World-altering events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health deterioration, economic turbulence, and the Earth-shattering influence and lunacy of former US President Donald Trump left the global population floundering. You only have to spend a brief moment online to see the chaos unfurling in front of your eyes. And while conspiracy theories existed far before the dawn of the orange politician, it’s undeniable that these days, anything is possible. In the case of the ‘15-minute city’, what started as an urban planning concept—formulated to encourage a local living lifestyle—quickly spiralled into an online narrative about elitist coercive control.
The ‘15-minute city’ concept represents a residential urban concept, designed to improve the quality of life of its lucky inhabitants by creating a city where everything they might need can be reached within 15 minutes, either by bike, foot or public transport.
Formulated by Franco-Columbian urbanist Carlos Moreno, the ‘15-minute city’ idea was presented in 2016, geared towards creating small neighbourhoods which prioritised a framework of access, diversity, density and ubiquity. According to the project’s website, this new residential idea encourages individuals to consider time before anything else, something Moreno called “chrono-urbanism.”
Rather than focusing primarily on unclogging cities by solely increasing travel speeds, planning should instead prioritise access and proximity, so as to create a micro-city which can benefit a myriad of people and cultivate thriving communities, while simultaneously massively reducing carbon emissions by eliminating a need for regular car travel. Two birds with one stone, huh?
While the idea of having a McDonald’s, cinema, IKEA, overpriced coffee shop and drove of thrift shops within a 15-minute walking distance of home may be a gen Zer’s dream, pre-2019, that’s all it was—a dream. When the COVID-19 pandemic came along however, it presented a ‘unique opportunity’. With so many people stuck at home, meeting one’s needs within a close proximate range became a necessity rather than a fantasy.
In an article published by Common Edge, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve, it theorised that the framing of the pandemic directly influenced politicians and urbanists to take the ‘15-minute city’ concept more seriously. Google Trend searches for worldwide usage of the term show that it reached its peak in November 2020. Indeed, decentralising work from within the city itself reflects the uptake of employees working from home now.
Of course, it should also be noted that the idea of hyper-local and 15-minute access has begun to take form in a number of cities across the globe, albeit not in its original complete form. For example, Copenhagen, Utrecht and Paris already promote and sustain pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods where reducing car usage and upholding environmentally friendly areas is paramount.
According to Politico, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was among the first to seize on the idea in 2020, putting it at the heart of a successful reelection campaign that also involved pushing cars out of the city in favour of green spaces and bike lanes.
Now, this is where things get interesting. As we all know, the internet has a tendency to take even the most well-meaning concepts or ideas, and subvert them into a much darker narrative. In this instance, as noted by Dazed, conspiracy theorists have taken to TikTok, capes flailing in the wind, to warn users of the so-called “climate mob” out to take over the world. Those set on exposing the ‘15-minute city agenda’ have employed language that had previously gained traction during the pandemic “to portray it as part of a conspiracy run by global elites to control the masses.”
Doom-mongering has always found a way to latch onto innovation and progress. And it seems as though climate change continues to be one of its biggest hosts. In regard to the ‘15-minute city’ concept, some theorists have likened the proposed neighbourhoods to districts depicted in The Hunger Games, insisting that, if put into practice, these cities will create chaos, resistance and extreme revolution. Perhaps Jennifer Lawrence could be tempted to participate in the film adaptation?
TikTok is now flooded with videos, primarily from users who warn that this hyper-local approach will completely erode any individual autonomy or agency. And that councils and governments have used the blanket justification of tackling climate change as a guise to impose strict constraints on its citizens.
One such opponent has been resident whack-job and conspiracy theorist Katie Hopkins. After skimming local guidelines for proposed 15-minute cities in Oxford, the former TV commentator took to the internet to spread wildfire accusations of coercive control and manipulation, comparing the plans with COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and claiming that British freedom was inherently at risk.
Naturally, this was a pack of lies but would we expect anything less from Hopkins? Oxfordshire County Council responded accordingly, releasing a statement explaining that the proposal is actually about traffic filters, which will fine drivers using certain roads during peak hours to help develop a “more sustainable, reliable and inclusive transport system.”
There are proposals for 15-minute neighbourhoods in Oxford, but these are not intended to restrict movement. “The 15-minute neighbourhoods proposal aims to ensure that every resident has all the essentials (shops, healthcare, parks) within a 15-minute walk of their home,” the statement clarifies. “They aim to support and add services, not restrict them.”
It should be noted that there are some constructive criticisms of the proposed 15-minute cities. For example, as noted by Bloomberg, while utopian in theory, these builds will involve drastic measures and could consequently create social divides. Particularly, this is prevalent when considering potential negative impacts on marginalised communities.
Of course, another aspect to be considered is the highly different nature of each city—creating a hyper-local neighbourhood in Melbourne will be exponentially different to creating one in London, for example. Oh, and if there is a transfer programme available I’ll happily ship myself off to Australia.
Overall, however, it’s undeniable that the ‘15-minute city’ concept has revolutionised the way in which we consider living and community. Of course, theorists will continue to spread a message of coercion and control but with the burden of climate change still firmly resting on our shoulders, this may be our best bet yet.