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Deconstructing Conspiracies: 15 Minute Cities

A year has passed since the protests in Oxford, where nearly 2000 people gathered to oppose the introduction of traffic filters, which were characterised as “climate lockdown” measures to restrict residents’ mobility, and wrongly linked to plans of turning Oxford into a 15-minute city. This protest wasn’t an isolated event, and mainstream politicians in the UK have continued to echo conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities, with tangible consequences. In fact, documents uncovered by The Guardian suggest that UK’s transport policies were partly influenced by such theories, leading to a prioritisation of driving over active travel due to concerns about 15 minute cities [1].

So, what is a 15 minute city?

Coined by Prof. Carlos Moreno, the term 15 minute city describes cities “designed – or redesigned – so that residents of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities in all parts of the city are able to access their daily needs (housing, work, food, health, education, and culture and leisure) within the distance of a 15-minute walk or bike ride” [2]. However, while the term 15 minute city was coined in 2016 the concept is not entirely new and builds on the idea of ‘neighbourhood units’ developed by American planner Clarence Perry during the 1920s [3].

What do conspiracy theorists want us to believe?

“Funny to an extent, BUT if you’ve not heard of #15MinuteCities you should look into it. Under the guise of protecting the planet, globalists around the world are attempting to introduce restrictions on travel, energy consumption, production of non-electric vehicles etc. etc. It’s not about the planet though. They want to limit your ability to travel. They want to control you and frankly they want to imprison you.”

This Facebook post perfectly captures the apprehensions and fears fueling opposition to 15-minute cities. Frequently recurring themes in conspiracies against 15 minute cities include loss of personal freedoms, government overreach, mass surveillance, lockdowns and hidden ‘globalist agendas’. Sound familiar? In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theorists exploited these very vulnerabilities experienced by people during the lockdown by framing 15 minute cities as a tool designed to curtail civil liberties under the guise of environmentalism. 

Where next for 15 minute cities?

However, the question remains, how do individuals actually respond when presented with a neighbourhood where all essentials are conveniently accessible? A recent study [2] found that, despite the challenges of American urban planning where cities are designed for cars, the concept of a 15-minute city resonates positively with the population. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when parks and grocery stores are nearby, people naturally gravitate towards them, reducing travel distances. This preference for convenience underscores a crucial point: even amidst strict zoning and car dependency, Americans readily embraced the 15-minute city model.

The dissonance observed between the opposition to 15-minute cities and its practical reception underscores a significant societal challenge: the presence of mis/disinformation and conspiracy theories can detract from meaningful discussions about how to build more resilient, equitable, and inclusive communities that people actually enjoy being part of in the face of the climate crisis.

 References used 

[1] Ministers prioritised driving in England partly due to conspiracy theories

[2] 15-Minute City

[3] Definition of the 15-minute city: WHAT IS THE 15-MINUTE CITY?

[4] The 15-minute city quantified using human mobility data

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