The expression “15 minute city” is a little under ten years old. It was about four to five years ago that it first began to circulate significantly and it really took off during the time when people everywhere proved themselves to be incredibly stupid by their willingness to submit to the all but total elimination of their most basic freedoms because of their naïve faith in medical experts who told them that they needed to stop living in order to avoid dying from the bogeyman of the bat flu. Last month, however, 15 minute cities became big news as mainstream media outlet after mainstream media outlet began running op-ed pieces about how critics of the concept were engaged in “conspiracy theory”. At the start of the last week in February I typed the words “15 minute cities” into Google and pressed the search button. The top results, both on the news tab and the main Google page, were articles of this sort from sources like CNN, The Guardian, and even the Weather Network. Indeed, the only one of the highlighted stories not to include the word “conspiracy” in the title was a piece from Bloomberg entitled “No, 15-Minute Cities Aren’t a Threat to Civil Liberties”, which, of course, was yet another denial of the “conspiracy theory” about 15 minute cities. At the time I did this search these stories and many more were all fresh, having been released in the previous two days, most in the previous twenty four hours.
Now, if someone wanted to convince people to take seriously the idea that there is some sort of nefarious international plot behind the latest buzzword expression in urban planning, one way to go about doing so would be to get the entire mainstream media to issue a denial in lockstep like this. When media companies all begin saying the same thing like a horde of brainwashed cult members chanting a mantra it is usually best to consider the exact opposite of what they are saying to be the truth. Indeed, if people like our Prime Minister, that contemptible lowlife Captain Airhead and J. Brandon Magoo, that creep who gives off the strong impression of someone who wandered off from the geriatric ward of an asylum for the criminally insane only to find himself in the White House were to start using their state pulpits to denounce anyone opposed to 15 minute cities as fringe extremists we would know with a certainty from this the supporters of 15 minute cities are up to no good.
So what are 15 minute cities? Are they part of a sinister plot to rob us of our freedom of motion and imprison us all within our own neighbourhoods? Or is the idea behind them an innocent one, aimed at renewing neighbourhoods and reducing traffic congestion, upon which unfair suspicion has been thrown by the unsavoury associations of those promoting and defending it?
Back in the 1960’s the term “walkability” entered the vocabulary of those with an active interest in revitalizing big cities or at least hindering them from dropping to a lower circle of Dante’s abyss. Making a city walkable meant making it as friendly and accessible to pedestrians as possible. The opposite of walkability was urban planning aimed at maximizing the ease and speed with which one could get around a city by car which was one aspect of the “urban renewal” movement that had influenced much or most of the city planning of the previous few decades. The 15 minute city is an adaptation of this concept of walkability or, to be more precise, a variation of an older adaptation the 20 minute city. The basic idea of a 15 minute city is that of a city in which people have access to everything they would need on an ordinary day in their own neighbourhoods within a 15 minute walk or bicycle ride from where they live. As with many ideas that generate heated controversies the heat comes more from the implications than from the basic concept. If it were possible to transform a city into a 15 minute city where everyone has everything he needs within such a small radius from his home without in any way altering anything else about the city and the lives of its inhabitants this would undoubtedly be an improvement and a very good one at that. If quality of life in a city were measured strictly in terms of convenience it would be an exponential improvement. The problem is that it is not possible to transform a city in this way without making many other changes. Since the advocates of 15 minute cities seem to be largely motivated by environmental concerns it would be appropriate here to cite Dr. Garrett Hardin’s First Law of Human Ecology “We can never do merely one thing.” It is those other things that would need to be done to transform cities into 15 minute cities that have a lot of people’s dander up.
Take, for example, the plans for low traffic neighbourhoods which Oxford, the city in Oxfordshire, England that is home to Oxford University, recently announced its intention to implement on a trial basis starting next year. A low traffic neighbourhood is a concept that is related to that of a 15 minute city and often promoted together with it, so much so that the two are sometimes mistaken as being synonymous with each other. The difference is that a low traffic neighbourhood is designed to keep something out of the neighbourhood – traffic congestion due to through traffic – whereas a 15 minute city is designed to put something in the neighbourhood – the necessities of everyday life easily accessible by walking or cycling. The Oxford city council has announced its intention, beginning next year, of dividing the city in to six districts and placing a limit of 100 on the number of times residents can drive from one district to the next, through certain routes between 7 am and 7 pm, to be enforced by licence-plate camera and fines. Residents would be able – for a fee – to apply for an additional allotment of trips through the limited routes.
Now this does not amount to locking Oxford residents within their districts. If Oxford goes ahead with this – and does not take it any further – Oxford residents will be able to pass between districts any time they wish and as many times as they wish if they do so on foot or by bike, and even by automobile if they take routes other than the more direct ones upon which the limits are being placed. This whole thing does, however, give off too much of a vibe of a high-tech, updated, version of “show us your papers, comrade” and so it is not surprising that the Oxford announcement was met with a large and vehement protest, especially since people were already fed up with this sort of thing from the three years of public health emergency tyranny. These measures do carry the potential for evolving into the permanent confinement of people within their own neighbourhoods through mission creep much like “14 days to flatten the curve” evolved into two and a half years of lockdowns, forced masking, and vaccine passports and mandates. Indeed, not only do they have the potential for evolving in this direction there is a very high probability that they will do so.
One reason for this is because those who are promoting low traffic neighbourhoods based on the 15 city model are openly motivated by the goal of getting people to drive less. When the earlier, more general, concept of walkability was conceived it was part of a response to several decades of urban planning based on utilitarian principles. The kind of urban planning that involved houses, small businesses, parks and playgrounds, local schools, libraries, hospitals and the like being torn down, often through the means of entire city blocks being seized by governments and handed over to developers, to make way for large apartment complexes, office buildings, malls, and the like. While large-scale urban planning on utilitarian principles went back to the nineteenth century, it had exploded around the middle of the twentieth century due to mas production’s having made motor vehicles increasingly available and affordable. This factor also, of course, affected the way the designs of these planners as utility now included such things as parking lots and freeways. A backlash against this sort of thing began in 1961 when Jane Jacobs published her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which documented the negative side of “urban renewal”. Jacobs did not just write about the subject but was also an activist who fought against this sort of urban planning both in New York where she lived when she wrote her book and Toronto where she moved about a decade later, in both cities fighting against the construction of freeways or expressways. Among her criticisms of this kind of planning was that it was making cities into places for cars rather than for people. Those who began to promote the concept of walkability owed much of their inspiration to Jacobs. The promoters of the 15 minute city model would like us to think that they are following in these earlier footsteps and perhaps in a limited sense they are. Their primary objection to automobiles, however, is very different.
Jacobs and those whom she inspired in the 1960s objected to tearing down houses and digging up parks to make way for freeways and parking lots because these actions uprooted and dissolved communities and razed the neighbourhoods in which they had lived in order to replace these with dead, concrete, spaces made for machines rather than men. The promoters of the 15 minute city model, such as Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, France, and her Columbian born advisor, Carlos Moreno, the professor at Sorbonne University who seems to be the one who came up with the concept, by contrast, don’t want people driving cars because they want to see a radical reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. People like this think that the drastic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions they want is necessary to save the world. People who think that the world is at stake are not people likely to accept or respect limitations on their efforts nor are they people likely to listen to reason coming from those who disagree with them. If, therefore, placing limits on the daytime use of high density routes fails to achieve a reduction in car use and simply diverts heavy traffic to other routes, the planners will be likely to revise the model – and keep revising it until they achieve their goal. Such revisions will move the model closer and closer to something resembling people being permanently locked into their own neighbourhoods.
There is another difference between the original pushback against the large building/parking lot/freeway type of urban planning and the advocacy of the 15 minute city today which supports the conclusion that the concept is inherently flawed in such a way that its implementation, however, good the intentions of those behind it may be, would inevitably lead to urban life becoming more tightly controlled. Prior to the invention and mass production of the automobile every city was a city in which every neighborhood had its local store, school, etc. so that there was no necessity for long daily commutes that were impractical before motorized transportation. Transforming cities that were like this into cities where many if not most people live in one district, work in another, and do all their shopping in yet another and where the city’s infrastructure is designed to facilitate the fast motor vehicle transportation that makes such an arrangement feasible required city governments to expropriate private property and spend massive sums of money in imposing a redesign upon their cities dreamed up by engineers who had been given an unprecedented amount of centralized control over what their cities would look like. In other words, the kind of urban transformation to which people like Jane Jacobs’ objected, in which older, traditional, more organic communities were bulldozed down and paved over to make way for concrete and asphalt edifices designed for machines rather than the people the machines were themselves built to serve, required government to insert itself far more actively and visibly in the everyday lives of urban inhabitants than it had before, which meant that this was a step away from a more free mode of life and towards a more controlled mode of life.
Any serious attempt to transform a city into a 15 minute city would require a further step in the same direction. This is because the model calls for all necessities to be available to people within a 15 minute walk or cycle ride from their home. Obviously, if a city has to be transformed into a 15 minute city then these necessities are not already available this close. Therefore, to remake a city according to this model would involve moving businesses and services into neighbourhoods that don’t already have them. A government that wants a certain type of business in a neighbourhood has to do a lot more to achieve its goal than a government that wants to keep a certain kind of business out of a neighbourhood. If a city, for example, does not want strip bars and casinos next to elementary schools, then all it has to do is pass a zoning restriction. If, however, a city decides that it wants a bakery in a neighbourhood that does not have one, a simple change to zoning laws would not in itself accomplish this. Somebody has to put the bakery in there. Either the city would have to build and operate a bakery itself or, if it was dead set on having one, it would have to lure a private baker in with some sort of incentive. A bakery is only one type of business. To turn a city into a 15 minute city its government would have to do this not merely with bakeries but with every sort of business and service it deems essential, and in every neighbourhood.
While those promoting the 15 minute city model claim to be the heirs of Jane Jacobs they are in spirit far closer to the city planners she fought against in New York and Toronto. As different as the two kinds of urban planners are in their attitude towards automobiles, they are united by a common belief that if you get the right urban engineers, with the right ideas, and sit them down together in a drawing room, they will be able to come up with a design for a city which if enacted would produce maximum happiness for the maximum number of the city’s inhabitants. If, however, freedom is essential to human happiness, and it is, then this sort of thinking is counterproductive because it can only move cities in the direction of being more planned and less free. Those who make pitches for the 15 minute city concept like to try and sell it to us as a restoration of an older, simpler, way of life. That way of life, however, belonged to traditional communities which possessed at least one quality that was more conducive to happiness than that in modern cities and which cannot be reproduced artificially by planning. That quality is that of being organic. This is a quality that comes about in a community naturally, when families live together in the same place, working in the same businesses, shopping in the same stores, worshipping in the same churches, for several generations over the course of which a sense of social oneness grows. This cannot be reproduced artificially by planning and attempts to do so will only produce ugly caricatures of natural, traditional, communities.
One does not have to speculate about sinister motives behind the 15 minute city concept – and without such speculation you do not have a “conspiracy theory” – to have serious misgivings about the idea. Urban planning of this nature cannot recreate true organic communities, inevitably requires an increase in government control and a decrease in human freedom no matter how benign the motivation, and, being wedded to an environmentalist ideal of eliminating carbon emissions that has in recent years taken on the characteristics of a cult of fanatics is set on course to evolve into something far more unpleasant.
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