principle, I think 15-minute, traffic-free cities are an excellent idea. But heavy-handed regulations are no substitute for the difficult and costly changes needed to make such a vision work. That would require, among other things, ensuring people feel safe enough to walk around in cities, and dramatically improving public transport. But pissing off drivers will not help the cause of urban reform; as France’s gilet jaunes reminded us a few years ago, motorists can be a formidable force when they organise.
It would be gratifying if we carphobes could just scoff and say how stupid it is that urban planning is being politicised. But given its importance to the fate of the polis, to the city and its community, this is one area of design that will always be political.
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