Proponents of the “15-minute city” say it will reduce emissions and improve residents’ quality of life, but critics say the concept, supported by the World Economic Forum, is discriminatory and will lead to “climate lockdowns.”
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By Frenda Baletti, Ph.D.
The “15-minute city” made headlines this month, spurred by controversy over plans by the U.K.’s Oxfordshire County Council to pilot “traffic filters” to reduce car use as part of the city of Oxford’s 2040 development strategy.
Under the filter plan, Oxfordshire will be divided into six districts. Beginning in 2024, residents will be able to drive within their neighborhoods, but license plate recognition cameras will fine private cars £70 for passing a filter without a permit. Vehicles such as bikes and public transportation will be exempt.
Residents can apply for a permit to drive through the filters up to 100 days per year, and residents living outside the zones can apply for a permit for up to 25 times per year. The filters will be in effect daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The county council said the plan is not meant to coerce residents into staying in their neighborhoods, but rather to address traffic congestion by “making walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice.”
Critics of the plan garnered thousands of signatures on petitions opposing it. The plan also sparked several protests, with local workers speaking out in the press.
For concerned workers who pass through several districts daily to get to work, the council suggested they use a less central route such as the ring roads outside of the city center.
Community critics pointed out that this solution would add time and pollution, contrary to the plan’s goal to tackle climate change.
Conflict over the plan went international. Polarizing figures like bestselling author Jordan B. Peterson tweeted that the plan was the “worst imaginable perversion” of the idea that cities should be walkable, and Piers Corbyn went to an Oxford City Council meeting to protest. City council members reported being harassed.
Major media organizations, including The Guardian, Reuters, PolitiFact, USA Today, The Times and the BBC weighed in to support the local policy and discredit dissent as “conspiracy theory,” by pointing to some exaggerated online claims that people would be confined to their districts by force.
But the 15-minute city concept has sparked widespread public concern beyond Oxford, particularly among the growing number of people concerned by policy proposals promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that involve widespread implementation of top-down environmental and urban policies, as seen on Twitter, in numerous articles and in videos.
WEF members discussed many such policies at the January meeting in Davos.
What is the 15-minute city?
During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, mainstream media, urban planners, the U.N. and developers — many with ties to the WEF — began promoting the 15-minute city — a new urbanist proposal that cities be redesigned into decentralized microcities where people could meet their needs for living, working and playing within 15 minutes of their home.
The term was coined by Sorbonne University professor Carlos Moreno, also known as a pioneer of the “smart city” — a city equipped with extensive capacity for artificial intelligence (AI) digital surveillance monitoring.
Moreno first popularized the 15-minute city idea, which is often linked to the smart city, in an October 2020 TED talk.
Fifteen-minute city advocates say the self-sufficient neighborhood concept is an old one and is how cities were imagined before cars.
That is largely the point, according to proponents of the concept who argue that reducing carbon emissions to slow climate change is at the heart of the 15-minute city concept.
Building [cities] back better?
In March 2021, The Guardian reported that lockdowns led to an unprecedented 7% decrease in carbon emissions in 2020, at least in high-income countries. The article warned that when lockdowns ended there would be a swift rebound in emissions rates.
An equivalent drop in emissions would be needed every two years to remain within safe limits of global warming, according to Corinne Le Quéré, Ph.D., author of the study cited in the article and a WEF contributor.
Dave Reay, Ph.D., chair in Carbon Management & Education, School of Geosciences, at the University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian it was incumbent upon countries to “build back better” — a WEF slogan.
Different global actors began to hold up the 15-minute city as the way to do that — “to reduce emissions and improve residents’ quality of life,” as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) put it.
The Aspen Institute held a panel on the concept. The pandemic had created an opportunity, they argued, to redesign cities:
“Innovation is often-times born out of crisis, and the evolution of cities is no exception to that rule. Urban planners, developers, civic leaders, and entrepreneurs have an opportunity to seize on this moment of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic and reimagine urban life.”
Mike Haigh, then-chief executive of the Mott McDonald consulting company and now chair of the WEF Infrastructure Industries Governors Group, spoke on a September 2021 WEF panel about the 15-minute city:
“I think that COVID has made a difference. People talk about pandemics being great accelerators of trends that were already happening. If you think of the climate emergency … these things have all accelerated in the last 18 months, so that’s good because I think there is a real driver for the 15-minute city.”
The UNFCCC proposed the concept as a powerful model for “Post-COVID living” to help reach Paris Agreement climate goals.
And in March 2022, the WEF published an article arguing the model would be critical for dealing with shocks caused by “climate change and global conflict.”
The pandemic gave the idea new relevance, WEF author Lisa Chamberlain said, referring to the lockdowns.
She cautioned that implementing the idea would require sacrifice, or “creative destruction brought on by a technical revolution,” but cities that don’t redesign themselves in this way will “struggle mightily.”
Chamberlain located the roots of 15-minute city principles in the 19th-century concept of “eutopia,” where a city is a “good place” without “money wages.”
Media outlets and university research blogs across the world have run articles on the benefits of the 15-minute city and have even addressed some potential critiques.
For example, while the “live-work-play” image of the 15-minute city might evoke ideas of the economic elite, planners like Robert Steuteville argue that in fact, low-income people benefit the most from having amenities close by.
Who’s behind the push for the 15-minute city?
Most articles portray the 15-minute city as a movement, an idea of the people that emerged out of the pandemic, but their data are largely self-referential.
Chamberlain’s WEF article presented a Google search trend analysis as evidence for its claim that the idea was “more than a fad,” asserting:
“The 15-minute city went from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a rallying cry. … The pandemic created an urgency around equitable urbanism that sidelined arguments about bike lanes and other ‘amenities’ that have roiled communities for years.”
Mainstream media outlets like Forbes referred to the WEF article as proof of this new movement.
An article published last week by the World Resources Institute called it “a global movement” — citing evidence that mayors around the world are instituting plans for a 15-minute city.
The idea is heavily promoted by planning organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Efforts to pilot the 15-minute city in practice are largely driven by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, made up of 96 mayors of cities from around the world, funded by major corporations and philanthropic foundations and focused on urban activism for climate change.
The group was founded in 2005, by the mayor of London, and in 2006, it merged with the Clinton Climate Initiative.
C40 Cities also works closely with developer Arup Group, a WEF-affiliated organization, to create development plans to redevelop “sustainable” or “net zero” buildings to address the problem of climate change.
In July 2020, the group published a framework for cities to “build back better.” The organization promotes the 15-minute city model as a new roadmap for a post-pandemic world.
C40 Cities in September 2022 announced it is partnering with a developer, Nordic Real Estate Partners — a Danish development firm with 18 billion euros in assets — and UN-Habitat to deliver proof-of-concept for “15-minute city” policies by implementing neighborhood pilot projects in at least five cities.
Cities such as Paris, Madrid, Milan, Ottawa, Seattle, Milan and Vancouver are among those that have declared plans to transform their cities into a 15-minute city model.
Melbourne has adopted a long-term strategic plan for 20-minute neighborhoods.
Recently Cleveland, Ohio’s new mayor announced, with the support of the city development department, a bike advocacy group and real estate developers, that the city is “working toward being the first city in North America to implement a 15-minute city planning framework where people — not developers, but people — are at the center of urban revitalization.”
More city councils throughout the U.K. also announced they will investigate or implement 15-minute city plans.
A walkable city with amenities close to home, what could be the problem?
On a recent episode of “The Corbett Report,” James Corbett said:
“You have to hand it to the technocratic planners of the would-be technate. They are masters at taking ideas that, detached from all of the context that they put them in, could be a good idea.
“In fact, if I was going to create an intentional community, I would probably want to create it around the idea that everything is accessible and close and you don’t need to rely on some big infrastructure in order to get your groceries that are coming from halfway around the world.
“Yeah, having a 15-minute city, it sounds good.”
The problem, he said, is that the concept isn’t based on democratic principles of people deciding together or agreeing on an idea.
“No, we are talking about city councils starting to take control and starting to herd people into carefully controlled spaces,” Corbett said.
Some planners, even within the new urbanist school of thought, link the concept to the history of top-down urban planning approaches that exclude the marginalized.
At the CityLab 2021 conference, hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute, Jay Pitter, a Toronto-based urban designer, commented:
“I’m a champion of the hyper-local, as certainly we need more resilient, climate change-resistant cities. …
“However, I am averse to this concept. It doesn’t take into account the histories of urban inequity, intentionally imposed by technocratic and colonial planning approaches, such as segregated neighborhoods, deep amenity inequity and discriminatory policing of our public spaces.”
Pitter said many marginalized communities are opposed to ideas like this because they lead to further displacement.
Even Richard Florida — who coined the “creative city” planning concept that drove gentrification globally over the last decade — warned that the 15-minute city plans in major cities across the world would be more likely to exacerbate existing inequalities than resolve them.
Moreno has acknowledged that the distances most working-class people are required to travel for work pose a major challenge to the 15-minute city.
And then there are the people themselves.
Politico reported that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been internationally lauded, winning prizes for her leadership in fighting climate change and landing herself on Time’s list of 100 most influential people in 2020.
But she faced backlash from Parisians who charge her with destroying the city’s heritage and disrupting their lives by supporting the 15-minute city concept.
Analysts critical of the program in Oxford raised concerns about the concept more generally. They cautioned that the inspiration for the concept in the lockdowns, which were responsible for widespread social and economic devastation and new forms of social control, ought to be concerning.
They point out that while the concept of, “climate lockdown” sounds “ridiculous,” articles in publications like the BBC’s “How ’15-minute cities’ will change the way we socialise,” celebrating life under lockdown and linking it to climate benefits, raise flags.
Others have said, “The 15-minute cities being sold look a lot like an excuse for more control.”
Corbett argued that the 15-minute city concept is part of a master plan:
“The people get herded into these 15-minute cities so that when you are allowed by the loving masters of the techne, you’ll be allowed to travel from one little 15-minute city to another, if your social credit score is high enough.
“This is not about saving the earth as I have said 8 million times … This is exactly how they create the infrastructure for the climate lockdowns of the future …
“This is about that long-term vision of the future in which we will be herded into these small cities.”
“Climate lockdown” is another term often dismissed as “conspiracy theory” in the mainstream media.
But several organizations, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), have circulated the idea that “climate lockdown” might be necessary for several years.
They promoted an article written by University College of London professor and WEF contributor Marian Mazzucato, Ph.D. suggesting that “climate lockdowns” might become necessary to address the looming “climate emergency.”
The WBCSD is a partner of and supported by the WEF-affiliated Arup Group. Arup and C40 have been partners for over a decade in their project to redesign cities. The 15-minute city is part of that project.
Brenda Baletti Ph.D. is a reporter for The Defender. She wrote and taught about capitalism and politics for 10 years in the writing program at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's from the University of Texas at Austin.
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